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G.C. continues to have a healthy heart

Published 4/2/2012 in Progress

By JOSEPH JACKMOVICH

jjackmovich@gctelegram.com

In an era of big-box retail, downtown Main Streets can sometimes be overlooked. While small, independent stores may not have the large fluorescent retailscapes of big-box stores, what they do have is a piece of the core retail district of a city or town.

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Laurie Sisk/Telegram Shonda Collins, right, owner of Wheatfields on Main, assists Jennifer Dougherty with a purchase during Downtown Vision's Third Thursday event.

Laurie Sisk/Telegram Shonda Collins, right, owner of Wheatfields on Main, assists Jennifer Dougherty with a purchase during Downtown Vision's Third Thursday event.

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Brad Nading/Telegram Elizabeth Baker uses chalk to draw a coffee cup on the sidewalk outside Patrick Dugan's Coffee House at the start of a Third Thursday event in downtown Garden City.

Brad Nading/Telegram Elizabeth Baker uses chalk to draw a coffee cup on the sidewalk outside Patrick Dugan's Coffee House at the start of a Third Thursday event in downtown Garden City.

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Laurie Sisk/Telegram From the left: Lynne Rodriguez, Kathie Maestas and Pat Smith serve up baked potatoes during Downtown Vision's 'Who's Your Paddy?' at the Downtown Vision office.

Laurie Sisk/Telegram From the left: Lynne Rodriguez, Kathie Maestas and Pat Smith serve up baked potatoes during Downtown Vision's 'Who's Your Paddy?' at the Downtown Vision office.

In 2004, Garden City Downtown Vision was created to help maintain the history and integrity of Garden City's Main Street. Co-founded by State Rep. Reynaldo Mesa, R-Garden City and former Garden City commissioner, and former Finney County Historical Museum Assistant Director Pat Baughman, the organization was created to preserve the Main Street experience. Downtown Vision is a part of the Kansas Main Street Program and the National Main Street Organization.

Mesa, who was mayor of Garden City at the time, said when he saw all the empty storefronts he wanted to do something to make downtown more active.

"I felt that to a certain extent, and I'm not pointing any fingers here, that our downtown was being neglected," Mesa said.

Mesa reached out to then Hutchinson City Manager Joe Palacioz. Hutchinson, at the time, had a program with their downtown that had been running for 20 years, and Mesa asked Palacioz to come to Garden City to do a presentation about the program here. After the presentation, Mesa said the rest was history.

"It got us together, it got us organized, and it got us in place," Mesa said.

GCDV Executive Director Beverly Schmitz Glass said that the downtown area had 23 empty storefronts in 2004. That number has since decreased to six empty storefronts with the advent of the early February opening of Fresh Bites Cafe, 416 N. Main St. In July, Glass will have been director for six years. Before Glass, Cathy McKinley had been executive director for GCDV. McKinley is now dean of continuing education at Garden City Community College.

A large part of what Glass does is ensuring the downtown experience is different from the experience a shopper gets at a big-box store. She said that the way people shop at big-box stores is not the way people shop downtown, highlighting the more personal connection and the unique items.

Glass said she helps businesses any way she can through GCDV. She offers continuing education for business topics, offers a central hub of information for potential and existing business owners and gives business recommendations to improve sales and service. She said that the help gives people who are looking to start a small business the full picture of what their venture entails. Even the office space of the GCDV is used for the community, as it is the meeting site for groups such as the Finney County Preservation Alliance and a local cancer support group.

"With the advent of Downtown Vision in 2004, what it became was a vehicle of change," Glass said. "As the years progress, we just keep getting better."

GCDV has various levels of membership, ranging from the benefactor level at $1,000 annually to the individual level of $50 annually. The cost for business memberships is $195 annually. Glass said the prices for membership are among the lowest among communities of this size.

The office has approximately 128 members and has brought in $5,464,509 in both public and private reinvestment since its 2004 opening. It has logged 25,137 volunteer hours and $439,835.72 in volunteer contributions. GCDV also boasts a net gain of 51 businesses and 143 jobs since its inception.

One big shift in focus for the office is the trend away from being events driven to being more focused on economic development. Glass said that in the last 18 months, GCDV has been looking at ways to do things like add more second-floor apartments downtown, something she said could drive new forms of evening entertainment or a small downtown grocery store. She said that the new focus is for an urban feel in a rural area while keeping everything pedestrian friendly.

Mesa agreed that a focus on entertainment, food and music would help bring a lively atmosphere to downtown. Currently, the office is working on replacing and adding trash cans downtown, trimming the trees to create a canopy, and hanging baskets of flowers to add color. People also can purchase new benches for downtown at a cost of about $1,100.

Glass said that some of the office's most notable achievements over the years are the lowered empty storefront numbers and the work spent to develop different partnerships in the community. She said she is happy about the success of events like Third Thursdays, the Banner Art Program, and the holiday "Paint the Town" program.

Moving forward, Glass said that it is important to invite more young professionals to come to the downtown area. She said those kinds of individuals drive the kind of development that the office is striving for, bringing with them potential for entertainment, food and more downtown residences. Glass said young people drive new ideas and have a different way of thinking about downtown than older generations.

Glass said that downtown is more than just a collection of storefronts.

"It's the heart of the community," Glass said. "I think we've brought the focus back downtown."

Eldon Clemence has owned The Americana Shoppe, 414 N. Main St., for 38 years. He said that Glass has been an excellent director at GCDV, keeping Main Street issues on the "front page."

Clemence was a member of GCDV for a few years before he rescinded his membership for financial reasons. He said he maintained good relations with Glass and her office.

When The Americana Shoppe opened 38 years ago, Clemence said, there were no big box stores, only Main Street stores. Since his opening, he saw the decline of Main Street, only to have it rise up again in part due to the work of GCDV.

"It's been a definite plus for the revitalizing of Main Street," Clemence said. "I'd hate to think where we'd be downtown without Downtown Vision. The future looks promising, and to a great extent thanks to Bev and Downtown Vision."

At The Corner on Main, 324 N. Main St., co-owner Jewel Richmeier is also a GCDV supporter. Richmeier said that GCDV has been instrumental in listening to the needs of downtown merchants and that Glass is good at making recommendations to businesses to better serve their customers.

"I think the our downtown is the healthiest it has been in 16 years," Richmeier said.

GCDV does have its detractors, however. One person who doesn't agree with how GCDV does things is Joan Lobmeyer, co-owner of The Family Bookhouse, 519 N. Main St. Lobmeyer said that she did not like the addition of music over loudspeakers downtown and asked to have the speaker in front of her store turned off. She also doesn't like the idea of painting her windows for the holidays because she has a nativity scene that she displays instead.

Lobmeyer, who is not a member of GCDV, said that her son started the business in 1997 and it is still going strong. She said rather than GCDV's methods, personal rapport with customers is the real draw for a downtown business.

"Their vision is not my vision," Lobmeyer said,

The Garden City Downtown Vision Office is located at 413 N. Main St. For more information on GCDV, call 276-0891.

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