Struggling to revive old Illmo

Monday, December 4, 2006
Ralph Roth, left, tallied Eldon Chasteen's purchase of nuts and bolts at Roth Hardware Friday in Scott City. Roth and his wife, Joyce, are the new owners of the business with their daughter, Angela Davis, and son-in-law, Mike Davis. (Fred Lynch)

For more than a year, a "for sale" sign hung in the window of Roth Hardware. On Friday, the sign was gone -- Roth Hardware's future had been determined.

After longtime owner Donnie Roth died in May 2005, the future of the store was in doubt. Operating the store was left to Doris and Richard Roth, sister-in-law and brother of Donnie. But due to their age, they didn't want to retain ownership.

They tried to sell the store, but couldn't find an owner that would maintain the shop as a hardware store. The Roths, and seemingly everyone else in old Illmo and Scott City, wanted Roth Hardware to remain what it has been since it was opened in 1946 -- an old-fashioned, small-town hardware store.

Some people in the city view old Illmo as Scott City's real downtown, not the Main Street that runs the length of the city and provides a place for most of Scott City's businesses. They compare old Illmo to Cape Girardeau's downtown, an area that had its own struggles with revitalization in the past as business sprung up on the west side of town near Interstate 55. But unlike Cape Girardeau's downtown, old Illmo is still trying to become a viable place for business.

"Everybody that comes in says 'we hope you don't close down, we hope it stays a hardware store,'" said Ralph Roth, brother of deceased former owner Donnie Roth.

Everett Holder was one of them. Holder owns the Sportsman's Barber Shop, right next door to Roth Hardware, as he has for decades. For Holder and other residents of old Illmo, Roth Hardware is a sort of symbol of their community within a community -- a cornerstone of life on old Illmo's main street, Second Street East.

The sign has been taken down because Roth Hardware has been sold. Not to someone who will change the small-town hardware store into something else, but to members of the Roth family -- Ralph and his wife Joyce Roth, their daughter Angela Davis and their son-in-law Mike Davis.

"It's always great in a small community when so many small businesses are moving away," Holder said of the hardware store retaining its purpose. He has a close connection to the store -- he was a friend of Donnie Roth, who ran the store from 1977 until his death last year. And in old Illmo, where many businesses have tried to set up shop in the past few years and failed, Holder's barber shop and Roth Hardware have survived decades.

"Small-town America anywhere has struggled," said Holder. "Illmo has small-town America pains."

Vacant property

Those pains are evident on Second Street East. Some commercial properties sit empty, as they have for months, waiting for tenants. Businesses have tried and failed to establish themselves -- a bakery, a florist, a pool hall, two restaurants. Few have had the success of Roth Hardware or Sportsman's Barber Shop.

In 2001, Southeast Missouri State University art professor Paul Schock moved to old Illmo and purchased several properties, including the old Harmon's Furniture building at the corner of Second Street East and East Hickory Street. The building currently houses five apartments, one of them Schock's. Two restaurants have come and gone in the building, as has a bar, and a new restaurant called Southern Chef will open there this month. But many of the buildings Schock purchased are now empty, waiting for business tenants.

In 2004, Schock and others got the Scott City Council to designate old Illmo as a historic district. The professor had plans to redevelop old Illmo, plans he still clings to today, but things haven't gone as easily as hoped. Many of the buildings he purchased now sit empty, the businesses that once filled them are gone.

"It's a great little spot," Schock said of old Illmo. "It's just a matter of trying to get people convinced and get beyond just the current Main Street and see the old Main Street. I'm more or less taking it one step at a time."

"Is it possible? Sure it's possible, because other towns have done it," said Mayor Tim Porch. "Just as far as Scott City in general goes, to keep businesses here is hard enough as it is. It's going to take the right kind of business, a business that people will come to no matter where it's at."

Many Scott City residents go to the larger commercial center of Cape Girardeau for much of their shopping, something that makes business struggle in the city and perturbs some city leaders. Those who don't typically frequent businesses on Main Street, not old Illmo, which is tucked away on the far eastern edge of town.

"For some reason Scott City people don't want to support their businesses that much, and I don't know why," said Ward 2 councilman, John Crail, who represents part of old Illmo.

The 100-plus-year-old section of Scott City known as old Illmo used to be its own city, with its own thriving business climate. Voters chose to consolidate old Illmo with the rest of the city in 1979, but old Illmo retains the feel of its own small town, with its own downtown area.

Many people in the city see old Illmo as separate from the rest of Scott City, said Schock. But the old section of the city is intimately tied with the fate of the rest of the city, he said.

Porch said the business ills that have affected old Illmo are indicative of the city's overall economic climate.

"Everything's kind of slow right now," said Porch.

The current business decline is nothing new -- the problem has plagued old Illmo for decades. But not all businesses that set up shop in the area are doomed to failure.

Succeeding in Illmo

Paradise Flowers has succeeded for years in old Illmo. Chaundra Mason started managing the store more than nine years ago, and she said business can succeed in old Illmo.

"I think businesses should be able to make it over here, because there is a lot of traffic over here, with the post office and the hardware store," Mason said.

Several businesses do operate successfully today in old Illmo -- Mason's flower shop, Roth Hardware, Holder's barber shop, a computer networking office, a machine shop and a pet grooming service. But the potential exists for more with the empty commercial buildings that dot Second Street East.

And people are working to fill those buildings. Bryan Bowers, a computer consultant who lives near Scott City, is currently renovating a building next to old Illmo's post office that was near ruin. His plan is to either find a tenant for the space or to use the building as his own office.

"I would like to see the area get better," Bowers said.

So would Carolyn Pendergrass, president of Scott City's Historic Preservation Commission. Pendergrass joined Schock in the efforts to get the historic district designation from the city, and she's seeking grants to improve Second Street's sidewalks and lighting. The commission also moved the Head School, a historic one-room schoolhouse, to old Illmo. The building is now being renovated and will soon be ready for visitors, Pendergrass said.

"It's disappointing to say the least," Pendergrass said of the situation in Illmo. The big plans Schock started with have lost momentum, and little is being done to revitalize the old Illmo downtown, she said.

Pendergrass thinks the answer to bringing business back to old Illmo is to make the area specialized -- a place where customers can shop for things they can't get in other places. The movement also needs a creative person with many connections to lead the effort, she said.

"I don't give up on Illmo yet, I really don't," Pendergrass said. "But at this moment in time it's looking a little bleak."

The mood at Roth Hardware is far from bleak, though. The new owners are looking to carry on the small-town hardware store and even bring it into the 21st century. On Friday they updated the store's computer system, and they have plans to expand the business in the future.

335-6611, extension 182

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