St. Bernard Square was created decades ago on Vine Street as a suburban-style shopping mall where historic but dilapidated buildings had stood. Instead of street-front retail, developers built a parking lot, with the strip mall recessed hundreds of feet away.
Paul Myers, the village’s building, development and planning director, thinks the center doesn’t do justice to the historic character of St. Bernard.
“If you stand in the middle of Vine Street and Ross and do a 360, it’s kind of a discombobulated mess,” he said.
Historic buildings rise in the south, the strip mall to the west, with fast food and a post office to the north and a supermarket and dollar store to the east.
St. Bernard bought the strip mall about five years ago with the hope of creating something better. Myers said the city has been laying the groundwork for that to happen since 2011, including:
Tearing down a crime-ridden chicken and fish joint on the northeast corner of Vine and Mitchell and replacing it with a new fire and police building.
Creating a new Friar’s Club just north of that.
Selling bonds to complete a $3 million upgrade in the business districts, burying utility wires underground and adding brick pavers and other aesthetic upgrades.
Successfully repackaging the vacant Imwalle Funeral Home for redevelopment.
The refurbished business district was renamed Heritage Hill and has been rezoned in a way that was modeled after the Olde Montgomery business district in Montgomery. The zoning gives the village control to try to create a unified look to businesses and homes while avoiding the additional restrictions that state or national historic designations entail, Myers said.
Today, the strip mall includes a Family Dollar, a Pizza Hut and a Subway sandwich franchise. A huge swath is a vacant former Chinese restaurant, and a check cashing store is also closed.
Because the village owns the property, it has flexibility for its future. Myers hopes to build new retail, offices, residences or a combination that come right up to the Vine Street sidewalks. He’s talking informally with developers now in the hope that they come up with a plan that creates something better for the village.
“How do we change things to get new investors and people? New businesses and residents,” he said.
To that end, St. Bernard has been aggressive working with entrepreneurs to get them in town.
The village sold Imwalle Funeral Home to Jon Newberry for $700,000 to create the new Wiedemann.
But every dollar of upgrades Newberry puts into the project is forgiven all the way up to $700,000 -- on a $3 million project.
Myers said the strategy is designed to help businesses in the early years rather than promising tax abatements they may not be around to enjoy.
“It makes more sense to us that we help somebody out at the beginning of our process,” he said. “A lot of people are on the bleeding edge when they open. Tax breaks years down the road are nice, but they have to make it to get there.”
Bob Driehaus covers economic development. Contact him and follow stories on Facebook, Google, and Twitter.