Paul McKibben reports:
Some 200,000 people are expected to descend on downtown Lebanon Saturday for the Warren County seat’s biggest event of the year.
For merchants, the 24th Annual Lebanon Carriage Parade & Christmas Festival is more than a holiday tradition. It’s an important tool to attract customers to a city that prides itself on its small-town charm.
For visitors, the event offers a chance to escape to a walkable business district covering several blocks that is nearly void of chain stores. It’s a place where one can eat and stay at Ohio’s oldest hotel – the Golden Lamb, where Charles Dickens, Ronald Reagan and other luminaries have visited. The hotel and restaurant opened in 1803, the same year Ohio joined the Union.
Lebanon resident Mike McMurray, 67, who will ride with Santa Claus this year, said the parade is “everything” to the community. “There are people who don’t feel that the Christmas season actually starts until we have that Christmas festival and the two parades,” he said.
Business owner Jo Wise, who is executive director of Historic Downtown Lebanon Inc., said the parade is vital for downtown businesses. She said merchants live off of their holiday sales for months. At the Golden Lamb, it’s the busiest day of the year, according to assistant general manager De-De Bailey.
Interviews with more than two dozen business owners, officials, development experts and others indicate that downtown Lebanon is thriving despite a lingering national recession, high gas prices and consumers who are reluctant to spend. “We’re very blessed because there are many small towns that are ghost towns,” said Minnie LeForce, owner of Ambassador’s Antiques & Fine Linens, which she has owned nearly 20 years.
Among downtown Lebanon store owners, a strong camaraderie exists. Consider:
• Founded five years ago, HDLI has about 125 members, the majority of them business owners.
• Business owners have banded together to try to save the Lebanon Mason Monroe Railroad, which might close if it doesn’t get another contract with the city.
• In 2010, the total amount of commercial development investments in Lebanon increased by 58 percent from 2009.
Jason Millard, the city’s economic development director, said the downtown business occupancy rate is high with moderate turnover. Lebanon (pop. 20,000) is too small for the state to track its unemployment rate, but Warren County’s October rate of 5.5 percent was below the state rate of 6.3 percent.
Fred Seeger, of Realty Connections in Oakley, said there are fewer properties for sale and for lease in the historic downtown than two years ago.
Downtown Lebanon, where buildings have a feel of a bygone era before strip malls dotted the landscape, is also a place where entrepreneurs are taking chances. Kathy Crane and Patty Brady, both of Mason, expect to open the doors Saturday to their store, Olde 2 New Consignment Shop. They considered Mason, Milford and Cincinnati before deciding on Lebanon because of its size and attractive Main Street.
In addition to antique stores and other specialty shops, downtown Lebanon is a place to celebrate special occasions.
Beth Payne, 45, of Fairfield Township enjoyed a birthday lunch this month at the Golden Lamb. That same day, Caleb Watkins, 23, of Middletown and Erin Seminary, 20, of Springboro, shopped downtown on a date. “It’s an awesome little shopping community with lots of antique stores,” Watkins said, while eating at Village Ice Cream Parlor & Restaurant, which opened in 1969.
Despite its success, downtown Lebanon is not without its challenges.
Real estate agent Fred Compton, who worked at the Golden Lamb from 1966 to 2001, said there’s not as much foot traffic as there was 10 years ago. He remembers in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s seeing “constant streams of people,” but that’s not there anymore.
“Fortunately, storefronts are staying full. One business closes, somebody else opens up…. We don’t see the empty storefronts that a lot of small towns are seeing.”
Greg Downes, owner of Knickerbocker Gallery on Mulberry Street, said he’s seen a decline in foot traffic over the past five years. “I just don’t think there are enough things to attract (people) them here for people to drive out of like Centerville (and) Springboro down to here,” he said.
Other needs cited by those interviewed include more restaurants and later hours for businesses.
Still, people are upbeat about a downtown where two movies have been filmed and one can splurge on an old-fashioned ice cream soda.
Compton, who wrote a 2011 book about Lebanon’s history, said downtown businesses are still family-owned and locally owned. What you see in Lebanon today, he said, is the result of a lot of foresight and planning, noting that the city’s zoning laws in the 1950s ensured downtown’s traditional appearance.
“Lebanon has always strived to maintain that downtown atmosphere,” Compton said. “I think it’s probably the envy of small towns all over this region.”