Parents and children walking outside Bellefontaine’s Logan County Courthouse (photo by Matt Shiffler)
Ohio Life | Best Hometowns

Best Hometowns 2022: Bellefontaine

This city located 60 miles northwest of Columbus is experiencing a downtown revival that is shining a light on historic properties while reinventing them for a new generation.

Ben Stahler’s father worked the soda fountain at Powell’s Pharmacy along South Main Street during the late 1930s and early ’40s. It was where he took an interest in becoming a pharmacist, going on to study at Ohio Northern University and returning home after his military service in the Navy to become a partner at the business where he worked as a teen.

Stahler, a jovial guy who spent a career as a pharmacist himself before becoming mayor of Bellefontaine in 2014, points out the building that housed Powell’s Pharmacy while offering a walking tour of downtown.

It was in this building during the 1880s that inventor George Bartholomew had a laboratory in the back of what was then called Butler Drug Store. There, he perfected his idea of mixing clay, sand and marl as a way to pave city streets. He started with an 8-foot -strip where horses were hitched. When that proved durable, local officials paved the block around the courthouse using Bartholomew’s process, creating the nation’s first concrete road. More than 50 percent of downtown’s Court Avenue remains original to this day. 

“As you’re walking right down the center, that is the concrete that they poured by hand and took brooms and pounded down in 1893,” Stahler says.
      Bellefontaine’s Holland Theatre interior (photo by Matt Shiffler)

The Holland Theatre was built downtown in 1931 and is the only Dutch-style atmospheric theater in the United States. (photo by Matt Shiffler)

A statue of Bartholomew and an arch bearing the words “Oldest Concrete Street in America” pay tribute to the innovation born in Bellefontaine. It is just one of the ways that history is celebrated here. Most of the buildings throughout downtown are the same ones that were standing a century ago, and the Logan County Courthouse towers over the intersection of Main Street and Columbus Avenue as it has since 1870.

Founded in 1820, Bellefontaine grew as it became a transportation hub. Two railroad lines passed through town, and trains stopped at the local roundhouse during their journeys. The Logan County History Center in Bellefontaine helps tell the story of the city’s rise, from horse-drawn -carriages to a town that now plays a role in making automobiles.

Located 60 miles northwest of Columbus, the city of more than 14,000 residents has solid public schools, and the region is home to a large base of manufacturing jobs. (Honda East Liberty and Honda Transmission Manufacturing are both located in Logan County.) The city’s Mary Rutan Hospital employs 750 people as well.

The area’s natural features draw travelers year-round. Indian Lake and Ohio Caverns are both within 20 miles of Bellefontaine, and Mad River Mountain in nearby Zanesfield is a popular skiing area.
      Interior shelves of games and toys at The Fun Company and a smiling barista at Native Coffee Co. (photos by Matt Shiffler)

Interior shelves of games and toys at The Fun Company and a smiling barista at Native Coffee Co. (photos by Matt Shiffler)

The biggest news about Bellefontaine these days, though, is the rebirth of its once-ailing downtown, where 80 percent of first-floor spaces sat unoccupied a little more than a decade ago. The challenge faced then is starkly illustrated by a series of before-and-after photographs displayed at the offices of Small Nation, a Bellefontaine company Jason Duff founded in 2011 to help spur downtown’s revitalization. Small Nation works with local officials to bring historic buildings back from decline and fill them with businesses. 

“About 15 years ago, like a lot of Ohio towns, we lost our department stores. Pharmacies got purchased up by the big boxes,” Duff says of Bellefontaine. “A group of us who grew up in tiny little towns … all descended here — working with the mayor and other leaders — and we started purchasing historic buildings.” 

Like a lot of good ideas, it all started with pizza. Small Nation’s first purchase was two storefronts along South Main Street, with the idea that a restaurant would be the best use for the space. It became the home of Six Hundred Downtown, where owner and five-time World Pizza Champion Brittany Saxton serves up creatively constructed, handcrafted pies in a variety of styles that are baked in a brick oven at — you guessed it — 600 degrees.

Brewfontaine, which curates 16 taps of great craft beer and serves tasty gastropub fare, opened soon after in a space once occupied by a beloved local diner. Owners Adam Rammel, Jeremy Fitzpatrick and Brian Wall also operate a restaurant next door called The Syndicate — a dinner, brunch and happy hour spot.
      Wayfinding signs in downtown Bellefontaine and Logan County History Center’s Transportation Museum's plane and horse and buggy (photos by Matt Shiffler)

Wayfinding signs in downtown Bellefontaine and Logan County History Center’s Transportation Museum's plane and horse and buggy (photos by Matt Shiffler)

Downtown now has seven restaurants, from the Japanese sushi and steakhouse Kiyomi to the authentic Mexican restaurant Flying Pepper Cantina. The food was the fuel that brought people back to the city center. Retail and service businesses followed.

The Fun Company sells interesting and educational toys and supplies, while Four Acre Clothing Co. stocks trendy T-shirt designs. Around the corner, Old Mint Antiques offers four levels of vintage items to explore. There are boutiques and salons, a yoga studio and a 24-hour gym, coffee shops and a coworking space. (Some of the businesses started in Small Nation’s retail incubator on South Main Street, which helps entrepreneurs launch their idea.)

“There’s a cool energy,” says Mayor Stahler. “More than half of the business owners in our downtown are under 40 … these are young entrepreneurs taking a chance.”

Small Nation’s success has transformed downtown, changing not only how visitors view Bellefontaine, but also what residents think of the place they call home. A spacious, two-bedroom Airbnb known as The Loft Above sits over Native Coffee Co. on Columbus Avenue, and nearly three dozen apartments have already been created downtown.

Two new projects underway promise to add to the city’s vibrancy. One is Rainbow Row Bellefontaine. The soon-to-be-renewed and colorful quintet of historic buildings along Chillicothe Avenue sat in ruin until Small Nation took the project on to help create five storefronts with seven Airbnbs above them.

The other project is Bellefontaine’s Historic Opera Block property. The three-floored building runs along a block of Court Avenue before turning the corner and heading down South Main Street. Its charm was unmistakable even through years of decay. 

Between mid-summer and early fall, facade and interior work began to transform the landmark that welcomed a range of vaudeville performers, composer John Philip Sousa and magician Harry Houdini more than a century ago. It is being remade into 13 first-floor storefronts with office-suite rentals on the second and third levels.   

For Duff, the work Small Nation does is not only about reviving historic properties, but also renewing the web of small businesses that add to the fabric of community life.

“It’s the experiences we were gifted and had growing up. It was the business owners that provided the support and donations to fund the local sports teams. It was the chance to have high school and college jobs,” he says. “Now more than ever, we value the towns and communities that have great quality of life and experiences.”

More Best Hometowns 2022: Athens | Bellefontaine | Kent | Perrysburg | Versailles