The coming of Springfield’s first railroad in 1870 quickly separated “old” Springfield from the “new” town of North Springfield. Within that community and along the railroad, a new district emerged, which came to be known as Commercial. North Springfield officially became a part of Springfield in 1887, with Commercial being the city’s original downtown.
“You know, it was Commercial Street because it was the heart of commerce. Back then, it was the heart of the city,” said Dock.
Ryan Dock, co-owner of Springfield’s oldest tavern, Lindbergs, describes the economic atmosphere of the street when the bar opened in 1870, the same year the railroad came through.
“There used to be an iron safe that sat in the front and the reports we had said it would cash $30,000 worth of checks a month out of that from the railroad workers. And all they did was pour beer down here, and they had sort of a general store in back, a brothel upstairs, so it was a one-stop shop for men on the railroad,” said Dock.
$30,000 a month in 1870 translates to about $560,000 today. With bars, restaurants and hotels, it was the place to be until around the early 1960s when there was a shift towards south Springfield.
“As the center of the city moved to downtown, some of that economic viability left for other parts of the city. And so, Commercial Street was hit pretty hard for a while. Some stores became run-down. Some people sort of forgot about it,” said Dock.
“Commercial Street, from what I understand, back around ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, was that part of town you didn’t want to go in. It was considered dangerous, or considered not safe,” said Orgeron.
Rorie Orgeron, CEO for the Kitchen Inc., says that around the time the organization bought the Missouri Hotel in 1985, the environment on Commercial Street began to change.
“I do know that after the Kitchen purchased the Missouri Hotel and worked on cleaning it up and worked on getting programs involved, that the climate of the street changed, that it wasn’t as dangerous a place anymore,” said Orgeron.
The 40,000 square foot hotel, an emergency homeless shelter for women and families, has been synonymous with C-Street. In 2005, the shelter housed 250 to 300 people a night. Today, after some renovation, the 90-room facility has a slightly smaller capacity. But earlier this year officials announced plans to close the Missouri Hotel to pave the way for more permanent housing. So the future of the facility and the street is up in the air, but most believe it will be a positive change.
“I think that eventually when the Missouri Hotel sells, it’s the key to Commercial Street development. When it sells, I think you’ll see a lot more investment on Commercial Street,” said Orgeron.
Shawn Askinosie is the founder and CEO of Askinosie Chocolate, located on Commercial Street. He bought the building to his business in 2006, right before the recession hit, which he says took a toll on the street.
“I think it was reflected in terms of the real estate values, velocity of acquisition of property on Commercial Street, sale of property on Commercial Street. I think real estate values since I originally purchased my building in 2006 have pretty much remained flat,” said Askinosie.
However, Askinosie says that his experience on Commercial Street has been extremely positive.
“I have absolutely no regrets for being on Commercial Street, and I should add that since the time of our original acquisition of our property, we’ve acquired other property so we’ve continued to invest in the street,” said Askinosie.
In 2010, voters approved a 3/8-cent sales tax along the Commercial Street corridor. From 2011 to 2014, taxable sales have risen $2.7 million, from $6.4 million in 2011 to $9.1 million in 2014. These numbers encompass six blocks from Grant Avenue on the west side to Washington Avenue in the east. This stretch of property has grown from around 30 businesses in 2009 to about 50 currently.
Jina Gorham is the vice president of the Commercial Street Community Improvement District. Having dreamt of owning her own business on C-Street ever since she was 13, Gorham currently operates Decades Vintage Boutique. When the opportunity presented itself in 2008, she quit her degree program in fashion design and moved back to Springfield from where she was living in Nashville. Gorham says there’s a unique flavor about C-Street that she hasn’t found anywhere else.
“It is fun. It is artistic. It’s really a one of a kind place. It is a sense of community. They see competition as encouraging each other to grow and then growing the overall district, so it’s like if I win, my neighbor wins, and I like that a lot up here,” said Gorham.
Gorham said when the Missouri Hotel closes, she would love to see a variety of different businesses emerge, including lofts.
Eventually, Ryan Dock of Lindbergs says he would like to district to be known for its ethnic food.
Amber Culbertson-Faegre lives within walking distance of the historic thoroughfare. Speaking to her in front of Big Momma’s Coffee and Espresso Bar, she recalls riding on her father’s shoulders down the sidewalks of C-Street as a child. She had her first job as a teenager at the street’s Price Cutter, which recently relocated.
“Commercial Street definitely is growing, and the fact that most of these building had a good chunk of vacant units. Within the last five or 10 years, we’ve seen what were, in essence, empty storefronts start to fill up. If you walked these streets 10 or 15 years ago, it was predominantly vacant, or they were secondhand shops that were kind of struggling, and more and more, you’re seeing actual creative businesses show up," said Culbertson-Faegre.
Culbertson-Faegre credits businesses like Big Momma’s and Askinosie Chocolate with helping prompt the cultural change.
“It’s been fun to see what’s happening, and it’ll be fun to see how this will continue to shift over the next few years,” said Culbertson-Faegre.