COLUMBIA CITY — Frozen yogurt, a quality steak, boutique clothing, locally-brewed beer — five years ago, none of those things could be purchased in downtown Columbia City. This has changed.
Revitalization began in 2012, when Gary and Heather Parrett opened Downtown on the Square, a more upscale restaurant. But downtown truly caught fire when entrepreneur Billy Reffitt set his sights on the area.
Reffitt opened yo2go at the corner of Chauncey and Van Buren streets in 2015. Since then, a lot more activity has sprouted downtown.
After owning all or part of 20 companies beginning at age 23, Reffitt looked back to his hometown to see where, and how, he could help.
“After selling my largest company, Mobile King, at the end of 2014, I decided to focus my effort on being a better servant leader for our community,” Reffitt said. “All of our family is here and we love the area and the community.”
Reffitt was born in Columbia City, grew up in Pierceton and graduated from Whitko High School. He attended Indiana Tech on a baseball scholarship. When his daughter was born, he moved back to Whitley County.
He started his career as a sales representative at Centennial Wireless in Columbia City, then worked his way up as a national sales director for Centennial before it was purchased by AT&T.
As a national sales director, he was responsible for 365 stores and the Business Sales Channel. But that was just the start.
The entrepreneur started his first company when he was 23 years old and since then has owned all or part of 20 companies in total — including seven AT&T stores he currently has in Michigan.
Refitt and his wife, Jenny, purchased the building at the corner of Chauncey and Van Buren streets, knowing he had his work cut out for him.
“We picked out the building where yo2go is because it was a good corner location,” Reffitt said. “Even though it had a lot of fixing up to do and the price wasn’t best, we gambled because location is everything in retail.”
Reffitt also purchased the former Presbyterian Church, which is now vacant, and the Abstract building at the corner of Main and Van Buren, which he later sold.
As for the church, Reffitt is looking to transform the old building into a children’s museum — sometime in 2018 or 2019.
Since yo2go opened, a locally owned boutique clothing store, Rubies and Whimsy, and a brewery, Chapman’s Brewing, opened locations downtown.
Many buildings have had facade updates, such as the building now occupied by Running Around Screen Printing, which is brightly colored at the corner of Line and Van Buren streets.
“The downtown is truly experiencing a bit of a renaissance. When businesses open up in downtown areas, studies show that the foot traffic increases the sales of the businesses that were already there. As the saying goes, ‘a rising tide raises all ships,’” said Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel.
Blue Moon Bakery announced last summer that it will soon have a location in the Abstract building. It is unclear when the grand opening will be. In addition to the new businesses, other business have remodeled, or are planning remodels in the near future.
STAR Bank, at the corner of Van Buren and Main streets, underwent a major remodel in the past several years, transforming the older building to a new, modern look. Longtime business Ball Furniture is also planning updates to its nearly 90-year-old building this year.
“We have a long way to go, but we have a great foundation to build on,” Reffitt said. “Our downtown has an ambience that simply can’t be built anymore.”
A large part of downtown’s new spark can be attributed to the Downtown Business Alliance.
Reffitt, along with Ann Fahl, Sharon Geiger and Tad Varga, formed the DBA to work around bureaucracy and push forward.
“We didn’t want to have to follow any rules or cut through red tape,” Reffitt said. “We work with whoever we need to get what we need to get done accomplished. We like being able to do what we want, when we want, and not having to play politics to get things done.”
Last year, the DBA became part of the Columbia City Main Street Association.
The DBA was responsible for creating the city’s new “pocket park,” which filled the space left behind by a building that was demolished for safety reasons.
The park features benches and fresh landscaping that made a once-empty lot an asset to downtown.
All of the new activity downtown has made living downtown a desired option again.
Reffitt has five downtown apartments, and all of them stay full.
“People seem to love living downtown,” Reffitt said. “I believe as other building owners start to remodel their apartments, that the influx of people living and being downtown will help to drive others to come down to visit. In turn, I hope it makes us business owners step up our game and invest into the looks of the storefronts.”
Another apartment complex will fill the vacant lot where the former Eagles Lodge was located, at Line and Van Buren streets. Biggs Development, along with SCAN Inc. and the Columbia City Redevelopment Commission, have proposed an apartment complex called “The Van Buren Flats.”
“The project looks to be transformational for our community because it will not only fill a vacant lot in our downtown, but will also add additional downtown housing to support the new businesses that are popping up,” Daniel said.
Downtown has been a hub for events, some new, some that have been going on for years and years, such as the Old Settlers Festival in June.
The Columbia City Main Street Association held a “Movie on the Square” night that brought more than 500 people downtown in 2016. The association has similar events planned for 2017.
“It’s events like this that are important to the health and well-being of our downtown,” Daniel said.
The Whitley County Farmers Market is continuing to grow, with more vendors and customers each year. The farmers market is held on Saturday mornings on the Courthouse Square from late spring through early fall.
“I am appreciative to so many individuals who put their heart and soul into the revitalization of downtown Columbia City,” Daniel said.