About a year ago, when Jodi Devonshire was scouting for a place to start her business, it wasn’t difficult to find a spot for it in Frenchtown. She was struck by the number of vacancies, even a bit concerned. Nonetheless, she took the leap.
Now, months after opening the , she feels she got in just before the rush.
“Since that time in February when we started looking until we moved in in August, almost all of the places we looked at as potential spots have filled,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
Generally, folks seem to think Frenchtown is on the rise.
“This time of year is a tough time to start, but I think things will pick up soon,” said Robert Gallagher as he sat in his office watching the cars whiz by along North Second.
Like Devonshire, Gallagher is a recent arrival to the street, having opened Gallagher Motors, a used-car dealership, in late 2010 on a lot that had been vacant for about three years. He said the historic aspect of Frenchtown as well as a sense of neighborliness among the businesses helped attract him here.
“I just liked the area,” he said. “In the spring and summer with the Katy Trail, there’ll be a lot more traffic.”
The trail is a source of both hope and frustration for some business owners in the area. They love its potential, but many would like to see greater access to it.
The two entrances to the Katy Trail are at one end and the other end. You completely miss Frenchtown, said Tammy Lawing. “There’s nothing in between.”
Lawing, owner of , has mixed feelings. A resident of Frenchtown for more than three decades, she’s upbeat about the neighborhood but feels officials could do more to promote business along North Second. She said economic development plans drawn up in the early 2000s showed initial promise, but she felt that action on them stalled during the middle of the decade. Since then, most successful projects have been through private funding, she said.
Lawing would like to see Main Street extended northward to bring more traffic. She thinks that, given a good environment and the right mix of tenants, Frenchtown could reassert its traditional role as an historic area with art galleries, antique shops and street side cafés.
“I would say I’m optimistic about the future of Frenchtown, so long as the government pays attention to us and helps us out occasionally,” she said. “They’ve put a lot of money into Main Street, but they’ve not done the same for this historic district.”
She said the area sometimes feels like “the red-headed stepchild of St. Charles.”
Bo Wiechens, owner of Dip ‘n Strip, a furniture stripping business, uses similar terminology.
“We don’t get the recognition that Main Street does,” she said. It's sad. We don’t get a lot of the advertising. We sometimes feel like stepchildren down here, she said.
Still, Wiechens, who grew up in the area and has owned a business here for 36 years, felt good about its future.
She said she’s seen Frenchtown go through various cycles of strength and weakness over time and thinks it’s getting stronger again. She cites the many new businesses along the street, including Devonshire’s. She also mentioned last fall’s opening of the Steel Shop Tennis Club in an expansive warehouse near the Katy Trail.
“Look at the investment they made there. That’s not cheap,” she said. “They took a big gamble on it, and they are doing well.”
She said she thinks Frenchtown will be more prosperous in a decade than it is now, helped by low rents that encourage development.
“It’s just getting better and better,” she said. “People come and go, but most of the owners that have businesses down here own their buildings. That makes a big difference.”
Carol Hoffman, who with her husband, John, owns and , said the climate was flourishing in 1989 when they started up. After that, she felt things declined, but she’s seen improvement over the past several years. She feels the key to the area’s success is a matter of getting more enterprises running along Second Street.
“Business is good. All business is good,” she said. “I don’t think any business is bad. The more you have, the better off you will be in your community.”
Hoffman said that she understood the necessity of following rules but believed that excessive regulation sometimes hampered economic development.
“As long as businesses move in and people open, I think things will be fine down here,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing is getting businesses to open their doors and be able to run their business effectively without a bunch of rules and regulations and hoops they have to jump through.”
Lawing expressed a similar feeling. She’s in the process of moving her shop to a different location in Frenchtown just three blocks away but said bureaucracy had set the project back by nine weeks, costing her money.
“Those of us trying to expand our businesses really want to stay in this area,” she said. “It’d be nice if we got a little bit more cooperation from the city, a little more sense of urgency.”
The city’s Economic Development Department could not be reached for comment as of press time.
Businesses do open, however, and next door to Lawrence Florist is just one example. Lori Dorsey of just hung out her shingle in September, after spending years as a regular shopper on the street. Standing behind the counter in a small shop replete with sweet smells, Dorsey said that business was slow, but she expects things to pick up as temperatures rise in the spring. She feels the new roundabout at the end of Second Street as well as the new lampposts, flowerpots and park benches that went in a few years ago have improved the area.
The end of roadwork along the street has also helped bring a return of traffic.
“This road was under construction for over a year, and I believe it really hurt a lot of the businesses,” Dorsey said. “A few of them didn’t survive.”
Lawing called Dorsey’s store a great example of positive change along Second Street.
“She’s bringing the community together, offering a product and service that everybody wants,” she said.
Devonshire, a native of Oregon, said she was inspired to open her café, which will also be a full-service bike shop and rental facility, by seeing similar operations succeed on the West Coast. Given the nature of her business, she’s hoping for better access to the Katy Trail, something she believes would boost the area’s fortunes.
She also feels the same sense that Main Street sees more attention. She’d like to see that change but also believes that Frenchtown has a different role to play, envisioning it as a bohemian community catering to local residents rather than one focused primarily on attracting outside tourism.
“I don’t think the community here wants to be Main Street,” she said. “They want to be a walkable city where they can ride a bike to the coffee shop or the bookstore or the produce stand and don’t have to fight with parking.”
In the meantime, she seems hopeful. She said her daughter even plans to open a bookstore on Second Street soon. As for herself, Devonshire has no regrets about coming here.
“We knew we wanted to be here,” she said. “We love Frenchtown.”