When Joe Bridges lost his job as a heavy equipment mechanic as the economy bottomed out two years ago, he and his wife decided to pin their dreams on downtown York.
Bridges, 42, and wife Kathy bought a Congress Street storefront space that had previously been home to an ice cream shop. They created a menu based on their favorites and opened a lunch spot, L'Cee's. They threw themselves into making downtown York a more attractive place.
Last fall, Bridges became president of the revived York Downtown Business Association, a small but enthusiastic group of business owners determined to improve the business climate in York's historic downtown.
Amid a still-struggling economy that has posed daunting challenges for many small, independently owned businesses, the group is engaging in plans to spruce up downtown, start a new spring festival and a scholarship pageant and launch other events to promote downtown, and raise money.
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"Tourism is not bad, but we want local tourism," said Bridges, referring to the association's direction. "We want the people who used to shop and eat downtown to come back downtown."
On the heels of a successful downtown Fall Fest last October - an event started half a dozen years ago - the group last month announced it would sponsor a new downtown event, Spring Fling, on April 16.
As a community service and downtown promotion, the group also plans a beauty and scholarship pageant at the Sylvia Theater.
The event is being organized as part of the Miss South Carolina and Miss America pageant system.
"We've all got a vested interest in downtown and in reviving the shopping experience," said Signa Curry, a York Downtown Business Association board member who also manages event planning for the Sylvia Theater.
York's downtown area is inhabited by a smattering of local retail shops, professional services and eateries -- some of which have been in business for a decade or more, others more recent arrivals.
Many of the businesses have found ways to be successful despite the dour economy. But the economic downturn has nevertheless taken a toll on downtown commerce. Business owners' concerns include too many empty storefronts that are eyesores and a need to make downtown more visually appealing.
'Look, learn and listen'
Bridges, who grew up in the Charlotte area, said he had always been interested in the restaurant business, but he had always had a job. When he lost his job in March 2009, he figured the chance of work in his area was slim to none because the construction business had dried up.
He and Kathy decided to go out on their own. He had done some cooking for church benefits, and had some small business experience. Still, neither of them had any restaurant experience, "so it's been a look, learn and listen," he said.
Business has been up and down over the last two years, Bridges said. In addition to the restaurant, Bridges does some catering. He hopes to expand the business when the economy picks up.
Last fall, Bridges volunteered to be president of the downtown group, which has since launched a series of ambitious efforts to focus more attention on the downtown area.
"He's taking the downtown business association in a wonderful new direction," said Curry. "He has a focus, and he is getting things done." Among the members, "there's a definite conviction," she said. "Those that have been in business 10 to 20 years want to stay in business, and those that are new want to succeed."
She said 64 businesses are located in the downtown area, and about 20 are active in the downtown group. The group is also open to downtown churches, people who live downtown, or those who are just interested.
The group plans to revive a beautification effort, encouraging business owners, churches and residents to plant flowers and pitch in to help keep downtown clean.
Penny Moss-Gourley, owner of Penee, a downtown aesthetics and makeup studio and organic juice bar, said the downtown group seems to accomplishing more than it did a few years ago, when she was involved.
'Always something new'
Moss-Gourley, a York native, said she has watched a lot of businesses open and close in her 10 years downtown, "but there's always somebody who comes back in. There's always something new."
One challenge the downtown group continues to face is a lack of resources to make things happen, she said.
"We have all these great ideas, but no money to implement them," she said.
The group is making plans to raise money to support its ideas - something Moss-Gourley said didn't happen in the past. The group's fundraising ideas include reviving a ladies night in March at the Sylvia Theater, and the Spring Fest, which could generate money from vendors and from events.
Still, some business owners are skeptical. Jordan Garrett, owner of two pet-related stores, Dogma & Fetch and a new venture, Mutt & Co., has been frustrated by a lack of progress.
"I think everybody has good intentions," Garrett said. "But if people don't work together, nothing can get accomplished ... I've been here nine years, and right now there's probably more empty buildings than when we moved here."
One of the problems he sees is a lack of knowledge in making needed improvements with grant money or other resources.
Bridges said the group has sought advice from outside experts. He said he doesn't expect rapid change downtown, but he's encouraged by the recent enthusiasm.
"It used to be, nobody wanted to be involved," Bridges said. "Now I've got some people who want to be involved, who want to do different things."
He said the downtown group is trying to encourage other businesses to locate downtown by talking to people who might be candidates. Curry said businesses might need to adjust their hours, with later weeknight or Saturday hours to serve people who commute elsewhere to work.
Ronnie Bailes, owner of the Men's Shop in York, has been downtown for 38 years, longer than anyone else. Though Bailes sees advertising downtown as the focus of a business association, he said events can help.
"We're suffering like everyone else with this economy," Bailes said. "We've got a few more empty buildings than we did have."
But there are positive signs, too, Bailes said. For example, he said many of the buildings once owned by people who didn't live in York have been purchased by local owners who have invested in improvements.
"We're still better off than a lot of small downtowns. We have activity, and we have some productive businesses that bring people downtown," Bailes said. "I think we as a downtown are very good at helping each other."