Jason Duff stood in the middle of the crumbling, mostly abandoned downtown area of his hometown, Bellefontaine, and saw what everyone else saw.
“Our town was struggling. Like many small towns across America, our downtown was decaying, and our community was hurting,” says Duff, who at the time had just graduated from nearby Ohio Northern University.
Unlike many others, though, he was able to look past the despair and see potential. Instead of heading to the brighter lights of bigger, more prosperous Midwestern cities, Duff decided to make a difference. He enlisted friends who shared his vision and his can-do attitude — along with plenty of talents and skills — and built a team to rebuild and revive their hometown.
The company that sprang up, Small Nation, soon bought its first vacant building on Main Street for $1. “We rolled up our shirtsleeves and got to work,” says Duff, whose family’s business, Duff Quarry, is a member of Logan County Electric Cooperative, based in Bellefontaine.
That was a decade ago, when more than 80% of the ground-floor commercial spaces downtown were empty, businesses were closing, and historic buildings were literally crumbling before their eyes. Armed, however, with a sense of determination and grit, the team began to transform downtown Bellefontaine.
By the time the coronavirus hit, Small Nation had painstakingly renovated more than 30 of those historic buildings, attracting more than $19 million in new private investment. The work created nearly 130 downtown jobs in the 17 new specialty retail shops and seven new eateries that dish up everything from gourmet pizza, baked-daily breads, and comfort food to award-winning craft beer. Of the new business entrepreneurs, 70% are under age 40, and 75% are women.
The town was gaining more and more momentum until the pandemic struck, which of course has caused hardships for businesses everywhere. “COVID-19 has challenged our community in ways we could have never imagined or planned for,” Duff says. “There’s no question, terms like ‘essential business’ and even ‘open’ mean so much more to us than ever before. Small businesses are essential to our towns. We are the fabric, the heart, and the reason that so much good happens.”
Small Nation, the business, is, at its heart, about connecting entrepreneurs with opportunities. That was what jump-started the community’s pre-pandemic turnaround. “We knew we could make an impact by renovating buildings, attracting investors and businesses, and injecting new energy into the community.”
The first business to open was a new upscale pizza restaurant, 600 Downtown — owned by young entrepreneur Brittany Saxton — which bakes award-winning gourmet pies in its brick oven; the restaurant and Saxton have even been featured on TV’s Food Network.
“We had this vision for a captivating restaurant that would be a destination,” Duff says. “Once it was here, people started imagining what else was possible, and other new businesses followed. We could feel the energy, the excitement, the momentum.”
Soon there were eclectic clothing boutiques and fanciful gift shops, yoga studios and chic coffee shops, bakeries and ice cream parlors, a 24-hour fitness center, and more. The efforts have even been lauded nationally in publications like Forbes, Entrepreneur, and Inc. magazines.
The key to Small Nation’s success, though, is pretty simple: “Lots of hard work,” says Adam Rammel, vice president of marketing, who also co-owns Brewfontaine, a downtown restaurant and tap room that’s been voted Ohio’s best craft beer bar four years in a row. “There’s no ‘smoke and mirrors’ here. We’re right in the trenches, helping new business owners every step of the way.”
That includes everything from strategic planning, navigating zoning rules, and signage to marketing, branding, and website development — even choosing the right paint colors.
All of those efforts have caught the attention not only of travelers from around the state, but even of elected officials. Ohio Rep. Jon Cross (R-Kenton) says, “Bellefontaine is a model for taking a historic courthouse community and making it hip and cool. You have the hometown atmosphere paired with a new, urban energy.”
Duff says the last few months, despite their hardships, have inspired businesses to come up with creative strategies to stay connected to their customers. As communities slowly emerge from coronavirus restrictions, those businesses and their owners are excited and proud to be a part of the renewal.
The town’s success is no surprise to longtime resident Sandy Musser. “When the community thrives, so does the quality of life,” she says. “Bellefontaine is a survivor.”