BELLEVILLE • Traffic flows under the new canopy of trendy lights spread over East Main Street, where bars and restaurants open to broad, patio-like sidewalks.
The activity adds vitality to a downtown that for decades relied on law firms and other businesses tied to banks and St. Clair County government offices that ring Public Square.
Recently, owners of some downtown storefronts have converted upper floors to apartments and even overnight lodging favored by international visitors to the St. Louis area. In addition, about seven new shops, two bars and four restaurants have opened in the last two years, said Darrell Coons, director of the Belleville Main Street Association.
“Gradually, everything down here is getting better,” he said.
Downtown Belleville property owners said their area blends aspects of Main Street in St. Charles, Cherokee Street in St. Louis and the Delmar Loop. The $50,000 canopy of small lights that crisscross over a section of East Main mimics those over part of Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis.
Business people said downtown Belleville began perking up after completion in 2008 of a $7 million streetscape project to widen sidewalks, install new lights and plant trees. Officials plan to extend the 10 blocks of street improvements. The growing number of annual festivals on Public Square also brings people downtown, officials added.
Small shops dot downtown. Among them is Pairabelles, an antiques store where the owner, artist Mary Hummert, teaches painting. She said West Main’s wide sidewalks have room for tables and chairs that customers like. Downtown’s “indie” stores have a wide array of goods, Hummert said.
“We’re not cookie-cutter stores,” she said. “We’re all a little different.”
Kurt Artinger, who moved his business from Swansea to downtown three months ago, said the improved streetscape makes the area more inviting. Artinger, who grew up six blocks from his business on North First Street, said downtown is coming back after Sears and other big stores closed in the 1970s as customers abandoned city centers nationwide to jam new malls in the suburbs.
His company, Replacement Services, has room to grow in the renovated, 46,000-square-foot Belleville Turners building erected in 1923. Replacement Services, which helps insurers determine claim adjustments for jewelry and other valuables, occupies 13,000 square feet.
“It’s cool space,” said Artinger, adding that two of his 43 employees already have moved to downtown.
He plans to redo more of the two-story building as co-working space for new firms and an “accelerator” for startups. Artinger’s hope is to house 50 small firms within five years. The renovation resulted from public-private cooperation. Artinger’s company paid the city $1 for the building, which the YMCA used from 1960 to 2005, and got about $200,000 in public financing to aid the $1 million project.
Other buildings remain vacant. At the edge of downtown is St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, whose leaders announced in June plans for a replacement hospital in O’Fallon, Ill. They said outpatient services would remain in Belleville. Coons said city officials hope as many medical services as possible remain in Belleville.
Artinger said apartment development is likely the next phase in downtown Belleville redevelopment.
Among the owners of newer apartments is Geri Boyer, president of Kaskaskia Engineering Group. The company’s office occupies the ground floor of a building on East Main while eight apartments fill the two upper floors.
Boyer and her husband live in one unit and rent out another for overnight lodging. She said customers of the overnight rental include European tourists accustomed to traveling by rail. As an alternative to staying in St. Louis, Europeans rent Boyer’s place and walk about 10 blocks to the Belleville MetroLink station to get to the Gateway Arch and elsewhere, she said.
Boyer, who also is president of the Belleville Main Street Association, said she knows downtown’s population is growing because she sees more lights in upstairs windows while walking her dogs each evening.
Her building’s previous owner was a developer who had gone bankrupt. Five years later, the building is fully occupied “and paying all its costs,” Boyer said. Kaskaskia’s 40 employees “love being here,” she added. As a downtown resident, Boyer said the peppier streetlife presented an adjustment period.
“My husband had said that at least it’s going to be quiet downtown,” she said. “That’s certainly not the case anymore.”