Downtown Butler business district experiencing revival
By Rick Wills
Published: Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Don Paul, owner of a jewelry store in downtown Butler for eight years, has bought two neighboring buildings that he plans to renovate and rent.
“I would not have invested in this if I did not think it was a good idea. There are many new businesses coming into Butler,” said Paul, who has worked in the jewelry business in Butler for 30 years.
Downtown Butler is experiencing a revival, officials say, fueled by robust economic growth nationwide and the desire of some to live in a culturally rich, small city where people can walk to work, restaurants and entertainment venues.
A decade ago, Main Street had about 20 empty storefronts; that number has been reduced to six, said Chelynne Curci, main street manager for Butler Downtown, a nonprofit revitalization initiative involving local citizens and people representing business, education, government and community organizations.
Among the newcomers to Butler's Main Street that have or will be opening this year are two bakeries and several restaurants. Two brewpubs will open next year. The Centre City Project is a $9.7 million plan that includes construction of an 80- to 90-room hotel and a Rite-Aid pharmacy.
The county commissioners voted this week to extend the period that tax breaks to finance the Center City project will be offered. There are now no hotels in Butler.
Like other onetime manufacturing cities, Butler's population is about half of what it once was — 15,000 today compared with 30,000 during and after World War II.
The redevelopment of the city reflects overall economic growth in Butler County, even though much of that growth has occurred in the southern part of the county, says Stan Kosciuszko, president of the Butler County Chamber of Commerce.
The county was sixth in the country in job growth between March 2010 and March 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Businesses moving onto Main Street show the strength of Butler County. Butler County has had so much good news, and the city of Butler is the county seat. Tourism in the county is also much bigger here than it used to be,” Kosciuszko said.
Although Cranberry and Mars have fueled much of the county's economic growth, Kosciuszko said the city of Butler has unique features not found in newer communities.
Butler is home to a professional symphony orchestra, a museum of Asian art and various theater and arts organizations. The county has 11 buildings on the National Register of Historic places, and nearly all of them are in or near Butler.
“People have been gravitating to the city in the recent past, both to shop and to attend events,” Curci said. “There are also more people living in apartments in the city than there have been for years. The city appeals to people who do not want to drive every time they go out,” she said.
Apartments in the old Farmers National Bank building on Main Street are occupied for the first time since the 1930s. Evolution Properties spent $1.4 million to renovate the bank building, which is made of Indiana limestone and was built in 1921.
Reclamation Brewing Co. leased a location on South Main Street for a pub and restaurant with a brewery that would serve pints and sell jugs of draft beer and cases of beer when it opens next summer. It will also sell cases and kegs.
“Butler is a good location for a brewpub. There's nothing like that there now,” said Ben Smith of Beaver Falls, one of the bar's three owners.
Smith, whose plans have been submitted to the city for review, said city officials have been helpful and encouraging.
“The city is committed to redeveloping downtown. The community has been shown to be supportive. There is a desire for craft beer,” he said.
At 7 mills, Butler's business privilege tax is one of the highest in the state.
“It is really high. We'd like to find a creative way to lower that. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia got rid of theirs. It has also been a deterrent to some businesses moving in,” Curci said.
The tax generates about $1 million each year for the city, an amount that has been the same for the past four years. The city has approved a tax abatement for new businesses, which don't pay the business privilege tax for the first two years they are open.
“That tax is much lower in other areas. I'd like to lower it. But you have to find a way to replace the revenue it generates,” said Maggie Stock, Butler's mayor.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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