Taking a Pulse
Area downtowns remain strong
amid several changes
Madison, Ind., La Grange and Carrollton, Ky.,
shop owners are optimistic
March 2018 Cover
(March 2018) – As spring approaches, business owners in Kentuckiana downtowns are looking ahead, anticipating festival season and the return of local and out-of-town shoppers to visit their stores.
But in this world of online shopping and megastores, can downtown business districts continue to thrive?
Some see the glass half empty when storefronts close, worried that it marks the “beginning of the end” for locally owned shops, restaurants and other attractions.
Others, like Valecia Crisafulli – chair of the business recruitment committee for the Madison (Ind.) Main Street Program – see the glass as half full.
“Turnover is very natural for a downtown economy. Vacancies are normal,” she said. “You have to watch for patterns and trends. But I think it looks good. There seems to be a lot of confidence in downtown Madison. I don’t think Madison is an unhealthy spot.”
Shoppers enjoy browsing La Grange, Ky.’s Main Street, which features a CSX train that runs through it several times a day.
Though four businesses closed in 2017, 16 new businesses opened in Madison’s downtown, said Victoria Perry, the Madison Main Street Program’s executive director. Additionally, six businesses expanded and seven building facades were restored through the investment of $20,000 from both public and private sources.
Perry said she doesn’t have a count of the number of jobs lost, but she said more than 30 jobs have been added.
Most jobs have been lost when several restaurants closed last year, she said. Shooters and The Downtowner – both in the 100 block of East Main Street – closed because of the owners’ financial issues; Bistro One at 122 East Main St. closed because the owner decided to retire. The downtown Subway Sandwich Shop also closed last fall. Harry Dobbins of Harry’s Stone Grill took back The Downtowner and re-opened it in mid-February.
While several restaurants remain open and viable along Main Street, the loss of those four – and Franco’s Italian Restaurant, which closed its doors more than a year ago and has yet to be sold – does have repercussions.
“That’s the one deficiency,” Crisafulli said. “Getting those restaurants back open would be good for downtown.”
But good signs for downtown can be found in “the quality of stores that are coming in,” she said, mentioning Muddy Fork Antiques at 219 E. Main St. and What a Find at 220 W. Main St., the former Green Roof Treasures. Both offer higher-end antiques and estate items.
Madison, Ind.’s Main Street stays busy in summer months, especially for Fourth Friday late shopping events, which will begin in April this year.
“It’s one thing to fill a vacancy, but it’s also important to fill storefronts with businesses that fit in with downtown,” Perry said.
While business this winter has been “fair to middlin’,” Terri Waller, who manages Primitive Porch at 217 E. Main St., said she is looking forward to later this month, when shoppers come out of hibernation.
“From mid- to late-March through December, it’s a thriving downtown,” she said. “But when people come consistently and see stores open and close, it can be discouraging.”
Store closings can be caused by a lot of variables. There are times when people with a lot of energy and excitement open stores “but are not really prepared to be business owners,” Waller said.
In other instances, she has seen successful businesses that have thrived for years close when the owners hit retirement age and have no one to sell to, or have had to close because of health issues.
Karen Eldridge, manager of Crossroads La Grange Main Street Program in Kentucky, said there is evidence that “small towns are doing better than ever. People prefer shopping with people they know.”
La Grange is going through a “state of flux” at the moment, but Eldridge says its actually more like growing pains for the town of 8,000 located just off I-71, about 30 miles from Louisville.
“It’s an extremely exciting time,” she said, giving kudos to Ellie and Randy Troutman, who have purchased 15 properties in and around downtown and are renovating them into spaces intended to attract more entrepreneurs.
Photo by Phyllis McLaughlin
Ellie Troutman and tenant Kim Silcox pose on La Grange, Ky.’s Main Street where Silcox plans to expand her business, Picked ‘N Painted, at what was formerly The 1887 Corner Store.
The Troutmans own The Treasured Child, a mom-and-pop-style toy store; Tinsel, Twine and Spirits, a Christmas-themed store set to open Sept. 1; and Absolutely Fabulous, a clothing boutique that offers everything from socks with funny (and adult-rated) sayings, to one-of-a-kind Kentucky Derby hats and dresses.
The Troutmans also owned The 1887 Corner Store for six years but decided to close that location recently.
That decision was made for practical purposes because they were renting that space, said Ellie Troutman.
“It made no sense to spend $2,000 a month on rent,” Troutman said. “It only made sense to take that money ($24,000 a year) and put it into the buildings we own and are renovating. (La Grange’s downtown) buildings are hard to heat and hard to maintain. But the buildings are all we have.”
And for those who enjoyed shopping at The 1887 Country Store, Troutman said customers can still find their favorite items – just in different locations. Holiday and stationery items were moved over to the incoming Christmas-themed store; children’s items were moved to The Treasured Child; and clothing and accessories can now be found at Absolutely Fabulous.
Her ultimate goal is create more finished retail space to attract even more businesses to the Crossroads La Grange district, as well as the streets beyond the railroad tracks.
“I’m about creating the La Grange shopping district,” expanding it out from Main Street, she said. “So, it’s not about Ellie Troutman having five stores. It’s about Ellie Troutman making space for 10 more people to have stores.”
Madison, Ind.’s downtown shopping district is seasonal, with shoppers returning in the spring. The Madison Main Street Program helps generate traffic with its monthly Fourth Friday events.
As a business owner, “when you come here, I want you to park and stay an hour in town, or two hours or three hours – maybe start on Main Street, but also to explore” shops on the surrounding streets.
“We have so much going on in this county.”
Kim Silcox, who last year closed the “unpainted” part of her store, Picked N’ Painted, while she battled ovarian cancer, is moving to The 1887 Corner Store location and plans to open the new store in April. There, expanding from 2,000 square feet at her 109 E. Main St. location to 4,000 square feet at the 101 Main St. store on the corner, will allow her to re-introduce the classes and inventory she offered at the “unpainted” location.
That space is now the home of a new trendy clothing store, owned and operated by Betsy Katschke, formerly an owner of The Bargain Barn.
“The customers on Main Street are amazing,” said Katschke, who opened her B Unique Boutique in early February. The boutique caters to young adult men and women, with items priced about $55 and lower. “I’m thrilled.”
Carl Silcox, Kim’s husband, was all smiles as he worked on a recent afternoon to move items into the new location.
“There’s so much good stuff going on,” he said. “It’s good to see a downtown stay alive.”
“I’m excited about the new life coming to Main Street,” Kim Silcox said.
One of Troutman’s off-Main Street properties, near the corner of East Washington streets and South First Avenue, is now the home of Uptown Country, owned by Angelica Corker and Jennifer Barnett.
“I’m uptown, she’s country,” Corker said of herself and her partner.
The shop opened Feb. 16 and sells repurposed furnishings and materials designed to show customers that farmhouse and country styles can be blended with modern or “uptown” styles to create a unique look. Pieces range from painted chandeliers to wall hangings made of metal or barn wood – or both, along with unfinished antiques, such as a metal kitchen hutch from the early 1900s.
“We want to be something different,” she said, adding that their pieces are sold wholesale rather than retail. “That’s what Oldham County needs. We have everything on that main street – you have clothing stores, antiques stores – Picked N’ Painted with the high-end painted furniture. We also are going to add outdoor items, including patio furniture and yard art. We’re going to have everything here.”
And while there may seem to be overlap in the inventories of the various shops, each of the store owners works hard to stock shelves and racks with items that can’t be found in the so-called box stores or at any of the malls.
“It’s always amazing to me that people think we’re in competition and that we don’t get along,” Troutman said, citing a common misconception about downtown store owners. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. We get our inspiration from each other. It’s a whole group of people we rely on, together, to make it work. Teamwork makes the dream work.”
Meanwhile, businesses in downtown Carrollton, about 30 miles upriver from La Grange, do struggle.
“Business has declined even in the past year,” said Charlotte Wallace, who has owned Carrollton Office Supply, 113 Fifth St., for nearly four years.
To stay relevant, Wallace said she does 85 percent of her business online, offering free delivery to anyone in the area who places an order on the website. “My business has improved, but it’s not where it needs to be.”
Wallace said last year’s closing of Down on Main Street, one of only two restaurants located in downtown Carrollton, has had the most impact.
“Another restaurant would do well here and would bring more people in,” she said.
Junior Welch, whose family has owned and operated Welch’s Riverside Restaurant since 1953, now the only eatery downtown, said he fears for Carrollton’s future.
“We’ve had bumps, but we’ve always been open,” he said of the family business.
But most downtown buildings have suffered from years of neglect.
Despite an active Chamber of Commerce and supportive Main Street Program, which hosts events downtown including First Fridays from June through September, to the annual Easter on the Square in the spring and A Christmas Carroll in December, Welch believes there is so much more that could be done.
“We are losing our town every day,” he said, adding his belief that local leadership seems more interested in tearing down the deteriorating historic downtown buildings rather than restoring and renovating them.
Downtown has already lost one landmark to blight – the old firehouse on Court Street, which also had served as Carrollton’s City Hall years ago. That building was torn down by the city several years ago because it was beyond repair and no longer safe.
Welch said city council is planning to raze two more buildings on Court Street, located in between where the old firehouse stood and the Carroll County Public Library, which was renovated and expanded over a decade ago.
Welch said he is hoping to bring a group of investors, who have helped restore and revitalize downtowns in other Northern Kentucky cities, to Carrollton to meet with local leaders.
His dream is that the outside investors would infuse the much-needed funding that would allow the ailing downtown buildings to be renovated and made useful again – to lure businesses into the storefronts downstairs and into office space upstairs.
“I’ve been told we’re sitting on a gold mine,” Welch said of the downtown, which sits directly on the banks of the Ohio River and has been connected by trails to Point Park, the city’s Two Rivers Campground along the Kentucky River, and Gen. Butler State Resort Park.
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