The impossible got done: restoring the Fort Piqua Hotel

When you work in community revitalization, you find yourself telling  a few stories over and over again, because they so beatifully sum up the possibilities that struggling communities can’t always see in front of them.  This podcast tells one of the stories that I have been using for years: the revitalization of the Fort Piqua Hotel in Piqua, Ohio.

It’s hard to demonstrate in pictures the outsized impact that this building has on the city of Piqua — both during its decades of vacancy, and in its restored state today.  For a smallish rural city, this sucker is massive — four stories of Richardsoniam Romanesque stone massiveness covering most of a city block.  Drive into town, and you see this thing miles before anything else downtown comes into view.  It literally dominates the landscape.  Imagine how it must have dominated the community’s self-perception during the years upon years that it sat vacant.

Since this building is so ostentatiously out of scale with not just the physical, but the economic landscape of a small city, finding a feasible mix of uses for it presented almost as stiff a challenge as finding the money in a small town to pay for it.  As the Fort Piqua story demonstrates so well, mixing uses (and funding streams) results in a more sustainable development, but it also requires a very steady hand in terms of managing all those moving parts.  As you will hear, working multiple funding streams also means working multiple funders — funders whose rules, expectations and plain old bureaucracy can undermine all but the most tenacious, persistent and savvy communities.

There’s a lot of awesome elements to this story — from the often-overlooked and potentially lucrative demand for banquet hall space in small communities (amazing how often that’s a niche that old buildings can fill profitably)  to the years-long determination of those who fought to make this happen, often in the face of people pointing to the long string of attempts that had failed before.  For me, perhaps the most amazing part of the story — and the part I didn’t know before this conversation — was the way that the community stepped up at the moment of need to fill the final gap and make this revitalization happen.  Piqua is a sort of mini-Rust Belt town — not a place where people or businesses have a lot of cash to spare.  But dozens of people put their own money into making this revitalization happen — not because it was some kind of venture capital bet, but because their community needed it.  And because they believed.

The great part of community revitalization consulting is when you get to touch the hem of communities like this — when you have the awesome priviledge of witnessing the power of people to make great things happen.  Sometimes it makes the rest of the trudge worthwhile.

Thanks to my friend Bill Lutz for sharing this story, and thanks to Piqua for giving us all a new reason to believe that revitalization is possible.  Enjoy!

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