DEVILS LAKE-A group of Devils Lake businesses owners is stepping up its efforts to attract more businesses and foot traffic downtown.
"Downtown gives every town their unique flavor," said Amber Sander, owner of Boots and Heels and co-founder of the Downtown Devils Lake Alliance. "I don't feel that the downtown is necessarily struggling. I kind of feel like we are in a changeover position."
The alliance obtained its state nonprofit status last year, and Sander filed the federal papers several weeks ago. Members will begin to meet once a month to brainstorm ideas.
The group is focusing on hosting events, such as festivals and fundraisers, to provide what Sander called a fun atmosphere to show businesses that downtown is a good place to be. It also reached out to business owners in other cities with successful downtowns, including Grand Forks' John Holth, co-owner of the Toasted Frog and a former board member of the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association.
"You pay attention and see what is working for other people," Sander said. "You try to be inspired by what is going on around you and what your local color is."
Closings and openings
Businesses have closed or moved out of downtown, said Brianne Langton, a sales associate for Blue Sky Real Estate in Devils Lake. Maurices, for example, moved its store from downtown to a U.S. Highway 2 location. ATA Martial Arts moved to the City Plaza along the busy corridor.
Other stores have closed due to other reasons, such as owners retiring, expanding in different locations or simply because they couldn't meet ends meet.
Langton estimated about a dozen spaces were vacant downtown.
In a list provided to the Herald, Sander, who opened Boots and Heels in 2011 at 419 Fourth Ave. N.E., estimated about 20 stores have opened in the past 10 years in downtown. In that time, two of the new stores, along with seven others, closed. Another five moved to other locations in Devils Lake.
Others have decided to move to downtown and renovate space, such as Kelly Swenseth, owner of Swenseth Law Office at 211 Fourth St. N.E. She and her husband plan to move to 418 Fourth Ave. N.E. once they finish the renovations.
Swenseth said it made sense to invest in a downtown office because it could encourage others to do the same. She added there are various resources for those who want to move to downtown, including Devils Lake Forward and other downtown business owners who have gone through the experience of opening a store there.
"Right now, there is a great opportunity for communities to look at what they want in a downtown and invest in that," she said.
Sander said there are still key businesses in downtown Devils Lake. She pointed to the Old Main Street Cafe, Quilt Essential, LaMotte's Paint & Glass, Leevers Foods and The Liquid Bean, a coffee shop that has been in downtown for more than 20 years.
"Obviously, the downtown is not going to be like it was before," said Dan Johnson, who co-owns The Liquid Bean with his son, Paul. "Downtown has changed; everything has."
He said there isn't one "magic" answer to growing downtown, but he suggested marketing open spaces as opportunities, advertising and having people who care about the health of the city. He said he has thought about taking his employees on a tour of the city so they can point customers to other stores if they ask where they can buy a certain item.
"We need to let them know what we have," he said. "As a business community, we have to educate each other on what we do have."
Sander pointed to local attractions such as Devils Lake's recreational culture as reasons why people come to the area, but it's important to have other things to do to add to the experience.
"Our mission has been to have some fun events, create a fun community and support each other so businesses want to be in our downtown area," she said, adding the events help create "community spirit."
Paula Vistad, executive director of the Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce, said she is optimistic about downtown and that it is a vibrant area with several historic buildings. Downtown just needs to add some specialty stores, such as a bakery or an arts store.
"I feel downtown is beautiful," she said, adding efforts to revitalize the area should be successful. "It is a key part to Devils Lake. I don't think it is doom and gloom at all."
She and others noted it's important for all parts of the city to complement each other and that no one wants to take business away from different areas of the city.
"I don't think you can have one without the other. They draw off each other," she said. "If we are going to pull people or draw from other cities, we need to have our Highway 2 and downtown."
There is a lot of passion for downtown Devils Lake, Langton said. That includes beautification, holding events, finding new niches and renovating space for future businesses.
"The people who are downtown love downtown," she said.