A downtown revitalization is stirring in Sterling

The Colorado community has seen a net gain in downtown businesses

As in many small towns, when folks in Sterling watch a live performance, they are likely sitting in the high school auditorium or maybe the mixed-use event center/gymnasium at the regional college. While Sterling locals attend comedy nights at restaurants or concerts at the First Presbyterian Church, downtown revitalization supporters are dreaming of a community performing arts center to anchor the awakening city center.

Logan County Economic Development Corp.’s Trae Miller, the group’s executive director for the past year, is working toward a new cultural and artistic venue as part of a revitalization of downtown Sterling, where some buildings have remained empty for decades. Miller optimistically foresees a transformed 1906 Woolworth Building – the 13,000-square-foot facility that has sat vacant for 30 years ­– becoming a new downtown cultural center by spring 2018.

“The concept is constantly evolving, but it will continue around the idea of benefiting the entire community and bringing traffic downtown,” Miller says.

When Miller started with the LCEDC in February 2015, he was adamant that bringing in new businesses to downtown Sterling would be difficult so long as the Woolworth Building sat vacant with windows boarded over with plywood.

“How are we going to revitalize downtown when a building in this condition is sitting in the heart of our downtown?” he asked of the empty structure a half-block from the stately, domed Logan County Courthouse. The 1910 Renaissance Revival courthouse went through its own $5 million renovation in multiple phases from 2000 to summer 2013.

In comparison, the Woolworth Building was “unsightly,” with a “waterfall” of a roof leak, according to Miller. Economic development leaders decided no private entity would ever buy, nor renovate it. At first, organizers thought the 110-year-old building might need to be razed, but an informal evaluation by city building officials determined it was still structurally sound. Still, transforming it would be a lengthy and expensive undertaking.

“One of the things we kept coming back to was, ‘Who else is going to take this on?’” says Miller, whose office is located in the building next door. Leaders decided that utilizing a nonprofit status would create the best odds of getting the property back in use again.

Business owners Alan and Cindy Hoal, Sterling natives and renovators of multiple buildings throughout downtown, bought the Woolworth Building in May 2015. The couple remembers their respective grandparents taking them as young kids to the snack counter at Woolworth for a milkshake or piece of pie. As teens they bought 45-rpm records at the store.

“We thought it would make such a huge difference in the future of downtown,” Alan Hoal recalls. “The community has been good to us for all these years, and we wanted to give back.”

After initial site cleanup and improvements to stop deterioration of the building with help from the Sterling Urban Renewal Authority, the Hoals donated the property to the nonprofit LCEDC in December. Locals joined in to build a temporary, wooden construction façade where a resident artist painted a mural.

The Hoals’ latest rehab purchase is the 1921 Simkins Grocery, a small structure on Main Street across from the courthouse that sat closed since the early 1990s.

Revitalizing downtown Sterling is a collaborative process including work by the Logan County Historical Society toward the 2013 designation of an eight-square-block Downtown Sterling Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Shannon Haltiwanger at History Colorado. In the district, building owners could be eligible for state and federal tax credits and grants from History Colorado’s State Historical Fund.

Sterling is overseeing a downtown beautification project on a 700-foot stretch of run-down railroad property, says Kim Sellers, executive director of the chamber with offices in a 1903 renovated Union Pacific train depot. The streetscape project will include five new bronze statues as well as curb, gutter and landscaping improvements. Sellers sees these collaborative efforts improving the energy level and sense of community downtown as well as the willingness of investors to take a second look. Although businesses come and go in many Colorado downtowns, Sterling saw a net gain within the last year including two beauty shops, a photography studio, yoga studio, tattoo shop and bike shop, Sellers adds.

Another longtime Sterling couple, Mike and Denise Schaefer, college sweethearts from their days at Northeastern Junior College, were inspired to renovate another downtown building across from the courthouse into a new community hot spot. The Schaefers, owners of a successful auto body shop in town, are renovating a 4,400-square-foot building erected in 1951 and opening a Sam & Louie’s pizza and pasta franchise in the space.

“I’ve always loved that building,” says Denise Schaefer, who originally was only going to be the building’s landlord. “As it happened, the place was so big, it didn’t make sense to rent it out.”

The couple attended a tasting hosted by the economic development group and were sold on the food and philosophy of Sam & Louie’s. They plan to open the 175-seat restaurant this May with a staff of 30. Although the unemployment rate in Logan County is low at 2.7 percent, the restaurant owners are receiving resumes for new staff without advertising.

 “We would like to see the community grow, and we wanted to be a part of the whole process,” Denise Schaefer says. “Bringing people to old town is going to be very beneficial to the businesses around us.” cb

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