A stroll down Commercial Street is different today than it was over a decade ago.
The sidewalks are a little cleaner, more businesses have opened shop and marketing for the district, dubbed C-Street, is prominent.
The historic street once held poor rapport among Springfieldians.
“Every day, I hear people talk about how scary the street was and how cool it is now,” said Lyle Foster, owner of Big Momma’s Coffee and Espresso Bar LLC, which set up shop on Commercial in 2007.
The Commercial Street Community Improvement District has reached its 10th year, and with the recent approval from Springfield City Council for a 15-year extension, local business owners in the district say there’s still work to be done.
The CID, which spans along Commercial between Clay and Douglas avenues, was enacted in June 2009 with the purpose of recruiting and retaining businesses to the district, marketing, landscaping and cleaning parking lots and sidewalks.
The district operates with funds generated through donations and a supplemental sales tax that was approved by voters in March 2010, according to the Historic C-Street website.
In the last decade, the three-eighths-cent sales tax generated over $291,000 for reinvestments in the district. The tax expired March 31.
Reflecting on a decade
There weren’t very many businesses on Commercial when Foster opened Big Momma’s coffeehouse. He remembers when half of the first-floor spaces around him were vacant.
Now, the street is bursting with business.
Businesses like Cafe Cusco, Artisan’s Oven, Van Gogh’s Eeterie and Ms. Gilmore’s Tea Room and Vintage Suitcase Emporium are just a few that have opened shop — and are still operating — since the CID was enacted.
Foster said Big Momma’s has recorded an increase in business every year. He declined to disclose revenue.
“The first few years, it was more of a nonprofit operation,” he said, with a laugh.
Robin Gilmore, owner of Ms. Gilmore’s Tea Room, said when the store opened four years ago, she’d see 30-40 people for lunch. Now, as many as 250 people come to her tea room on any given Saturday.
Many business owners cite the landscaping efforts of the CID, as well as the trash crews, for making the street more appealing.
“I remember the first time when I saw a couple with a stroller, and I thought it was a milestone,” Foster said.
Gilmore said she’s noticed more business owners trying to improve the C-Street storefronts, which she thinks has contributed to the foot traffic on the street.
“There’s more shops that have come in and people are taking a little more pride in their buildings and their own decorating,” Gilmore said. “Every time I turn around, another one’s opening up. The more we have down there for people to come over, we’re all going to do better.”
Working closely with the CID is the Commercial Club of Springfield, which has been around for over a century. The club has helped raise $50,000 for the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge restoration project, which is expected to cost $2.5 million, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.
Longtime C-Street advocate Mary Collette serves as president of the club, and she’s also on the Commercial Street CID board.
Collette said the CID sponsors activities, such as Thriller on C-Street or the recent Pup Crawl, as an advertising effort. They’ve been successful to draw more people – sometimes in the thousands – to the district.
Foster recalled a recent Saturday when he was sitting outside.
“We saw people from all walks of life,” Foster said. “If someone was looking at Springfield from this snapshot … it was much more diverse than the city as a whole.”
The district, which also has focused on marketing efforts through the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and Welcome to Springfield magazine, has been working to attract tourists to the historic area.
There are almost a dozen Airbnb residences on the street, which range from $60 to $200 a night, according to the Airbnb website.
“I think Springfield as a whole is largely unaware of how popular this area is to people who come from outside this community,” said Collette, who also owns the Historic No. 2 Firehouse on the street.
To her, the growth has been incremental.
“For the type of district that we are, and the type of community that we’re building — and the late 1800s architecture that we’re determined to preserve for the next 100 years — it really has responded well to the more tortoise-like approach,” Collette said. “We have built this district one neighbor at a time, one building at a time, one planter at a time, and I think it’s rewarding us today because what I think we have up here is very real. It’s not something you can recreate.”
Business owners along C-Street have faith that the sale of the Missouri Hotel means good things to come.
Titus Williams bought the property in 2017 with former business partner Matt Miller and plans to renovate the 42,000-square-foot building, as well as the 60,000 square feet of buildings surrounding it that was once the Kitchen campus, according to SBJ archives.
Williams, president of Enterprise Commercial Group and principal with NAI Enterprise LLC, said he plans to begin the redevelopment by year’s end. He’s been awaiting word on his request for $30 million in federal new market tax credits to help fund the work, but he’s now ready to begin without it.
Plans call for retail, housing and office space, with Buxton Kubik Dodd Design Collective as lead architect. Williams said cost estimates are not final.
“If it’s done well and designed right, and it’s not too terribly expensive, it’s going to be a nice investment,” he said.
Foster said the Missouri Hotel revitalization is a vote of confidence for the future.
“It’s further evidence that investment is real on C-Street,” he said.
Williams said the district has a new energy now.
“It’s really cool to see,” he said. “It’s not like the Commercial Street back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s with a lot of boarded up buildings.”
The CID board also is petitioning for an increase in the previous sales tax to a half-cent to continue its marketing, landscaping and redevelopment efforts.
Receipts from the extra sales tax have increased each year since 2010, when the tax generated almost $25,000. Comparatively, $42,000 was generated in 2017-18.
“If the CID didn’t have the benefits of that tax money, I don’t know what would happen down here because the city doesn’t do anything to help,” Gilmore said.
Joe Hosmer, a developer on C-Street, said he hopes to see more diverse restaurants enter the district, along with lighted pathways and additional parking. Hosmer is already in development of a venture called Elkhart & The Robberson at 300 E. Commercial St, which will cost about $1.5 million in renovation costs, according to SBJ past reporting. The restaurant is expected to open in 2020, he said.
“Commercial Street looks as nice as about any place in town, but they were far behind,” Hosmer said of the redevelopment efforts. “Even though you’re catching up, you’re still behind. There’s a lot more things that need to be done.”
As part of the $168 million bond issue voters approved in April 2019, Springfield Public Schools is developing an early childhood center near Carver Middle School.
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