EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of articles on economic development and growth in Madison County.
Madison County’s city of London has its own historic flair. The buildings in its downtown hold carved into them names of men who essentially built the community. Most local residents will name places — not by address — but what local business has traded spaces with a location or is now long gone. But London is always looking to the future and beyond this historic space.
For years the city has fostered varied development and fairly consistent growth.
As with its neighbor West Jefferson, London has several large facilities for manufacturing, logistics and distribution, the vast majority of which run down High Street. It’s quite a list.
Out of the domestic companies, office supplies giant Staples owns a distribution center, while Wooster’s D+S Distribution runs a similar-styled warehousing facility.
Hilliard-based Advanced Drainage Systems operates a manufacturing facility as does Armaly, which makes Brillo soap pads.
Logistics Company, BST Trucking, is headquartered in London and GRA-MAG, a company that makes comfortable truck seats, also calls the city home.
A number of foreign companies have also set up shop in London. Bodycote, a UK-based metal treatment company runs a plant here, as does Japan’s Nissen Chemitec and Stanley Electric.
London Mayor Pat Closser has on many occasions celebrated the jobs and development they’ve brought to the city.
“They really have been focused on hiring and utilizing their facilities to the highest potential,” said Closser. “That has been the best for the city and we are really blessed to have these partners.”
The two Japanese companies in particular have fostered strong ties with the city government.
Last October, Closser, County Chamber and County CIC Director David Kell and Nissen’s President Shawn Hendrix all traveled to Japan as part of development groups Columbus 20/20 and the Mid-Ohio Development Exchange (MODE), which the CIC closely works with.
Most of the meetings were less business-oriented and more about getting to know their counterparts abroad, and building stronger ties between the companies and the city.
Kell also said it’s early but that parts of the industrial park could be expanding soon. Talks have just started, so he couldn’t discuss at length what the future holds.
“I’m fairly confident we’ll see something going forward in London,” he said. “There’s things going on in every community, that are in the early stages.”
But never forget home
This outreach doesn’t mean London is neglecting it’s local businesses: it has expanded retail offerings considerably.
In 2017 so far, Layla’s Ice Cream opened downtown and the restaurant Gizzy’s Corner took over the site of the former Gee’s China Lantern restaurant. Mobile carrier Cricket Wireless opened up a spot next to the Kroger on Lafayette Street.
Just this week on Monday, Red Hot Propane, a business that provides natural gas services to both commercial and residential customers opened up shop, as well.
“The secret is finding a niche,” he said. “I think Red Hot found one for sure.”
But the historic downtown is not as bustling as it once was.
Many store fronts are empty and stores sometimes leave as quickly as they come in. The farther south along Main Street you go, the more evident it is. In 2016, there was the closure of homegoods store Picadillies, after the owner retired and antique store R&R Furnishings. Nearby, the aforementioned Chinese eatery, Gee’s China Lantern, closed as well, due to equipment failure and slow business. In 2017, Howling Wolf Games and Firefly Sweetshop closed.
Closser said the causes were twofold.
“The rise of online retail is a factor everywhere, but it’s especially apparent in smaller towns like London,” said the mayor. “Our local shops here need people to go in, spend money and make them a success. There’s potential downtown.
“You have things that are a draw like the State Theater,” said Kell. “I think what we need to do is get some consistent momentum.”
It’s something the businesses downtown are trying to overcome. Closser and Kell said that several area business owners met together to discuss rebuilding the downtown.
“Our goal is to push for a grant to help spruce up the facades of the buildings,” said Closser. “This would be especially helpful to some of our new owners, who are eager to build up and invite new businesses.”
The building on 64-68 S. Main St. has new owners as do several buildings on South Main, which Closser said are being remodeled and want new tenants. They’re speaking with the city and other entrepreneurs, as well.
A new dining spot for the after-work crowd, Shan’s Bar and Grill is almost done remodeling it’s space on 18 E. High St.
“Business owners see potential, that’s why they’ve invested and why they want to be down there,” said Kell. “They don’t want to see it all fail.”
In addition to the city, the Downtown London Association is also working hard to help push local businesses to take stewardship for its historic space.
The Friends of the Madison County Parks and Trails have a goal of getting the Ohio to Erie bike trail to pass through the downtown, which all parties hope bring people to the city. Closser said they’re taking lessons from places like Loveland near Cincinnati, which have boomed due to the bike trails.
Part of those efforts include a recent purchase to extend the trail by the commissioners and the Friends, for a five-acre plot near the intersection of Maple and Center streets. The goal is to fill part of more than a mile-long gap that keeps cyclists away.
The Friends said previously that they need $78,000 to finish the bike trail extension and even with significant progress are currently raising funds online at fmcpt.com or mailed to FMCPT — Trail Gap, P.O. Box 308, London, OH 43140.
Their goal is to have a groundbreaking Sept. 7 for the building of the new trail extension.
Overall, Kell said the goal is to get all of the parties that have a stake together to help rebuild the space to its highest economic potential.
“I know there’s people who want to invest in their community,” he said. “Once we get momentum, I think we’ll see more opportunities come our way.”
More people more business
One of Closser’s goals is to bring more housing to London. He noted one report said out of all the rentable units in the city, at one point only five were open.
It’s a common request of the local businesses too, large and small. More housing means more customers and workers. It was one of the big things the companies in Japan talked about when Kell and Closser visited.
At a recent council meeting, Closser told city council Miranda homes was finalizing another building project next to its current development behind Eagleton Center and Walmart on Lafayette.
Closser mentioned a developer and a major landowner have been in contact over building apartments in the city, as well.
“From what I’ve heard they’ve been going well,” he said. “Our goal is to offer something for everyone here. I’d like to see condos, too.”
While problems are noted, Closser said it was the job of the community as a whole to overcome them, which he feels they have a strong plan for.
“It’s an exciting time to live in London,” he said. “I think we’re headed in the right direction. I can feel that momentum growing.”
Tomorrow in part 3: Will West Jefferson become the second city?
Maximilian Kwiatkowski can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617, or on Twitter @msfkwiat.