ASHLAND - Drive down Main Street in downtown Ashland on a sunny day and you're bound to see a couple of construction lifts and a few people with paint brushes.
Currently, painting is underway at both 105 W. Main St. and 10 E. Main St.
Known as the Gilbert's building, 105 W. Main St. is now home to Uniontown Brewing Company and is owned by brewery owners and operators Doug and Anna Reynolds. Local attorney David R. Stimpert owns 10 E. Main St. where his law office is located.
Earlier this season, former Napa Auto Parts building owner Matt Wurster had the 100-year-old advertising mural on the west side of his building restored with a fresh coat of paint. Wurster hopes to lease space in the building to a restaurant.
It seems that downtown is experiencing the same phenomenon that occurs when a neighbor fixes up his or her residential property, Ashland Main Street Executive Director Sandra Tunnell said.
"I don't want to say it's 'Keeping up with the Joneses,' but once the Jones do something, you kind of get inspired," Tunnell said. "There are people who have owned buildings forever and haven't done any work on them, and they are slowly coming around.
"Then there are new buyers that buy a building and say, 'This is still a bargain,' and they're putting work into a building as a long-term investment."
The work being done on downtown buildings doesn't stop at just painting.
John and Julie Mitchell have added windows to 100 W. Main, the former home of Ashland Book Store and soon-to-be home of the Mitchell's boutique, Fig & Oak. The building's interior is also being transformed and will be unveiled when the store opens July 9. That building is owned by Brooks Whitmore.
Josh Coffy and Scott Williams have big plans to change the look and feel of their buildings 43. W. Main St. and 17 E. Main St., which will house the coworking space CoffySpace and the marketing company Vinyl Marketing, respectively.
The city of Ashland purchased 16 E. Main St. and plans to use Community Development Block Grant funds to restore its crumbling facade. Work on the project has been delayed but is expected to begin this year.
Tunnell said she also expects to see major updates to the former Bikesmith building at 27 W. Main St., which recently was purchased by Aaron and Aubrey Bates and Joe and Brittaney Reep.
"I think people are excited and enthusiastic about what's going on downtown," Tunnell said. "It's a Main Street truism that as downtowns get more successful, people want to buy buildings and they recognize the potential, but they also recognize it's going to take some work."
The surge of facade renovations started a few years ago, when the city and Ashland Main Street secured $300,000 in Community Development Block Grant matching funds to provide grants for eight projects.
Much of that money went to two major projects. One was the makeover of Scott Donley's 141 E. Main St. building, which was the former Gerald's camera shop and is now Good Deed Entertainment movie studio. The other was Rob Ward's building at 54 W. Main St., which houses Irving-Eisel Investments.
"Then the Ashland County Community Foundation gave smaller matching grants, so we had a bunch of people use those," Tunnell said. "I think that just inspires people."
Other projects completed with grant funding from the CDBG program or ACCF included work at The Essex House, The Uniontown Building on Union Street, Home Savings Bank, Opus II, Riley's and Advantage Marketing, among others.
Having Uniontown Brewing Company downtown has also been a major catalyst for positive change, Tunnell said.
"The Gilbert's building is such a huge building that it's hard to miss that they're doing all sorts of renovations," she said.
The first floor of the building has been entirely transformed. The Reynoldses also created an attractive outdoor seating area with help from the city of Ashland, which paved the area with faux brick and allowed the brewery to lease a portion of the alley.
Uniontown has also brought something that's been elusive for downtown Ashland over the years-- visitors during the dinnertime hours.
Another possible driver of change, Tunnell said, is a bit more controversial.
Local street artist Rafael Serrano has been adding color, drawing attention and sparking imagination downtown through his not-always-legal acts of art. His pieces have appeared not only on buildings but also on sidewalks, utility poles and even fire hydrants.
"I will say Rafael's painting of murals on the walls-- Some people love it, and some people hate it-- But it's brought attention to downtown," Tunnell said. "For so many years, people have been not thinking about the downtown at all. Any attention that we get is good attention."
Though she doesn't want to toot her own horn, Tunnell also believes the Main Street concept has made a difference because Ashland Main Street can help coordinate efforts toward a common goal of helping create a thriving downtown.
"To have a person being the director, I think has made a difference," she said. "Not that it's me, but that there's a person you can call or talk to or see who doesn't have to run and help a customer, which is the life of a merchant."
Tunnell said downtown Ashland is at a tipping point, and momentum continues to build.
In hopes of inspiring future renovation projects, Ashland Main Street hosted Heritage Ohio this week for a discussion about Historic Tax Credit opportunities for historic building owners in historic districts such as downtown Ashland. Tunnell invited not only building owners but also bankers and real estate professionals, who she hope will refer potential building buyers to the program, which offers tax credits of up to 45 percent for qualifying projects.
"It's a really good tool because older buildings are hard to deal with and are expensive, so to be able to say, 'Here's an option to cut your project almost in half' is great," Tunnell said. "That's how places like Cleveland and Columbus and Cincinnati have had renaissance downtown."
The city of Ashland and Ashland County Community Foundation will also be gradually rolling out portions of their targeted action plan for key areas in the city. In the downtown, the plan calls for new gathering spaces, updates to the South Street corridor and the creation of a Center Run Trail project, which will begin near City Parking Lot B and run along Town Creek.