MILFORD, Ohio -- With its Rockwellian charm and tree-lined streets, Milford's historic downtown business district looks much the same as it did a century ago.
But in the past decade, much has changed in this bustling, four-block shopping district nestled alongside the Little Miami River in northwest Clermont County.
What was once a sleepy corridor filled mostly with dusty antique shops and empty storefronts is now home to a host of thriving restaurants, specialty shops and boutiques and new high-end condos and townhouses.
It's a revival that's been fueled largely by local residents in Milford and Miami Township and well-to-do shoppers from neighboring communities such as Terrace Park and Indian Hill. Now, a proposed microbrewery and brewpub promises to further accentuate the area's charms.
Business partners and brothers-in-law Dan Lynch and Joe Brenner plan to build and operate the Little Miami Brewing Company on the site of a former car dealership at 208 Mill St.
The business, which has a targeted opening date of October 2017, will offer 12-16 different ales, lagers, porters, and stouts along with seasonal food pairings. Little Miami Brewing plans to brew 500 to 700 barrels of beer in its first year of operation.
An existing masonry building on the site will be demolished to make room for a new 4,200-square-foot building featuring an outdoor patio with river views.
Milford-based DER Development Co. is constructing the building, which will feature a brick-and-barn wood siding exterior and gabled roof that Lynch and Brenner say is designed to blend in with the district's historic character.
Lynch said the duo was attracted to downtown Milford both for its location on the Little Miami River, a popular canoe route and namesake scenic bike trail, as well as for the boom of the city's downtown district.
"We are proud to be a part of such a vibrant and growing downtown community as Milford," Lynch said.
Little Miami Brewing anticipates it will attract 50,000 to 70,000 people each year to its brewery and tap room -- an addition others in the business district's tight-knit enclave of merchants say is both welcome and needed.
"I love anything that brings people to town," said Bambi Merz, a chocolatier who opened her new Tickled Sweet confections shop on Main Street last month.
"You can go to the brewery one night and there’s plenty of parks and festivals and great places to eat. You can do life here," she said.
Main Street struggles to survive
Area business owners and residents see the new microbrewery as vital to the decades-old struggle to revitalize the historic downtown district of Milford, a city of about 6,700 residents.
When DER Development owner Dale Roe purchased his first building on Milford's Main Street in 1980, the district suffered from a 60 percent vacancy rate.
"It was typical for a small town where the retail moved to shopping centers," he said, referring to the 1956 opening of the Milford Shopping Center on Lila Avenue that lured away many Main Street merchants.
Over the next two decades, MIlford's downtown district fought to rally. In the late 1990s, the city secured $500,000 in state funds for new sidewalks, streetlights and benches along Main Street. Additional state-matched funds of up to $10,000 allowed business owners to update the facades of many historic buildings along the corridor.
Nancy Meyer has witnessed the ebb and flow of Milford's downtown since her mother, Betty Meyer, opened Row House Gallery in a brick row house on Main Street in 1971.
The 2001 closure of the Mill Street Manor restaurant, a longtime Milford institution and regional draw, dealt the downtown district a serious blow, said Meyer, who continues to manage the family's custom frame shop and art gallery.
"People would ask if there was a place to grab a bite to eat and we’d have to tell them to leave town. There wasn’t anywhere to keep them on the street," she said.
"There was just a lot of old and dying businesses that lacked any excitement to them," said Oliver Roe, a project manager at DER Development. "There really wasn't a whole lot going on down there."
An old district gains new life
When Chris Hamm drove down Milford's Main Street in 2004, he didn't see a retail district that became a veritable ghost town after 6 p.m. Instead, he saw an opportunity to capture an untapped evening market.
Hamm, now the director of the Milford-Miami Twp. Chamber of Commerce, opened Latitudes Café serving up a tapas menu, full bar and live music. The restaurant soon became a success, drawing a hip crowd that often lingered past midnight.
"The historic downtown is a treasure," said Hamm, who sold the restaurant in 2011 to a couple who reopened it as M.J.'s on Main. "Our hope was that once we opened, other evening businesses would take a look at historic Milford."
Other restaurants and cafés soon followed: 20 Brix, the Main Cup, Padrino, May Café, Chappy's Bar and Grill and the Old Milford Parlor, among others.
"All of a sudden people had a reason to go to Milford," said Oliver Roe. "One by one, small business owners started recognizing that."
The historic district now boasts 10 eateries, ranging from an upscale wine retail store and restaurant to cozy bistros serving up gourmet sandwiches and coffees to daytime crowds.
The district's eclectic retail lineup includes an adventure outfitter store, fine jeweler, several home furnishing boutiques and other specialty retailers offering metaphysical gifts, toys, vintage clothing, Western-style boots, candles and antiques ranging from furniture and collectibles to retro kitsch and Hollywood memorabilia.
Two other businesses, a new bodega-style specialty farmer's market and cupcakery, are expected to open in the coming months.
Meyers says the Main Street district is in the midst of an economic renaissance like none other she's seen in the past 45 years.
"The parking lots are busy and the streets are packed," she said. "In all the years we’ve been here, this is the best mix of businesses we've ever had. The diversity on the street is just unbelievable."
The new microbrewery promises not only to increase pedestrian traffic for other businesses, but to also draw the kinds of consumers more likely to buy from niche retailers and mom-and-pop stores, Meyers noted.
"It's going to bring people who are looking for a craft market," she said. "They’re looking for something more specialty and upscale, not a Budweiser."
Hamm said it's no surprise that customers are becoming disenchanted with one-size-fits-all retail experiences and are increasingly seeking out the nostalgic feel of a small-town Main Street.
"People get tired of the hustle-and-bustle and big box stores," he said. "We see the developments of the Eastgates and West Chesters with shopping plazas on every corner. Here’s an Americana throwback that’s inside the I-275 loop. People are drawn to that charm."