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Alton's 'Small Business Revolution' began before Hulu started filming

The Lincoln-Douglas Square in Alton commemorates one of the city's claims to fame. It also welcomes visitors to the town of almost 27,000 people. March 21, 2018.
Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
The Lincoln-Douglas Square in Alton commemorates one of the city's claims to fame. It also welcomes visitors to the town of almost 27,000 people.

When Lauren Pattan and James Rogalsky started looking for a building to house their brewery, they didn’t plan to move from St. Louis to Alton, where they’d both grown up. But they found the perfect building on Landmark Boulevard, right near the riverfront and off Alton’s old Antiques Row on East Broadway, and it swayed them.

The downtown stretch of Broadway, Rogalsky said, had been “neglected for the last several decades.” But in the last few years, new businesses have opened on the street. Established food staples moved from the city’s traditional main street to Broadway. A tattoo parlor opened at the same intersection as beauty and art supply shops, and a self-serve craft beer bar cropped up.

The married couple’s Old Bakery Beer Company became one of at least 45 businesses to open on East Broadway or Landmark between January 2015 and March 2018, according to Alton’s business license database. About two thirds of those business opened in downtown alone. 

Old Bakery Beer Co. March 21, 2018.
Credit Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
The Old Bakery Beer Co. found a niche market in organic-certified beers after opening in 2015. The brewery produced about 1,300 barrels last year, up from around 500 in its first year.

“It’s probably some of the fastest growth Alton’s had in a while,” said Rogalsky, whose brewery and beer pub almost tripled its production from 2015 to 2017.

Not all the new businesses have thrived in the same space. Some moved locations, while others closed outright.

But East Broadway today is still busier than in his childhood, Rogalsky said.

“I remember it being kind of slow, sleepy. There’s been a handful — maybe a dozen — of really solid local businesses, whether they’re bars, restaurants, little antique stores, unique places that have been around since before I was born,” Rogalsky said.

A sleepy town

Local business owners say that foot traffic slowed gradually but noticeably since the 1980s. But Alton’s residents have high hopes that a reality TV show produced by Hulu could help reverse that process. The third season of “Small Business Revolution” will invest $500,000 in Alton, renovating its main street and helping a few businesses update their marketing.

Signs read "#MyAlton" and "Welcome Small Business Revolution" in Alton storefronts. March 21, 2018.
Credit Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
In late March, Hulu show "Small Business Revolution" started filming. Shop owners posted signs reading "#MyAlton" and welcome the show to celebrate when Alton beat five other finalists to draw the show and a $500,000 grant for business improvements.

Alton’s traditional downtown has more established businesses at a few blocks centered on Third and State streets. But the show’s website touts East Broadway as part of an “entrepreneurial reinvention.”

The show and the new storefronts give some longtime residents and local business owners hope that Alton’s sleepy streets could once again become a destination.

“We need to change with the times a little bit,” said Yvonne Campbell, who already has noticed more people wandering through town since the show’s announcement. “We’re on the slow-motion side, but I believe that this will just open up that avenue to give us what we need.”

Campbell is the head baker in charge of producing more than 150 pie flavors on rotation at My Just Desserts, which has served lunch and pies by the slice in a historic Broadway building for about 30 years. She first worked at the shop right out of high school a little over two decades ago.

“I can remember every day of the week being busy,” she said.

Downtown Alton. East Broadway (highlighted) runs through the center.
Credit Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio and Mapbox, OpenStreetMap
Downtown Alton. East Broadway (highlighted) runs through the center.

Campbell recalled meeting guests from Italy and Korea and around the United States. But in recent years, passersby have slowed, and business has decreased. Eagle watching and summer weather still draws visitors, but as the antiques stores on Antiques Row closed, there were fewer shops to browse along Broadway, she said.

But Alton has a lot more to offer, from the meeting of the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi rivers to notoriously haunted buildings. Alton also claims a rich history: the town hosted the famous debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas and was home to the tallest man in the world Robert Wadlow. It's also the birthplace of renowned jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

“We’re a hidden jewel,” Campbell said.

Glory days

“Believe it or not, years ago, this was the best spot to come, eat an ice cream sandwich, walk around, and take a look at antiques,” said Rick Ellis, who bought Alton antiques shop The Brass Horse last year and co-owns the Edwardsville Flea Market.

Alton’s population peaked in the 1960s at more than 40,000 residents, according to census data. But mills and plants closed, and city residents lost hundreds of jobs, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. People began moving away; the census shows the population now sits at just below 27,000.

Clark Bridge and Alton Riverfront. March 21, 2018.
Credit Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
The view of the Alton riverfront from Antiques Row on East Broadway. The meeting of the Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri rivers draws tourists from around the world.

Ellis’s 28-year-old store survived even as other antiques staples shuttered along East Broadway. The shop sits along Alton’s Antiques Row, which local writer and bookstore owner John Dunphy calls a “shadow of itself.”

“Back in the day, it was lined on both sides of the streets with antique stores,” Dunphy recalled. Now 64, he’s owned his Alton bookstore for nearly 40 years.

Dunphy cherishes the shop’s current location on Broadway because of its history; the building was once part of the Underground Railroad, he said. Dumphy, like the owners of My Just Desserts, Old Bakery Beer and The Brass Horse, applied to be on Small Business Revolution; none of them were chosen as one of six businesses to work with the showrunners.  

On a chilly Wednesday morning, Wayne Schell (left) and Rory Morse improvise while practicing in The Second Reading Book Shop. March 21, 2018.
Credit Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
On a chilly Wednesday morning, Wayne Schell (left) and Rory Morse improvise while practicing in The Second Reading Book Shop.

Dunphy thinks that the Hulu series could renew interest in Alton and benefit business owners in the whole town. But he said what the city needs most is local business owners with unique concepts who can bring personality and variety.

That’s Ellis’ plan for his antiques store. He hopes can draw more young customers by stocking vintage and collectible items. He plans to recolor the store’s entrance and logo this spring, giving it a fresh paint coat and more visual pizzazz.

Still, "Small Business Revolution" could help that reinvention. “Whatever they do here,” Ellis said, “we desperately need it.”

Changes in thinking can help change the town, said Campbell, of My Just Desserts. The Main Street Revolution is part of that process, but business owners are taking advantage of the hype they hope the show will bring.

“People see that they are trying to revitalize Alton and actually try to put it on the map,” she said. “People are trying to be a part of that.”

Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin

Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.