The resurgence of downtown Columbia City

May 29th, 2019

By Steve Franks | Input Fort Wayne

When Jennifer Zartman Romano was a little girl, she and her mother would visit downtown Columbia City on Saturdays.

Set around a picturesque Courthouse Square, downtown was thriving, full of people and shops. Romano and her mother would leisurely browse the stores and cap the day with a Coney at The Nook, making memories that would last a lifetime.

But in 2008, the economic downturn started to affect Columbia City’s downtown. 

Building owners gradually had less to invest in their properties, some businesses shut down, and vacancies dotted the downtown landscape.

By 2015, only four retail businesses remained (not counting services), and 12 buildings stood completely empty.

Then the trend started to reverse.

Today, Romano is Executive Director of the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, and Columbia City once again enjoys the active, scenic downtown of her childhood.

This is the story of how a small group of dedicated people brought downtown Columbia City back to life.

Relentless leaders

As president of the Whitley County Economic Development Corporation, Jon Myers recalls meeting with Sharon Geiger in 2015.

He remembers her frustration.

“I’m tired of everybody talking about (improving downtown), and nothing getting done,” Geiger said.

Myers’s response was, “Why don’t you just do it? I’ll have your back.”

And that’s exactly what she did.

Geiger recruited her friend Ann Fahl, and the two formed an informal, but close-knit, team that continues today. They recruited two more with a similar love for Columbia City and its downtown, entrepreneurs Billy Reffitt, Jr. and Tad Varga.

Together, the group of four branded itself as the Downtown Business Alliance and set off to revitalize downtown.

In fact, Reffitt had already started. He led by example, refurbishing a building directly across the street from the Courthouse Square and launching Yo2Go.

The frozen yogurt shop and its prominent location signaled his confidence in downtown.

Geiger and Fahl were relentless. 

They knocked on doors, visited with local building and business owners, and phoned out-of-state owners, convincing them to paint, clean, and refurbish facades.

They even found resources to help one owner, Don Langeloh, refurbish his empty building, and then they recruited a renter.

It grew virally, with a little help from the Alliance, of course.

Creating incentives

As Geiger puts it, “When one person did something, it evolved into another person doing something.”

In some cases, they literally hauled prospective business owners to empty buildings and made strong suggestions.

“That business you are thinking about?  You need to open it here! It’s perfect for you!” Geiger recalls.

In one case, the Alliance created a major financial incentive for business owners.  They sold banners, which hang at Highways 205 and 30, to fund a business competition, encouraging businesses to open downtown.

A boutique called Lane and Lavender won a full year of free rent and it’s now a popular downtown shop.

Besides businesses, the Alliance created new events and attractions downtown. First Friday’s, Art in the Alley, a September Block Party, Ladies Night Out, and Small Business Saturday all brought visitors to the area from around the city and the region.

In May of 2015, Columbia City demolished a crumbling building and made room for one of the Alliance’s proudest achievements, Thomas Marshall Plaza. 

The pocket park celebrates Columbia City resident Thomas Marshall, the 28th Vice President of the United States.

Local artist Jennifer Crampton was commissioned to restore a century-old mural on the side of the Central Building.

The mural includes a subtle nod to Vice President Marshall’s famous quip, “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.”

All this was a labor of love for the four members of the Alliance.

Projects requiring major funds, like the free rent contest and Thomas Marshal Plaza, were managed through an account at the Whitley County Community Foundation, Geiger says.

But, sometimes, little expenses came out of their own pockets. 

“Don’t tell our husbands,” Geiger and Fahl joke.

And the effect of their work has been electric.

Since 2015, Romano counts more than 20 new businesses or major expansions of existing businesses in downtown Columbia City—with even more on the drawing board.

But to her, and many others in the city, the evidence of downtown revitalization is more personal than that.

She smiles about a painting her six-year-old daughter made of downtown with people and colorful storefronts. 

And she’s happy that she gets to stroll the streets on Saturdays again, making new memories in familiar places.

Visit Columbia City

Spend a day in downtown Columbia City with this guided tour for the full experience.

Start at Running Around Screen Printing at the corner of Van Buren and Line. JoAnn Bird was an early mover to downtown when she created a permanent location for her then-mobile apparel-printing business.

Rest a minute in Thomas Marshall Plaza, then make a one-block detour down Chauncey Street to visit Vintage Antique Marketplace, another Downtown Business Alliance project. They refurbished the long-vacant Presbyterian Church to house three retailers and a café.

Walk back to Van Buren and visit the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. Say “Hi” to Romano.

Continue down Van Buren Street to Twisted Tailfins Aquatics. Chris David and Tammy Pelinski brought Twisted Tailfins to Columbia City from Niles, Michigan. Browse the wide variety of salt water and fresh water fish, live coral, and their star attraction—the shark. If he’s hiding in the tank, perhaps Chris will get him for you.

Walk a few doors down and pick up a gift at Lane and Lavender’s boutique.

Turn left at the corner and stop at the Urban Station for a gourmet lunch.

Cross Main Street, have a cup at Brew’ha Coffee House, and visit its expanded store and new retail areas.

Walk south past the location for chef Tony Flanagan’s soon-to-open Blue Moon Bakery. Stop at Rubies and Whimsy and help Kimberly Jones celebrate the second anniversary of converting her business from an Etsy shop to a first-class downtown boutique. Be sure to check out their specialty, personalized hand-stamped jewelry.

Stroll back to Van Buren through the Courthouse Square and sample the craft beers at Chapman’s Brewing Company. If you visit in the evening, be sure to enjoy dinner from acclaimed Big John’s Ragin’ Cajun Food Truck and Restaurant, serving inside Chapman’s.