Editor’s note: On Tuesday, May 10, the Springfield Business Journal invited a small group to a business luncheon for the purpose of discussing the present and future of Springfield’s downtown area. It was held at the Inn at 835 from noon until 2 p.m.
The panelists consisted of Brent Boesdorfer, owner and operator of Custom Cup Coffee; John B. Clark, Realtor with the Real Estate Group and downtown resident; Melissa Hamilton, owner of Your Corner Office; Graham Prellwitz, manager of patient experience for Memorial Medical Center and downtown resident; and Lisa Clemmons Stott, executive director of Downtown Springfield Inc.
The Springfield Business Journal’s editor and publisher, Fletcher Farrar, associate editor, Scott Faingold and associate publisher, Michelle Higginbotham, moderated the discussion.
Lisa Clemmons Stott (Downtown Springfield, Inc.): I think one of the benefits of downtown for entrepreneurs – of any age, but young entrepreneurs especially – is that it is a true community. There is a lot of crossover between businesses here and a lot of caring. It truly is a neighborhood with walkable boundaries, and people care about how everyone else is doing because it only helps their own business.
Brent Boesdorfer (Custom Cup Coffee): I used to always eat lunch at home to save money, but now I know if I eat at another downtown place that will end up being reciprocal – they’ll send somebody to get coffee from me – so I don’t see it as an additional expense.
Stott: I think the bad rap that downtown gets for being tough to do business in applies mostly to the larger development projects. If you are an entrepreneur downtown, you can move things along pretty quickly.
Boesdorfer: As we developed our space, everyone said working with the city was going to take forever but from our permits to getting a bike rack out front, that part went faster than anything else. It was one call. “Can we get a bike rack?” “Sure.” It was there two days later. They’ve been phenomenal to work with and Mark
Melissa Hamilton (Your Corner Office): We opened in February 2016 as a community co-working space. We provide private offices, shared working space with amenities and meeting space for those who would like to host events. The real advantage is that my clients don’t have that large commitment of a three-year lease with a facility, but they’ll have everything they need. I’ll help build them and market them, and at some point hopefully they will grow out of my space and end up getting their own facility, maybe downtown. There’s something about networking and working with others within a community that really makes a difference. In the meantime, I’m hoping that just by being there it’s also supporting the other downtown businesses, that Custom Cup can bring in coffee or Inn at 835 can cater a luncheon.
Stott: On any given day, Your Corner Office has people renting out the event space. Last week, the American Heart Association had a meeting of about 45 individuals there, DSI has had some events there, a few aldermen have had meetings, and there was a Women Entrepreneur event.
Hamilton: We are looking to do a lot of workshops and training out of the location. A space and a table to work is great, but what I’d like most would be building connections between the individuals who lease space from us.
Boesdorfer: [Your Corner Office] seems like a great way to give someone a very affordable experience of what it’s like to work downtown. Rather than going out west and making a big investment they can try out working downtown and find out how awesome it is.
Henderson: Right, we offer options of three months, six months or 12 months – a business can pick an option, hang out for a bit, and if they decide it doesn’t work, they’re not committed long term. It gives them a sample of downtown.
Boesdoerfer: Downtown’s been great to us. Our next door neighbor closed up this past Christmas and we’re expanding now – removing some sections of the wall to combine the two properties and basically gaining four times the space. We’ll also be expanding our product line to include bottled and kegged cold brew and are going to start doing some small food offerings. There’s still so much potential – in our building alone, the top two floors are wide open from one end to the other. It’s this massive space that’s just been sitting there for four years.
Graham Prellwitz (downtown resident, manager of patient experience at Memorial Medical Center): When I first came to town I ended up living on the west side for a year and then had the great opportunity to move downtown into the new apartments Chris Nickell had just renovated. We are very pleased – it’s nice having a 90-second drive to work, and the farmers market is literally on our front doorstep. It’s a fantastic experience for someone in their mid- to late-20s, but it’s not just single people living there – some of my neighbors are families. You don’t have crazy noise levels or anything like that, it’s a versatile living space. It has a very modern, fresh look with exposed brick. It doesn’t look like your basic white-walled, tiny apartment, it’s very open.
Boesdorfer: It’s just really neat – that section is so historic and now you guys are living in modern housing.
Prellwitz: Half of our apartment has the original white tin ceiling from however many years ago. Gives it a very nice look.
Michelle Higginbotham (SBJ, Springfield Economic Development Commission, Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association): The Bowen study says downtown can support up to 400 units immediately but there’s still this perception that, even though we have these little isolated pockets of a few people living here and there downtown, that people don’t want to live downtown or wouldn’t be willing to make the move downtown. It boggles people’s minds to think that we could fill 400 apartments.
Prellwitz: Looking at the [SIU] School of Medicine alone, there has to be a decent-sized market of students who are maybe not going to be here long-term but for those two to three years they would need living space.
Higginbotham: There is something like 500 people coming through SIU who need housing every year.
Stott: UIS isn’t putting any money into the Bluffstone project (student housing at 300 E. Madison St., slated to open Aug. 12) but they’ve said that they will market it to their graduate students, so it’s the first time that they’re partnering. The units will be marketed to the 250 graduate students through UIS and 250 graduate students at SIU. There are 72 units, 92 potential residents.
Higginbotham: UIS has a lot of interns who work downtown for their internships so they liked the idea of having housing downtown.
John B. Clark (Realtor, resident of Town House condominiums, 717 S. Seventh St.): We have all ages of people at the Town House, there’s young folks in there all the way up to people who’ve been retired up to 20 years. People are moving here from subdivisions around Lake Springfield, Panther Creek or out around Illini Country Club, they come out of that area into the Town House. We have senators living here. It’s easy to walk downtown to the restaurants for lunch or whatever you want to do. For me, at my age, I love it. I wouldn’t go back to living in a house, I just wouldn’t do it. We’ve got a little garden outside, the patio area, we put new picnic tables out there with chairs. On an evening there’s a couple tables of people out there having cocktails and visiting, camaraderie is good. Once you live like that, you don’t want to go back to a house because you’ll be lonesome.
Higginbotham: Affordable rent is both a blessing and a curse for Springfield. On the property owner’s side it’s a tremendous challenge because a lot of these buildings have deferred maintenance or they may be functionally obsolescent. Most of them are not move-in ready where you toss somebody a key and they walk in the door. You’re talking tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, of build-out necessary to modify that space and make it work for a tenant and then you might get $10, $12 a square foot in rent.
Clark: But values go up on that piece of real estate too, just like what happened with the Town House. You can’t believe what you can get over there for $50,000 or $35,000. Now some of those $35,000s, you’ll be able to sell them for $61,000 in a couple years time. That’s big money, that’s a big change, percentage-wise.
Boesdoerfer: Custom Cup is halfway between the Capitol and downtown, on a heavily traveled street, so we have a very good advantage as far as foot traffic and ease of parking – there are parking spots at our front door every day.
Faingold: In bigger cities, people are used to walking a fair bit – here, people expect to park right at the entrance.
Stott: DSI is going to try to turn some of that stuff on its head by doing some funny videos and things like that, just to try to dig into some of those perceptions and make light of them.
Boesdorfer: We have people come in visiting from Chicago and they laugh that our parking meters are just a quarter.
Hamilton: They’re like: How much is a ticket? I’ll just stay here all day.
Stott: Should there really be half-hour parking meters in front of any restaurant these days? No. You should be able to use an app to add money to your meter and stay in the restaurant an extra hour and have a great conversation, drink another glass of wine. You shouldn’t have to get out of your chair.
Hamilton: We do have to realize that when those changes come, so does the cost. You’re not going to have a meter that costs a quarter for half an hour anymore, you’re probably going to be paying a little bit more to justify all those meters being changed. I don’t know – do we change the meters now and bring the price up or do we get the people already coming down now who are used to paying a quarter and then say, ok, great, now that you’re coming down here prices are going up? Because I think the reaction will be something like, “Oh, now that we’re down here they’ve raised the prices.” A lot of people don’t associate the costs of creating something, they just think, “They’re trying to take my money now.” If you swipe your debit card, there are costs behind that. I think we definitely need longer meters, 30 minutes is absolutely not enough.
Stott: One great entrepreneurial idea I would pursue if I had the time – someone should run a valet company in downtown Springfield. There’d be four different stations on the outskirts of downtown and shuttle service to specific destinations.
Stott: DSI is a very good festival thrower but we also need to focus on some other issues. I have business owners telling me they’ve seen a marked increase in foot traffic lately but meanwhile, we have had owners sitting on vacant buildings, waiting for the state to come back. Maybe those owners should divest themselves of the property and let someone else buy it who’s interested in this new reality. I think there’s going to be a new generation of property owners who see the market for what it is and actually want to do something now to invest in it and to get people downtown. When a tourist comes to town, that’s great – but if they’re walking around after they leave the presidential museum and it feels dead downtown, is that really a win? What does it mean if we’re attracting new retail or new residential, but at the same time people are walking around downtown and have to drive somewhere else to get something they need? These vacancies are definitely the biggest barrier to fostering that sense of community we’re talking about. I think that DSI is positioned to do the economic development attraction downtown because we’re on the ground, we know what’s going on, we know the connections. We can take the data we have that shows where the gaps are in our retail community and we can go out and look for that, along with the city and the chamber and everyone else. I’m sure the property owners would love to have a state office plop back into their laps, but there’s definitely some work that needs to be done on some of these buildings to get them ready for that.
Farrar: I know you’re trying to discourage waiting around for the state to come back downtown but it sure would give us a lot of help if the state would get on board.
Stott: It’s not like we’re not asking. I think that downtown and the real estate community are going to need to work together in the next couple of months to come up with a good proposal for that – I just don’t want to put all our eggs in that basket. We need to keep looking for other entrepreneurs, we need to have local businesses with offices downtown. We need to take a multifaceted approach to it. It’s good to see the Realtors making more of an investment themselves and thinking it’s the next hot place to sell. The business community has been slow to adjust to the state workers not being our primary market. We’re trying to talk now a lot about how there are new markets out there, there are other people locally who you can convince to come downtown. How do you attract them?
Boesdorfer: There’s a lot of focus on the tourist business but there’s still a whole other city out there that doesn’t know what’s going on, and then they come downtown and everything’s closed. That’s another perception that I think is even more than just grabbing people from the museum – the actual people who live here won’t do it.
Stott: Justine, who owns Inspire, which is a relatively new artist co-op, said they were changing out an exhibit last Wednesday night and people were walking by all night. And then we had this meeting where we said maybe we need to change our hours and she said, “Yep, I totally get it – maybe we’ll start working from noon to 8.” The Hoogland board definitely expressed to me that once people leave a show they go out and…
Hamilton: They leave.
Boesdorfer: They see the tire shop. “Oh look, there’s some tires.” Then they go home.
Hamilton: I think businesses are not in the habit of thinking, “Hey, there’s a big theater show tonight, if I stay open just this one night that could mean something – or if I can convince the two businesses on either side of me to also stay open, people might make it far enough down the street to see that I’m actually open.”
Stott: As for the YWCA block, the proposals we’ve received are both for residential space. Whatever goes in there needs to be an addition to – and not a subtraction from – all the upper stories that we need to develop and vacant storefronts that we already have. Some type of a mix that works for the developers who put in the money for that, but which also doesn’t decimate what we have going on throughout the rest of downtown. I have to reconcile all that with what’s been proposed. I think that the public comments and how the project morphs from initial design into what ultimately happens is going to be an interesting process. Springfield is really good at making beautiful historic spaces that people aren’t really hanging out in, they’re just pretty to look at. DSI’s new project director, Nathan Bishop [see profile, p. 3], has knowledge on how to activate those type of spaces and make then exciting and fun. There’s going to be a lot of work that he’ll be doing with committees in the next six months that will result in proposals that we’ll take to the city.
What’s next for downtown?
Stott: I consider downtown to be the city’s cultural district, and I’ve talked before about having a movie theater down here. I’m not talking IMAX, more like a cool place where you can have a drink and be in one of those La-Z-Boys that lean back. There’s also been talk about bandshell space, places to have festivals there, things like that.
Hamilton: It would be cool to have a place where you could go to a theater, watch a movie and then after it’s over there would be a band or a comedy show right upstairs and people could still hang out a little bit. At this point, my friends and I will go to a show and then it’s like, “Oh well, let’s go home.” Fun date night! If there was something else there, that would be awesome.
Boesdorfer: Think about the Muni, all the way out on East Lake – we could have something like that downtown.
Faingold: Like a “brew and view” type thing.
Stott: According to Nathan Bishop’s master’s thesis data, economic development spillover of a brewery is something like 100 percent. We could have many more businesses like Obed and Isaac’s downtown and it would be very good.
Prellwitz: We’ve hit on this a little already, but one thing that would help would be getting businesses to be open at the same time so people don’t just come downtown for four hours to the Lincoln museum, and then they just leave because they think there’s nothing to do. It would be great if they could come for breakfast, go to museums, stay for lunch, go to the park in the afternoon and then stay for dinner. For example, I live next door to Elf Shelf but for the longest time when I was at work they were open, and when I got home they’d be closed. Since the new owner took over, every day when I get off work they’re playing music, they’ll be outside hanging out. And it turns out the kinds of things they have there are not what you’d be able to go out to the mall for, the records and the books and the things they have there.
Boesdorfer: As for the art co-ops and stuff, maybe adjusting their hours to where they might capture some of the people getting off work rather than having them think everything’s closed at 6 p.m. Is anyone going art shopping at 10 in the morning?
Farrar: Kidzeum is another project that doesn’t always seem to quite be there. What’s the latest on that?
Stott: They’re about a half million dollars away from their goal, and it seems like every other week they have another large gift being announced. I think it’s pretty phenomenal that this group of volunteers has gotten as far as they have. I’m hoping that it’ll be open in the next year and a half, and it’ll be another great asset. When we’re looking at downtown, that is definitely an anchor point when we’re talking about how we make the Old State Capitol Plaza more family-friendly. We’re still counting on it.