Xenia businesses struggle to bring life to downtown

For every step toward a more vibrant downtown area in the city of Xenia, there seems to be setbacks that keep retailers struggling and lease signs posted in storefronts.

City officials are working to make changes to the downtown area to make it more of a destination spot for area residents and out-of-town visitors. Work paid for through grant funding is underway, under the supervision of the Ohio Department of Transportation, to make safer pathways for pedestrians and bicyclists, including creating a bike lane in southbound Detroit Street.

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The latest setback? The impending closure of Blue Jacket Books, an independent bookseller and anchor tenant in a group of businesses on South Detroit Street.

Citing dismal sales through the holidays and this month being “our worst month ever,” Blue Jacket Books Co-owner Lawrence Hammar announced the closure on Facebook.

“In-store sales have always been disappointingly slow, given that Xenia is a county seat and at the hub of three rural highways,” Hammar wrote. “In brief, we’ve lost our shirts but wish to keep our pants.”

This would have been the independent bookseller’s 11th year in business, operating at its current location, 30 S. Detroit St., since 2013.

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The store is a hub of activity in the community, in large part because of the adjoining cafe, Table of Contents, which is run by Hammar’s wife and co-owner Cassandra Lee. Hammar said there are no plans to close the cafe.

The location is also home to other businesses, including Our Family Soap, Yellow Dogs Pet Supplies and an eBay seller.

The businesses are all under one roof and the owners share the costs of utilities and rent. That’s made possible by the landlord, Greg Bernitt, who takes an innovative, community-minded approach to managing his three downtown buildings.

Bernitt said he has invested more than he anticipated in renovating some of the historic structures that define the downtown area. He is currently renovating second floor space above Blue Jacket Books that he envisions as artist studios.

“One thing we know for sure is that we can’t rely on someone else to do it. We have to do it ourselves, whether it’s through Gofundme pages or raising money through events such as First Fridays,” Bernitt said of efforts to revitalize Xenia’s downtown. “We need to do something to change the attitudes of derelict property owners or buy those properties away from them … We have to somehow get both the county and the city working toward common goals, which is related to not only bringing good business to downtown Xenia but to other communities as well.”

Bernitt said the reality is, people who are investing in the downtown area right now can’t rely on a tax base or grant funding to make the necessary changes.

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“We have to do it ourselves. We have to be willing to make the sacrifices that I think will then reap rewards, longer term,” he said. “The city is understaffed, underbudgeted in my mind. We have to step forward.”

Now is the time to go into business in downtown Xenia, according to Troy Beck, owner of Rusty N Chippy’s Vintage Boutique on South Detroit Street.

“We’ve been here almost five years. We moved from California and we’ve been watching Xenia slowly grow and revitalize. It’s just a really exciting time right now,” Beck said.

Bernitt and other stakeholders are involved in discussions and planning special events, such as First Fridays, an occassional event that offers family activities downtown while stores stay open longer and business owners work to draw in customers.

Bernitt is currently rehabilitating the former JC Penney’s building on East Main Street. The first floor offers two suites, and both will be occupied when the work is done. On the right will be the new headquarters for the Greene County Republican Party. On the left will be Anew Exchange, a furniture and home decor shop that is being relocated from its former location on South Detroit Street.

Bernitt and Anew Exchange owner Dwaine Evans recently sat down for an interview about the state of business affairs in downtown Xenia. The conversation took place in Parker’s General Store, a shop that calls to mind the small town five-and-dimes of the mid-20th century.

Evans said he nearly decided to close the business for good because of low sales, but he’s willing to give it one more try on East Main Street.

“Xenia really needs to put themselves out there as a city that is making strides and efforts to improving … I don’t think the communications of what’s going on in the city and the city itself is very clear because there are things going on that people never heard of,” Evans said. “I think there’s too many chips left on the table … where we’re not picking them up and sharing the wealth. Best kept secrets are not best kept when you only keep them for yourself.”

Some of Bernitt’s and Evans’ frustrations are shared by Mary Crockett, the city’s community development and downtown coordinator. Crockett points to some positives that are making a difference, such as the line of stores opening along East Main by Coffee Hub and Parker’s General Store.

“The city and the county do not own much of the downtown, and there are a number of different owners, all with different profit motives, different life cycles and different visions of their property for the future,” Crockett said. “There are often gaps between the costs of bringing these historic buildings up to today’s standards, and the amount of income that tenants … can bring to defray the costs and make appropriate returns to owners and businesses.”

As for the future of the Blue Jacket Books store space, Hammar said they are open to suggestions.

“We’ll think of creative ways to use space in the building, and we’re open to suggestions so long as they nurture creativity, surround the cafe with even more love and art, and keep their eyes on the prize of peace and social justice,” he said.

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