Diggin' the downtown: Central business area continues to attract niche businesses
BEMIDJI -- When it came time to find a storefront for their growing business, sisters Jenny Hendricks and Sandy Rasmus knew where they wanted to be.
"We kind of looked around (town) but we wanted to be downtown," Hendricks said. "We love being down there ... the whole downtown community is really great."
Their shop, Dixie's Weekend Boutique, opened in June at 309 Third St. NW, offering refinished furniture, home decor, children's gift items, and more, including Country Chic paint, a chalk- and mineral-based paint line.
Their arrival is indicative of the growing interest in downtown. By the Pioneer's count, there at least 12 businesses that have set up shop downtown, or are in the process of doing so, within the last last year or two.
Among them are the North Country Skate Shop and Paul's Print Shop, located side-by-side along the 400 block of Fourth Street NW.
Nate Sheggeby, manager for the skate shop, said the business is a reinvention of No Comply, which sold products and apparel for skateboarding, snowboarding and wakeboarding at 1500 Bemidji Ave. N, several blocks from downtown. No Comply closed this spring after nearly six years in operation.
The new North Country Skate Shop is dedicated solely to skateboarding, selling high-performance, top-of-the-line gear and apparel, he said.
"We want to support the scene and help build the scene," Sheggeby said, noting that the skate parks in both Bemidji and Red Lake are contributing to the sport's growth locally.
Directly next door is Paul's Print Shop, a screen-printing business that was actually open last year as Paul's Boutique where the skate shop is now but moved further west to a larger space.
The shop sells T-shirts, apparel and stickers with a northern Minnesota theme, often playing off Bemidji icons Paul and Babe and incorporating regional mainstays such as Paul Bunyan plaid.
Owner Jake Slimp will find inspiration in other logos, creating for example a T-shirt based on the the Chicago Bulls logo but instead using Babe as the focal point.
His humor often comes through, as evidenced through a T-shirt advertising the nonexistent Bemidji Yacht Club. Or, after hearing of the numerous thefts of Stoner Avenue signs within the city limits, he created a T-shirt displaying the sign's image.
Another new business downtown is Grow Inside, located at 108 Fourth St. NW. While the focus is on hydroponics -- materials and products that facilitate year-round indoor growing of plants -- it is actually three businesses in one, also with a rock and jewelry shop and a cyberspace cafe.
Owner Mike Allen got started with hydroponics at the Rail River Folk School but chose to move downtown a couple of months ago to relocate to an area with different opportunities.
"Anyone can learn it," he said of hydroponics and offering a tour of his shop, which demonstrates how one could use shelving to relocate an entire 24-foot-wide outdoor garden into a 4-foot-wide by 8-foot-wide grow tent.
"Something like this could feed a family of four for one year," Allen said.
Dr. Mike Headlee, president of the Bemidji Downtown Alliance, operated his Explore Chiropractic at the corner of Third Street and Minnesota Avenue for three years before he decided to relocate further north to the Bridgeman Center this past December.
The reasons for relocating were not because he did not like downtown, he said, but at his new location he had the opportunity to expand, to add more services and more amenities for patients.
"It is healthy, it's thriving," he said of the downtown. "I liked having neighbors close by and being able to walk half a block to lunch."
In his time downtown, Headlee said the downtown displayed numerous improvements, from new businesses such as Yellow Umbrella to new investments into façade remodels.
Sure, he acknowledged that there could always be new businesses, more businesses. But the Downtown Alliance will soon have a better handle on occupancy rates. While the Pioneer counted about 14 empty or soon-to-be empty locations, interns with the Northwest Minnesota Foundation this summer are creating a spreadsheet to tally the empty storefronts and buildings in downtown. Headlee said the BDA expects to see that report in about a month.
Another survey being conducted on downtown involves the availability of parking near and around downtown businesses.
"Those surveys will be really interesting, to get some objective data to see just how thriving (downtown) is," Headlee said.
One of the places that is set to become vacant later this summer is the 8,000- to 9,000-square-foot property that for the last 43 years has housed Lloyd's Furniture at 104 Third St. NW. Owner Lloyd Lind is retiring after 59 years in business.
Mark Dickinson, the real-estate agent for the property, said work will be done later this summer to enhance the storefront. Crews will leave the footprint "flexible" so the property could remain its current size or be split into smaller segments.
Dickinson said he has fielded interest in the property, both for smaller sites and for the entire square footage.
Downtown development has been hard to miss this summer. Right at one of the busiest intersections in the city, Kraus-Anderson Construction crews have been working to transform the former Burger King into a beach house-inspired restaurant.
The upcoming Hurricane Grill & Wings will open in mid-August.
"We liked that particular site because it has the highest traffic count in the area," said Tripp Snyder, CEO of Bay Ridge Properties International, which is developing the local Hurricane Grill & Wings as it plans to open 30 such restaurants throughout the next five years.
Along with the high-visibility, Snyder said the location is right across from Lake Bemidji and also close to BSU.
"All of those (factors) made the site very attractive," he said.
Construction on the restaurant, he said last week, is running about two weeks behind schedule because of weather delays, but the exterior work is nearly done and crews now are finishing the interior. Once complete, it will accommodate up to 170 people between indoor seating areas and the outdoor patio, planned to face the lake.
Headlee, the president of the Downtown Alliance, said the BDA is always looking at ways to use to funds to highlight and promote the downtown, from hosting special events such as Crazy Daze to keeping up the flower beds and gardens at each intersection. Currently, it's looking into ways to create some type of archway for Third Street, in tandem with the redesign of the Paul Bunyan Park.
"We're always planning and working on improvements to make it more attractive for people to come downtown," Headlee said.
For the sisters who operate Dixie's Weekend Boutique, they've had little problem attracting customers, despite having limited hours. Hendricks is a stay-at-home mom with a 3-month-old and a year-and-a-half-year-old. Rasmus, with her own children aged 7 and 5, operates a daycare. They've mainly been open on weekends but thanks to a rather robust Facebook page, the duo has been able to stay in contact with their customer base to announce in advance when they plan to be open.
Still, they've also attracted a fair amount of customers who just happened to be walking by while they were open.
"It definitely has benefitted us to be downtown," Hendricks said.