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Downtown sees comings and goings

Business owners and advocates share optimism about the heart of the city

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Come March, after 11 years in operation on Walnut Street, home furnishings retailer A Cricket in the House LLC is closing its doors.

Cricket Fries, co-owner of the store with husband Mark, said the couple felt it was time to retire and have some fun.

“I love it downtown,” she said. “I’ve been a big advocate of downtown since I was a little kid. I’ve watched it through its many phases.”

Fries said the coronavirus pandemic brought challenges to downtown retailers and restaurants, but with business, there is always an ebb and flow.

“It’s been sad to see all the dips that it’s gone through over the years, and COVID didn’t help at all, certainly, but it always comes back,” she said.

While downtown may bounce back, several city-center businesses that closed since the start of the pandemic are likely gone for good. Some of these are The Hepcat jazz club, which operated on South Campbell Avenue from August 2019 to December 2020; Patton Alley Pub on South Patton Avenue, which closed in February 2021; and Falstaff’s Local, a sports bar that closed permanently in May 2020 after announcing a temporary pandemic-related closure the month prior.

But openings have also been constant, even during the pandemic. A partial list of new downtown businesses includes Formed: An Artist Collective, several coffee shops (Classic Rock, Black Lab and Seattle Roast), Sweet Emotion ice cream and restaurants Rise and Chameleon Cuisine.

Fries said downtown has wonderful businesses, but it would be nice to see more people out shopping in them.

“I’m a big believer in synergy,” she said. “The more businesses you get – even the same type of business – the better it is for everyone.”

If that is indeed the case, Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association, has some good news.

“We are encouraged,” he said. “We’ve got multiple storefronts that have either signed leases or are getting ready to open, up and down Walnut Street.”

A lease has been signed for a retail shop in the 300 block of East Walnut, and in the 200 block, there will be some new food tenants with dessert options, Worley said, declining to disclose names.

He added there will be an art presence on the corner of Walnut Street and South Avenue, and a home accessories retailer, J.L. Long Traders, will be opening at 318 W. Walnut St. Additionally, a new vegan restaurant will soon be in the former Mo’ Beef sandwich shop space at 405 W. Walnut St., he said.

Worley also touted the January reopening of Billiards of Springfield at 541 St. Louis St.

“Getting Billiards back open was really key for the St. Louis corridor,” he said.

He added the Moxy Hotel is underway at 430 South Ave., and other restaurants and retailers are looking at storefronts all over the downtown area. Worley did not have occupancy or vacancy data for downtown businesses.

“When you have over 60 restaurants, 20 pubs and clubs, two dozen retailers, there is going to be some transition, but we’re encouraged to see the new activity that’s coming in,” he said.

Worley said downtown businesses have shown themselves to be resilient through the pandemic.

“They’ve found new ways to deliver services, and they continue to try to stay nimble,” he said. “It’s not easy; everyone’s had to make pretty significant changes over the past two years. But there’s still good interest in downtown, and there’s always going to be.”

Most days at the Soap Refill Station, 210 S. Campbell Ave., customers can find the “SOAPEN” sign lit in the window. They bring their own containers to refill with laundry or dish soap, household cleaners or personal cleaning items.

For co-owner Anne Dezort, the spirit of reuse and recycling that prompted her business is also what compelled her to open it downtown, where some of Springfield’s oldest buildings can be found.

“Downtown works really well with a modern aesthetic,” she said. “A business has to look good on the internet. Strip malls don’t look good on the internet. … but downtown looks great on the internet.”

She noted younger people recognize the value of an aesthetic.

“A business doesn’t just need a parking lot,” she said. “It needs to look good from a couch.”

Dezort said she could have put her business anywhere, but she chose her spot with intention.

“We’re kind of a unique thing whereas no matter where we were, our people would probably find us,” she said. “I feel really good about where downtown is right now.”

Around the corner from Soap Refill Station is Hurts Donut Co. There, owner Tim Clegg previously told Springfield Business Journal he intends to relocate to the corner of Sunshine Street and National Avenue, in part for its better parking.

“I’m Hurts’ neighbor – we literally share a wall – and I have zero problems with parking,” Dezort said. “I have 75-year-old women who shop at our store, and they don’t complain about parking, and they love to complain about everything.”

The privatization of a parking lot adjoining Hurts Donut Co. is a big factor in Clegg’s decision to relocate.

“It’s caused havoc for all the businesses down there,” he told SBJ in an interview about his upcoming move.

Clegg also cited crime issues for his decision to leave downtown.

But Dezort said she feels secure where she is.

“We don’t have a problem with safety,” she said. “We have single women working our store one at a time, and none of them have ever felt threatened.”

At the Jan. 10 meeting of Springfield City Council, City Manager Jason Gage’s report noted police coverage in the city’s entertainment district had been enhanced, with two police cars on duty seven days a week. Brina Thomas, co-owner with husband Ben of Five Pound Apparel, 1209 N. Jefferson Ave., said she also feels safe downtown.

“In our 12 years of being in business downtown, we have never had any issues during our hours of operation with any crime,” she said.

She did note there was one after-hours incident at the end of 2017, when a man threw a rock through the store’s window and stepped inside to help himself to some merchandise.

“The guy was in the store for maybe less than two minutes,” she said. “He got a shirt from our sale rack, which is extra hilarious, and by then a crowd of people was at the window. An off-duty police officer tackled him and called the police. That right there is a show of community.”

Five Pound Apparel had a second location briefly at Farmers Park, but in the middle of 2020, the owners decided to close one of the stores. It made sense to keep the downtown store, Thomas said.

“We are such a community-based brand and company,” she said. “We thrive in a community-oriented space, and downtown is just the mecca of the Springfield community.”

Added Thomas, “I love being involved in a lot of things downtown. There’s always something going on.”

Brandon and Brittny Stockstill, owners of the Downtown Health Bar, a juice bar at 323 E. Walnut St., have experienced quite a bit in their 14 months of operation.

“It’s been a year or so of trials and tribulations and successes, and it’s going good,” Brandon Stockstill said, adding, “We’re taking it a year at a time.”

Stockstill said parking is a challenge, and he is mindful of crime.

“We get weirdos occasionally. I think that’s anywhere,” he said.

But all in all, he said he likes the downtown setting.

“It’s a good community,” he said. “I like the people that come through here.”

Digital Editor Geoff Pickle contributed.

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