Jun 25, 2022
Jason Duff’s mission and his company, Small Nation, arose out of a local, practical concern — the desire to revitalize the town he calls home, Bellefontaine, Ohio, and offer the kind of amenities that people too often moved to larger metropolitan areas like Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati and Cleveland to find. Now, he’s taking his ideas and strategies on the road to share them with leaders in small towns across the country.
Duff, who visited Marshalltown earlier this week and delivered the keynote address at the 124th annual Chamber Banquet on Wednesday night, faced an uphill battle when he started. In Bellefontaine, a community known as the birthplace of concrete, a railroad and automobile manufacturing hub and the highest point in Ohio, 80 percent of first floor spaces were empty, and most of the department stores had closed.
“There really wasn’t a reason, at the time, for people to visit town,” he said. “It took supporting people that had good ideas, that maybe had a home based business or maybe they were from another town that had a better culture for entrepreneurship to have the courage to find a vacant and empty building, to get access to capital, to find people that can support them with coaching and mentorship and then get the town marketing itself as a place for shopping. Those are the kinds of steps we’ve been working on to help our town and other towns like it.”
Since 2012, Small Nation has led a massive reinvestment drive within Bellefontaine, resulting in the opening of 17 specialty retail stores, 34 upper floor loft apartments, three new event centers and seven restaurants. The company has invested over $17 million in all, and 56 downtown buildings have been revitalized.
After an introductory meeting with city officials and local business leaders in the city council chambers on Wednesday morning — and enjoying Taylor’s Maid-Rite, Zeno’s and a stay at the Tremont the night before — Duff engaged in a thorough walking tour of downtown Marshalltown complete with stops at existing businesses, vacant buildings and the county courthouse, which is still in the reconstruction process.
T-R PHOTO BY ROBERT MAHARRY Jason Duff, center, the founder/CEO of the real estate investment and marketing firm Small Nation, tours a vacant building in downtown Marshalltown on Wednesday afternoon. Other participants included, from left, Julie Hitchins of the Marshall County Community Foundation, Marshalltown City Administrator Jessica Kinser, Rep. Sue Cahill and Marshalltown Central Business District Director Deb Millizer.
Marshalltown is the second community Small Nation has partnered with in Iowa after West Des Moines, where Duff focused specifically on the historic Valley Junction district. Because Bellefontaine underwent a similar reconstruction of its own county courthouse after a derecho in 2012, the Marshall County facility caught Duff’s eye when he first arrived, and he was excited to hear it was being restored rather than demolished.
In Duff’s view, historic preservation is almost always preferable to new construction.
“In so many communities we go to, there are questions about ‘Do we invest to save an iconic building like that?’ because it’s very costly,” he said. “But that being a shining example of pride, resurgence and seeing that the town is investing in its town center, for someone from the outside, that means a lot.”
Wherever he visited in Marshalltown, Duff said he and fellow Small Nation team member Nick Davis received a warm welcome and an almost instantaneous question — how can we help? He singled out Hellberg’s Jewelers as a particularly pleasant experience, and he called the Gallery Garden on East Main Street a “best in the nation” type of feature.
With assets like a brand new hospital, a community college and a downtown area full of passionate business owners, Duff is optimistic about the future of Marshalltown and the prospects for growth and development. He quickly found kindred spirits in Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO John Hall and Marshalltown Central Business Director Deb Millizer, who hope to someday visit Bellefontaine and learn more about how the strategies applied there can be replicated here.
“If there are opportunities that these folks can show us or point us towards that are what I would characterize as low-hanging fruit opportunities that have high impact and high return for our downtown, that’s what we want to go after first,” Hall said. “Because if we can land those and start to build the culture downtown that says we can do these things, that’s when we can start to move into the more niche opportunities that are harder to make it go and especially hard to make it go if you don’t have the foot traffic happening downtown (and) don’t have the daytime traffic built in.”
In response to a comment about The Flying Elbow’s meteoric rise as the winner of the 2022 Best Burger in Iowa contest, Duff went on to highlight another of his core concepts — the importance of determining what makes each town weird, funky, fun and unique.
“We don’t want to be the middling many. We don’t want to be the same like every other town in Iowa, or Ohio for that matter,” he said. “So can you identify something that you’re proud of, something that’s unique, something that’s funny? And then let’s not bury our ace. Let’s make it our ace.”
After spending a full day in Marshalltown on Wednesday and speaking at the Chamber banquet — drawing several parallels between this community and Bellefontaine — Duff said the amount of revitalization and renovation already underway stood out to him the most. And although he has since departed, Duff is optimistic that the two-day visit will only be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“What works in Ohio, there’s a darn good chance it’s going to work here. And so I love coming to Iowa because I meet people that inspire me with new ideas and strategies that I can also take back home,” he said. “There’s something powerful about the term masterminding because instead of just having one mind working on a problem, we can get multiple minds around the table to create ideas and solutions that are successful.”
Contact Robert Maharry at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or
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