Hotel Vandivort and Gailey's Breakfast Cafe, seen looking toward the west on East Walnut Street.
Downtown Springfield as the sun sets on a September evening. Hotel Vandivort and Gailey's Breakfast Cafe, seen looking toward the west on East Walnut Street. (Photo by Ryan Collins)

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IN-DEPTH

Addison Jones wanted to get as far away from downtown Springfield as possible after graduating from Drury University in 2017.

When he and his wife landed jobs in the Queen City after college, Jones decided “to make the most of it” and started Better Block SGF, a nonprofit focused on enriching the city’s oldest neighborhood.

In 2023, it’s hard to find someone more invested in improving downtown Springfield than Jones.

Coincidentally, he’s also one of downtown’s biggest critics.

Addison Jones (Photo:Dake Wells Architecture)

“There are a lot of good things downtown, but there’s a lack of, like, cohesive identity and collaboration between those,” Jones said.

“It’s fragmented. There are too many gaps and there hasn’t been a central focus.”

In 2019, Jones started Better Block SGF, an effort to improve downtown Springfield with a creative approach to community building and urban design, he said.

“Better Block, it kind of started out of frustration that I had with Springfield,” Jones said. The group formed from “this common thread” of people who “really felt like Springfield could be better and were really eager to actually start doing something about it.”

Jones thinks downtown has a perception problem: Whether you’re watching the local news or overhearing conversations at your neighborhood watering hole, if downtown is mentioned, it’s usually has a negative connotation.

“For Lease” signs at 400 W. Walnut St. in downtown Springfield. (Photo by Jack McGee)

In the vision statement of Forward SGF, Springfield’s comprehensive plan for 2040, even the city government’s position is clear that downtown needs significant improvements.

“Despite its many assets, downtown also faces various challenges,” part of the Forward SGF plan reads. Certain areas in the corridor “feel uncomfortable or unsafe to walk” in. And with many vacant storefronts and some dilapidated buildings, “there is a need to draw more foot traffic to boost the local economy.”

Regardless of the negative stigma, economic data compiled by the Springfield Daily Citizen paints a different picture of downtown. It shows significant growth since the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, when stores closed for significant periods and mask mandates shuttered retail and restaurants alike.

Sales and use tax revenues, which account for a third of the overall funds for the City of Springfield, have risen well above pre-pandemic levels. The number of stores operating downtown, while below the 2018 high, continue to show growth year-after-year.

Most importantly, downtown’s growth tracks that of Springfield’s overall growth, showing the metro area’s economic engine is running full throttle post-pandemic.

Even with year-over-year growth, downtown business owners and other stakeholders agree that downtown Springfield has a long path to fitting the criteria laid out in Forward SGF.

They agree there needs to be a continued push to clean up downtown streets, including more lighting. The city also needs to incentivize the homeless population to find other areas to congregate besides popular downtown destinations, like the square.

The greater Springfield region needs further capital investments, in the form of more storefronts and corporate offices opening. There is also a need for partnerships, among the city government and the other stakeholders to incentivize the development of large projects, such as a convention center, which developers like O’Reilly Hospitality Management are eager to make a reality.

Clean streets, safe streets

New graffiti was seen in June 2023 in downtown Springfield. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Bruce Adib-Yazdi, who sits on the Downtown Springfield Community Improvement District (CID), boils down the negative perception of downtown Springfield to one thing: People think it’s unsafe, he said.

“I really feel like the issue, from 1990 to today; it’s a perception of what downtown is,” said Adib-Yazdi, vice president of development at Vecino Group. His offices have been somewhere downtown for the last three decades, he said.

“We’ve not been able to overcome that,” Adib-Yazdi said. “In some form or fashion, it’s kind of continued to be a stigma.”

Springfield Police Department call data shows that it is, indeed, a stigma. In the last three years, the total number of police calls in the downtown CID zone has accounted for less than 4% the city’s total calls.

The CID continues to fund the cleaning of downtown streets. It also pays for for the off-duty police officers who patrol downtown in high-traffic times, Adib-Yazdi said.

Inside Springfield’s heart

The city’s efforts to clean up downtown have room for improvement, said Chris Brown, co-owner of the MudLounge, located at 321 E. Walnut St.

“I think the city just needs to continue to focus on making it more presentable,” Brown said. “There just needs to be a focus on continuing to clean it up” and to make the “heart” of Springfield “more of an attraction.”

One area that needs the attention is the Park Central Square, where a concentration of negative activity occurs, adding to the perception that downtown is unsafe, Brown said. The proliferation of homeless persons around the square doesn’t help the situation, he said.

“We’ve got a beautiful square and the other day there was 27 homeless [people] with 22 carts out there,” Brown said. “I just drove around and was counting them.”

Brown added the scene on that particular day was “just wild.”

Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association said a “purpose-driven” day shelter was in the works, with $3 million in funding secured.

“We can’t get that fast enough,” Worley said. Worley believes the city government needs it to fill “a void that’s in this area.”

“Right now, the square and the library are absorbing that.”

A group of men gather on the corner of Park Central Square across from the Park Central Brach Library and Coffee Ethic. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

For now, the downtown association is continuing to work with police to ensure trespassing is being enforced, Worley said, noting there is a “peak time of the year” these issues occur, notably, at the end of the summer.

Focus on Park Central

Two men dressed in suits having lunch in Park Central Square is both an unusual weekday sight and a marked contrast to the gathering of unsheltered persons seated on the ground nearby. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

While Jones applauds any effort to clean up the square, he said problems will occur as long as there is unfilled space. The square has been a focus of his nonprofit since it formed. Every day, Better Block SGF members set out yellow metal patio furniture on the square, to encourage people to interact with the space in a positive manner.

“Anytime you have a space that’s not occupied, people will occupy it and use it,” Jones said.

Improving the aesthetic of the downtown streets in general has been a focus of Better Block SGF since it formed, Jones said.

The organization wants people to reimagine the physical spaces they pass through daily, like the square, where the nonprofit will host one of its “tactical urbanism pop-ups” this month, Jones said.

The approach focuses on quick, cheap and short-term changes to the physical landscape, Jones said. Their pop-ups allow people to “reimagine a space” and “really transform that place” in a way that people can “tangibly interact with it” and “see the potential for something different.”

Sometime in October, Better Block will place a mural in the northwest corner of the square, in front of the abandoned Newbury building, Jones said. The mural will highlight Springfield artists and will change as the installment grows.

The mural, an “eight-foot wall with just a cool, free-form design,” is a partnership between Better Block SGF, the Park Central West Branch of the Springfield-Greene County Library and the Downtown Springfield Association, Jones said. Better Block is waiting on a city permit to begin installing the project, he said.

“We’re creating a temporary mural wall that will kind of cover up the vacant storefront as it is right now,” Jones said. The nonprofit is “talking to a bunch of different artists” and they plan to “paint it a bunch of different times and do different things on it.”

‘Alleyscapes’ and Streetscapes

This year, there’s been a big push to improve alleyways and footpaths downtown in order to make them more pedestrian-friendly, both by private businesses and the city government, Worley said.

Worley highlighted the alleyway behind MudLounge, which has been unofficially coined “backstage alley.” Significant improvements have been made: A new staircase was added, a mural was painted in order to liven the space and some of the gravel areas were paved, he said.

The transformation made for a “nice pedestrian thoroughfare to connect folks who are going to the Little Theater, Hotel Vandivort and other places,” Worley said. “It’s one of those small-scale projects that add up to enhance the character of downtown.”

Stairs, a mural and some paving work make “backstage alley” in downtown Springfield a more colorful and safer place for pedestrians to pass through. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Sculpture Walk Springfield’s newest installment, “Alleyscapes,” will project a new video art piece, with sound, from sunset to midnight in the backstage alley. One of the goals of the immersive artworks is to “put light and to put art in the alleyways and make them safer,” said Sculpture Walk Springfield executive director Bridget Bechtel.

A few blocks away, a 5,000 square-foot public space next to Nonna’s Italian Cafe, located at 306 South Avenue, debuted in early August, dubbed “The Pocket Park,” according to the Downtown Springfield Association.

The park will highlight various local food trucks throughout the Fall and provide an area for pedestrians to sit, eat and enjoy downtown, Worley said.

The “Pocket Park,” located at 306 South Avenue next to Nonna’s Italian Cafe, opened in early August. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

The city has focused a little bigger, with its improvements focused on “streetscaping,” or improving the appearance of all buildings, footpaths, gardens and landscaping along a street.

The Jefferson Avenue streetscaping project — which took place between St. Louis Street and Walnut Street — improved ADA accessibility, stormwater infrastructure and the roadway itself, as well as the streetscape, which included new decorative street lighting and pedestrian and traffic signals.

The $1.8 million project, which was initially anticipated to last 90 days, encountered several delays, opening prior to the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in August.

The project directly interfered with foot traffic, greatly affecting the businesses and restaurants in the area, which rely on pedestrian traffic for a majority of sales, MudLounge owner Brown said.

“That affected a lot of people and that affected our happy hour specifically,” Brown said

MudLounge, located at 321 E. Walnut Street, saw sales plummit in the face of the Jefferson Avenue “Streetscape” construction, owner Chris Brown said. (Photo by Ryan Collins)

MudLounge’s sales were doing exceptionally well in the beginning of the year, with month-over-month sales climbing more than 30 percent for January, February and March, Brown said.

“As soon as the construction hit here, we went from 31% up to 13%,” Brown said. “And then July was 5%, and that’s when they really started tearing up Walnut.”

Brown said clearer communication from the city is needed on any construction in the future.

Downtown Springfield’s growth

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic and construction interruptions, sales and use tax revenues for the downtown CID surged to $22.3 million for the fourth quarter of 2022, according to Missouri Department of Revenue data.

That’s more than double the low seen in the second quarter of 2020, when stay-at-home orders limited business operations, gutting sales.

“Things flew to heck in a handbasket quick,” Adib-Yazdi said.

Adib-Yazdi said ahead of the stay-at-home orders, the CID board had to prepare for a “major downturn” in sales tax revenues, which is a “big chunk” of the the CID’s total revenue.

The board gutted staff, leaving a “skeleton crew” to run operations, he said. By the end of the ordeal, Adib-Yazdi said he was surprised to see how quickly downtown Springfield bounced back financially.

MudLounge sales matched the regional trend, with steady sales growth year-over-year since 2018, when Brown and his wife, Nicole, purchased the restaurant and bar.

Despite his critiques, “I certainly think downtown is moving in the right direction,” Brown said.

Downtown’s growth tracks that of the city’s overall economic growth. Springfield sales and use tax revenues totaled $1.79 billion in the fourth quarter of 2022, up 53 percent from the low seen in the first quarter of 2020.

“Initially, when the pandemic hit, we thought we were in trouble,” said David Holtmann, director of finance at the city of Springfield. Holtmann notes one third of the city’s total revenues come from sales and use tax. But by the end of pandemic, the drop in revenues was “a lot smaller than we thought it would be.”

And post-pandemic, sales figures have continued to be strong, Holtmann said.

“If you look at it prior to the pandemic versus now, we’re still seeing that it’s not tremendous growth, but we’re see solid growth year-after-year,” he said. “Which has been very good for the city.”

The retail stores and restaurants that survived the pandemic emerged from it stronger, more nimble, with a string of creative business practices that kept sales up despite the crisis, Holtmann said.

To be sure, downtown has empty retail storefronts and restaurants, like J.O.B. Public House and the Albatross Hookah Lounge on Walnut Street, that for one reason or the other didn’t make it out of the COVID-19 economy.

But for every closure, there seems to be another opening.

Just in the past few months, local-favorite Harbell’s Grill and Sports Bar, located at 315 Park Central West, has re-opened. Next to it, Jamaican Patty opened its second location earlier this year. On Walnut Street, the Chinese restaurant Lucky Time opened in July. The following month, pop-culture collectible store Funky Town opened at 212 S. Campbell Ave., next to Soap Refill Station.

Across the Park Central Square, the Big Easy Arcade will have a soft opening right before Halloween, owners Matt Faucett and Levi Grant said. The arcade will have multiple state-of-the-art golf simulators and large variety of classic arcade games, including pinball and skee-ball machines.

Downtown openings mimic the overall trend across Springfield: New store openings in Springfield have shown steady growth over the past four years, according to data from the City of Springfield.

Even with a vibrant economy, downtown will need significant capital investments that will only come about with construction incentives and development partnerships with the city.

A new convention center

Tim O’Reilly, Chief Executive Officer at O’Reilly Hospitality Management, said a new convention center would give downtown the economic boost it needs, and he is eager to build it.

“There’s been several feasibility studies that have indicated downtown Springfield could benefit tremendously from an upscale convention center,” O’Reilly said.

“We develop convention center hotels and convention centers in many other cities across the U.S., so we have a good feeling of how its done in a lot of other cities,” O’Reilly said. “We’d love to do that in our backyard here.”

A convention center would bring loads of more people downtown and hold them there for days at a time, giving a boost to local restaurants and retail, O’Reilly said. The return on a downtown convention center investment could be millions of dollars for the city, he said.

“That just brings a sales tax and revenue return that’s really off the charts for local business owners and the city.”

While O’Reilly is not currently in any firm talks to develop a downtown Springfield convention center at this time, he said he is hopeful his company will get the opportunity in the future.

“Obviously, it’s my hometown, where I was born and raised, and I‘d like to see it happen,” O’Reilly said. “But it takes a very significant initiative that starts with the city.”

“We have a lot of dreams about what could happen” downtown, he said. “I think we’re just on the front end of what downtown Springfield can be and I’m excited to be a part of it going forward.”

Ryan Collins

Ryan Collins is the business and economic development reporter for the Springfield Daily Citizen. Collins graduated from Glendale High School in 2011 before studying journalism and economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He previously worked for Bloomberg News. Contact him at (417) 849-2570 or rcollins@sgfcitizen.org. More by Ryan Collins