July 24, 2016

Partly cloudy

City is a destination site for shoppers, specialty entrepreneurs

MEDINA — When Sue Mitchell decided to meet her daughter for lunch in Medina, she lost her heart so completely to the town square that she opened a business there.

“It was awesome,” she said of the experience as she looked out the wide window at the front of her consignment boutique, 4 Ladies & More. The shop, on the north side of Public Square, caters to people who want gently worn clothes and accessories of high quality at bargain prices.

Customers wait their turn outside Main Street Cupcakes, a new store in Medina’s historic district. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY JUDY A. TOTTS)

Customers wait their turn outside Main Street Cupcakes, a new store in Medina’s historic district. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY JUDY A. TOTTS)

“People were everywhere, and I learned that a lot of activities were always going on” in town, she said.

“The square is one of the biggest selling points for people moving into the area,” said Matt Wiederhold, executive director of Main Street Medina, an Ohio Main Street program dedicated to promoting economic development while retaining a town’s historic charm.

“Medina is quintessential small-town Americana captured. Our work is getting people to shop there. There’s not a full-service grocery or drugstore on the square, but there’s a hardware that beats the big stores, gift shops, clothing shops, restaurants and coffee shops, specialty stores.”

Wiederhold said that compared with other Main Street programs, Medina — which has been a finalist in Team NEO’s Economic Impact Awards in the category of Business Expansion two years running — has made great strides and “truly has set the standard in the state and nationally.”

He said the town has put a lot of thought into the historic district, how to preserve and promote it, citing Main Street’s cooperation with the city’s department of economic development as well as the Community Design Committee, to promote growth on the square and in the surrounding historic district.

“We’re interested in working with businesses and entities in the historic district to fill all the first-floor vacancies on the square, and we’re close to that goal now,” Wiederhold said. Main Street Medina works with Gerspacher Real Estate Group and Washington Properties toward that end. He added that some buildings remain vacant because the owners aren’t ready to sell or lease or because they need work to prepare them for lease or sale.

Like Mitchell, the owners of two other businesses that have opened in the historic district within the last six months — One Lucky Dog, a healthful gourmet bakery for canine customers, and Main Street Cupcakes, a specialty food shop — agreed the charm of the square as well as its accessibility and activity were key reasons they located there.

“This is such a destination area, a place that draws people, and we only pick an area that has a store front available in a destination area,” said Sarah Forrer, co-owner with Kimberly Martin and Sean Nock of Main Street Cupcakes, the newest shop just off the square on West Washington Street.

With successful shops established in Hudson and Rocky River, customers from as far away as Canada and about 6,500 Facebook followers, Forrer and Martin said they knew what they were looking for.

“We’ve had our eye on this location at least a year, since we opened our Rocky River store,” Forrer said. “Everyone who drove from Medina to Hudson to buy our cupcakes wanted to know why we didn’t open in Medina next. Now, here we are.”

“I was always drawn to Medina, always shopped here,” said One Lucky Dog owner Stacey Sutphen, who grew up in Bay Village and now resides in Liverpool Township. Her father hails from a small Pennsylvania town, and the memories of visiting her grandparents there with trips to the local hardware store came into focus when she walked into Medina Hardware on South Court Street. It was enough, she said, to convince her a shop on the square was the way to go when she wanted to expand her home-based business.

She pulled a batch of dough out of a mixing bowl as she talked, while two of her Scottish deerhounds, Jane and Cookie, snoozed on their beds at the rear of the shop.

“I love the old hometown feel, the atmosphere of the square,” she said as she rolled out dough. “A lot of people pass by on their way to (state Route) 18, and business is picking up. The square has such great places. I don’t know why people go out of town to shop. I hope more people support businesses here.”

Wiederhold said Main Street Medina tackles misconceptions, such as small shops selling products with higher price tags.

“The prices aren’t any higher in the shops around the square, and in some cases they’re actually lower” than items at other retail stores, he said.

There’s also a perception, he said, that parking spots are at a premium in the area, when in reality there are about 1,500 free spaces within the nine-block historic district.

Even in a tough economic climate, Wiederhold said Medina is holding its own “because it’s still one of the fastest-growing areas, it has a wonderful quality of life, great schools, great accessibility. People want to locate in a thriving area, and I think people really are trying to support local businesses.”

In counterpoint to preserving the past, Wiederhold said Medina has been forward-thinking, addressing the issue of making it easier for the sight and hearing impaired to navigate the streets with audible signals and textured sidewalk pads at corners.

Main Street promotes the district through free events that revolve around businesses like the recent Ladies Night Out or entertainment like band concerts in the Uptown Park and Rally in the Alley that draw people into the district.

“We want the events to translate into people going into the businesses on the square,” he said.

“Different events are interactive in the town square area, but not necessarily tied in to the shops,” said Kimberly Rice, Medina’s economic development director, whose office works with Main Street Medina committees and the local business community.

“Many people don’t realize that the merchants pay a lot to sponsor those events,” she said. “The hope is that those who attend will come back to shop and dine there, to patronize the shops who are footing the tab. It’s our job to make sure people appreciate what they have in Medina and get them to support businesses.”

She said one key to unlocking the success of small shops like those in the historic district is in marketing things that are unique, items shoppers can’t find at the big box stores.

“One of the things our office does is to figure out how to get businesses to use more technology to get their name out,” Rice said, adding that toward that end, the city will introduce a microenterprise grant program this fall that will provide training and technical assistance, as well as loans, to low- to moderate- income small business owners.

Main Street Medina supports businesses in practical ways, such as supplying demographics and sending news releases, posting events and sales on its website or Facebook, but it also works with local entities like the Community Design Committee, the library, the schools and the historical society.

“The success of any organization lies in the strength of community partnerships,” Wiederhold said. “The square is the heart of the city, the heart of the county. We don’t do this alone.”

Contact Judy A. Totts at jatotts1701@gmail.com.