McCrabb: Middletown’s downtown has turned the corner

It’s all about timing, good and bad.

Years ago, Jim Verdin, owner and founder of the Pendleton Art Center, was in Middletown considering whether to open another location in the city’s downtown. He wanted to see if there was enough foot traffic and interest in the arts to support the proposed project.

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As it turned out, that same day, downtown was hosting a Broad Street Bash, a free musical event that typically attracts hundreds of people. In its 10 years, the Bash has become one of the city’s showcases, a signature event.

On this night, there were 4,000 people partying in the streets.

After seeing the overflow crowd, Verdin told his hosts: “Middletown can do something right even in a war-torn downtown. I think I’m going to do the Pendleton Art Center down here. And I’m going to do something right.”

When Adriane Scherrer, founder and CEO of We Can Business Incubator Inc., heard Verdin’s remarks, she said: “That’s when I knew we had turned the corner.”

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There was a time in Middletown’s history — remember Forbes Magazine called Middletown one of the 10 fastest-dying cities in the country just 10 years ago — when around the corner there appeared to be a dead end.

But in the past few years, downtown is seeing a rebirth, spurred by 24 businesses that opened last year, said Middletown City Manager Doug Adkins. The downtown is being revitalized one block at a time, starting near South Main Street and spreading toward University Boulevard.

Where there once were lifeless empty buildings, there are bars, restaurants, retail stores, specialty stores and what Adkins called “anchors” — Cincinnati State Middletown, BeauVerrre Riordan Stained Glass Studios and the Pendleton Art Center.

Adkins also praised the efforts of those behind the renovations of Sorg Opera House, which will host its second concert Oct. 21 featuring the acclaimed Cincinnati-based Blue Wisp Big Band.

MORE: Cincinnati’s Blue Wisp Big Band to perform at Sorg in Middletown

Now that there are businesses and activities to attract visitors downtown, the final phase, Adkins said, is to provide housing opportunities. He mentioned the Goetz Tower and the recent sale of the South Main Street building that houses Hope House as possible residential properties. He looks forward to the time when residents are walking their dogs downtown at 10 o’clock at night.

“That’s when you know you have made the entire transition from nothing to some anchors to some sustainability to a full-fledged operating downtown,” he said. “We are two-thirds of the way there.”

Middletown Mayor Larry Mulligan said the planned residential development along South Main Street will “change the landscape of downtown” and “keep the momentum going.”

Then he added: “It’s great to see the effort.”

Most of the credit should go to the owners of the small businesses, those who risked their life savings to chase the American Dream.

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One of those is Heather Gibson, owner of Triple Moon Coffee. She opened the coffee shop at 1100 Central Ave. two years ago, and since then, it has become a hub for downtown. She has opened her business for non-profits to hold meetings and it’s a popular gathering place for college and high school students.

Sue Wittman, director of Art Central Foundation and owner of Artique inside the Pendleton, has a front-row seat to downtown activity.

When Gibson decided to open her coffee shop, people thought, “she’s crazy,” Wittman said.

There weren’t enough people downtown to support such a business, they thought.

But “it really became a place of community,” Wittman said of the coffee shop. “She was the one who got this ‘new version’ started.”

Adkins knows not every downtown business that opens will survive. The success rate is about 50 percent. For every “opening soon” sign, there’s a “going out of business” sign. But he believes every time a business opens, it plants a seed in another potential entrepreneur.

“Success is obsessive,” Adkins said. “The more people get it, the more people who want it. Success breeds success.”

And sometimes that success can be traced to timing.

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