Editor's Note: This is the second story in the Democrat’s “Downtown in Focus” series, which will run in each weekend edition through the end of November. The series will take an in-depth look at the successes and challenges faced by ongoing efforts to revitalize Sedalia’s downtown business district.
A group of Sedalia business owners, retail managers and entrepreneurs have banded together to form the Downtown Business Boosters, a budding group dedicated to promoting commerce and revitalization in Sedalia’s downtown district.
The Boosters was the outgrowth of an idea that had its genesis in Jackie’s Salon, at 234 S. Kentucky Ave., during a chat between owner Jackie Fike and Millie Curry, operator of the downtown Century 21 real estate franchise.
“It began in the beauty salon,” Fike said. “I was doing Millie’s hair ... we were talking about what we could do to help businesses that were struggling downtown.”
Curry had previously spoken with Maple Leaf Antique Mall Manager Don Simons, who suggested convening a group of downtown business owners, so the three worked together to invite businesspeople from Sedalia’s downtown to meet weekly and trade ideas at the Maple Leaf Tea Room on 106 W. Main St.
“It was sort of an effort to just generate some enthusiasm and try to help one another,” Curry said. “We just thought it would be nice to put all the people together.”
The resulting group, which has roughly 25 members, has met weekly since July 18. Attendees are a diverse group, ranging from new downtown business owners and seasoned retail veterans to local nonprofit groups, but each has in common the goal of “boosting business” downtown.
“That’s what this group’s been about, being a good neighbor,” said Simons, at a recent meeting.
In its expansion to include new members and new ideas since its inception in July, the group has experienced the natural growing pains of an entity trying to define its mission and determine the needs of the community. In recent meetings, the Boosters have talked seriously about their identity, wondering aloud whether they are a brainstorming forum, an action group or a little of both. They’ve batted around the possibility of raising funds of their own to achieve their ends, but haven’t quite come to a consensus on what those ends are. Group members’ interests range from the long-term (downtown marketing and events; saving or improving endangered buildings) to the more immediate (the challenge of parking downtown; the problem of feral animals in vacant storefronts) and each person feels passionately about their personal projects.
Booster member Toby Dorr, owner of Troubadorr Innovative Solutions and Pottery Dogs on the lower level of 401 S. Lamine Ave., said the divergence of opinion on the group’s focus stemmed from the variety of downtown businesspeople involved in the discussions.
“People who have downtown businesses who are successful ... those people have a different set of issues than those who are trying to start a business,” she said. Dorr characterized the group as being ‘at a crossroads’ and said that the Boosters faced a ‘couple hurdles’ as they formed their identity and plan of action, but she said, at its core, Downtown Business Boosters had a basic mission “to try to get together and figure out what we can do to help everybody succeed.”
Fike expressed a similar sentiment.
“This is kind of an adventure into the personalities of the people who work downtown,” she said. She added that the Boosters encompassed both brainstormers and action-takers, people who liked group structure, others who would rather go with the flow and a wealth of different ideas about improving downtown. Fike said she thought it was feasible to accommodate a variety of projects for downtown revitalization, just not at the same time.
“All these issues are important; you don’t talk about them all at once,” she said. “We have defined five areas, and they’re pretty common (concerns).”
At the Boosters Oct. 17 meeting, the group did identify a handful of priority areas to address regarding downtown development:
• Improving the availability of parking space for patrons of downtown businesses
• Addressing the problem of pests (pigeons, feral cats, rats) in the downtown area
• Cleaning up un-tended Dumpsters and other trash
• Finding or creating a comprehensive map of downtown that includes downtown businesses
• Welcoming visitors to Sedalia who arrive on the Amtrak and ensuring they have appropriate transportation from the Amtrak station to their destinations.
For each of these issues, Fike asked the group to consider three questions: “Can we solve it?” “Can we improve (it)?” or “Should we share concerns with Meg’s (Liston’s) group (Sedalia Downtown Development, Inc.)?”
Though Downtown Business Boosters has not decided definitively what it is, what it adamantly is not is another Sedalia Downtown Development, Inc., the nonprofit organization that has been in place since 1994 to “ensure the economic and cultural viability of the downtown commercial district.” Instead, the Boosters and SDDI see each other as partners with similar goals but different skills.
“We’re complementary of each other,” said SDDI Administrator Meg Liston. “I think it’s a great group.”
Liston, who occasionally attends Downtown Business Boosters’ meetings, said she believes the Boosters’ open discussions and freedom to generate ideas are a good alternative to SDDI’s more structured work in the community. She added that she foresaw the two groups working together to solve downtown challenges — the Boosters coming up with plans and SDDI using its experience to help carry them to fruition.
“They are defintely a big help, number one on the level of ideas and brainstorming,” Liston said. “It helps us to have a group like that.”
Liston also said that the Boosters “link right in” with what Sedalia Downtown Development’s goals of downtown promotion, and she recommended that other downtown businesspeople get involved with the group, which she described as a “friendly” meeting of people “interested in seeing downtown grow and the retail community to be successful.”
“I just encourage all the retailers to get involved and see what they have to offer,” she said.
Simons said there was plenty of room for the two downtown promoters to work together without stepping on each others’ toes and suggested there was a “niche” for each grow in the community. He characterized SDDI’s strengths as time, access to funds and structure and the Boosters as a volunteer organization that excelled at connecting people and solving problems.
“There’s a lot of room in this town, whether it’s volunteer help, paid help; It’s all got it’s place in the system somehow,” he said.
Though the group is still in the planning and discovery stage, the Boosters already have under their belts a part in one of Sedalia’s great downtown successes of 2012; the group was the catalyst for the return of the Salvation Army Santa House.
“Donnie (Simons) invited the Salvation Army,” Curry said. “He approached them about having the Santa House back downtown. They were enthusiastic about it, and they started coming to the gatherings that we have and started telling us what they would like to see and what they would like to have happen, and we just tried to do what they wanted.”
The Salvation Army’s Mark Haslett said the Boosters were essential to the Santa House and Tree of Lights’ return, and he thanked them for their part in bringing back a tradition that he hoped would add to the “joy of Christmas” and help “restore a proper sense of peace” in Sedalia, as well as raise funds for the organization’s goals.
“(The Santa House)Probably would not have happened if they had not made the call,” he said. “They actually reached out to us.”
The Business Boosters’ ultimate goals for downtown are as diverse as the members of the group itself. From Curry’s hope to “achieve 100 percent occupancy of the buildings with good businesses in those buildings,” to Fike’s wish “that anyone who shops downtown would find the hospitality I know is there”, each Booster has a dream for the area that they feel is rich in history and more unique than any other place in Sedalia.
“The businesses downtown offer unique items,” said Dorr, explaining why the revitalization of downtown was so important. “It’s not Walmart, not JC Penney, not Kmart. It’s not something you can find somewhere else.”
More Info: For more information about the Downtown Business Boosters, or to contact them, visit their website at downtownbusinessboosters.com