JEROME — It was a little more than two years ago when a pair of fellow parishioners made a plan to turn a decaying building into a coffee shop that doubled as a community space.
Joshua Kern, who owns the building, and Will Ritter, who co-owns the shop, purchased the building on Main Street that would house Renew just six months after Ritter approached Kern with the idea.
It was no simple feat. The building was sitting empty for about seven years and needed major repairs to its pipes, its false ceiling removed and upgrades to bring it up to code.
The plight of empty downtown Jerome is longstanding and slow-going, but city officials anticipate being able to act on ideas brought forth by the Main Street Parking and Beautification committee in the next few years.
Renew came as a sign of what can happen when the community comes together to support downtown business for some. Ritter and Kern said neighboring business owners extended a hand in the repairs and other have contributed to events at the shop.
“It was a full community effort,” Kern, a doctor at a St. Luke’s clinic, said. “The city was very supportive of us taking an empty building and renovating it into a big open space.”
The city is considering plans to redevelop the median on Main Street, add better benches, improve lighting, add vegetation and create diagonal parking to allow for more cars to park closer to businesses. Funding and roadblocks with other agencies are impeding the pace of progress.
“At this stage everyone likes the idea and the pretty pictures getting drawn, but the big thing is the funding,” City Administrator Mike Williams said. “It will all be a process.”
Main Street is part of Idaho Highway 25, which falls under the Idaho Transportation Department. The department hasn’t been “thrilled” about plans to reduce traffic to one lane in each direction, but is open to talking with Jerome officials about it, Williams said.
According to Jerome’s 2019 Citizen’s Survey, which surveyed 1,800 homes on livability, the city ranked below the national average in the areas of shopping in town and having a vibrant downtown or commercial district. It also scored lower than average on overall appearance. Officials want to focus on finding specialty stores to fill vacancies because retail is now more streamlined with the advent of online shopping and megastores.
“When someone can go to Costco and get 17 pounds of mayonnaise and five dozen eggs, they’re probably not going to shop at a smaller store downtown,” City Councilman Chris Barber said. “We’re never going to be the retail mecca it once was. Those days are gone.”
Empty and blighted buildings are a problem for the city because they are private property. That means they city’s involvement in the fate of those buildings is limited. The Urban Renewal District can move to try to purchase them just as it can purchase parcels away from Idaho 79 to develop for parking.
This is where businesses like Renew come into play. The city relies on people willing to invest in projects that are out of its jurisdiction. For Ritter, the business was just as much about bringing life to downtown as it was making sure residents feel welcome.
“I want to make sure everyone understands that you’re worth it,” Ritter said. “Every single person is made in the image of God and are worth dying for. Understanding that changes the way you look at people. I want to make sure I’m bringing them the best.”
While the city can’t place businesses in empty storefronts and upgrades to old buildings can be expensive for prospective business owners, it is working to clean up what it can in the way of benches, lights and vegetation to build up the area’s appearance. Barber hopes to see more places that benefit people of all ages in the community.
“It’s a fantastic job what Renew has done, watching that whole processes and what it morphed into,” Barber said. “It’s is a perfect example of how this town works in symphony.”
Jerome may be in for a long road to revitalization, but Ritter dreams of playing a role in putting Jerome on the map as a destination city.
“We want people to not have to go to Twin to get what they need,” Ritter said. “The dream is that one day when people talk about Twin Falls the response will be ‘Is that anywhere near Jerome?’”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story had the wrong number for the state highway that includes Main Street. It is Idaho Highway 25. The Times-News regrets the error.
Megan Taros is a Times-News reporter and Report for America corps member covering the Magic Valley’s Hispanic community and Jerome County. You can support her work by donating to Report for America at http://bit.ly/supportRFA.
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