Entrepreneurs Bring New Hope To An Old Neighborhood

By Fred Broschart
St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Julie Longyear started making aromatherapy candles at home part time in 2000.

Four years later, she incorporated what would become Blissoma, a botanical skin care products maker.

After several successful years, her business outgrew the 1,000-square-foot basement where she made lotions, soaps and other goods.

Longyear considered a building on Keokuk Street in south St. Louis, a gutted shell that needed a complete rehab.

Even with a listing price of $80,000, it was too expensive.

Her real estate agent suggested she look instead at Hyde Park on the city’s north side.

There, in the 1400 block of North Park Place, Longyear found a 4,000-square-foot, move-in ready building. She paid just over $120,000 — a good deal in 2007 before the real-estate bubble burst, she says.

Even though she was motivated by dollars and cents when she chose to look in Hyde Park, she’s glad she did.

“In the beginning, we were driven by cost concerns, but once I took a look, I felt like this was a place I could contribute to the redevelopment of a neighborhood,” Longyear said.

“It’s just palpable,” she said. “You can really feel the possibilities here.”

Named for one of the royal parks of London but settled by Germans, Hyde Park occupies a slice of the city’s north side, bounded by Interstate 70 to the east, Palm Street and Natural Bridge Avenue to the south, Glasgow Avenue to the west and Ferry Street to the north.

It’s just north of the Old North neighborhood and outside the footprint of developer Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration Project.

Like much of north St. Louis, Hyde Park has seen employers large and small vanish over the years and with them went jobs and opportunity.

The Hyde Park Brewery, sold and shuttered in 1958, is a distant memory. Meat packing plants, such as Krey and Gruensfelder, were closed by the late ’70s.

As other employers left the north side and manufacturing faded, so too did Hyde Park. Between 1990 and 2000, the neighborhood’s population decreased by 24 percent, from 4,917 to 3,741.

The losses accelerated in the next decade: Between 2000 and 2010, the population fell 29 percent to 2,668.

Empty homes and vacant lots increasingly became a part of the landscape.

Against this backdrop of empty and crumbling homes and factories, entrepreneurs, like Longyear, saw possibility.

Eleven years ago, Denise Ulmer and her husband, Dan, opened the Cornerstone Café, at 1436 Salisbury Street.

Dan retired from the IRS; Denise managed the snack shop at a public swimming pool.

The couple never really had any ideas to open a restaurant, Denise Ulmer said. “It’s just kind of funny; he saw this empty building, and he thought it would be a great place for a restaurant.”

The café today operates at a profit, with the Ulmers and several of their children working there.

The café draws visitors but also has a lot of local repeat customers that Ulmer feels a close connection to, nearly tearing up when talking about a longtime customer who recently died.

“We love this area,” she said. “The people are so wonderful here, and I don’t ever remember it being anyone but good people here,” she said.

Vanity Gee, program manager for Rebuild Foundation and Art House, said Hyde Park has plenty of misconceptions. “A lot of people who don’t live here have misinformed beliefs about what this neighborhood is like,” she said. “That could deter some businesses from opening here.”

The Rebuild Foundation, at 1419 Mallinckrodt Street, is a Chicago-based nonprofit that operates a community art center for children and adults, and provides entrepreneurial education.

The neighborhood is ready for businesses to move in and grow, she said.

The area needs a grocery to allow residents without cars to shop without paying convenience store prices.

Mostly though, Gee believes the best thing that new businesses could offer Hyde Park is jobs. “What is needed is jobs, long-term permanent jobs,” she said.

“Not only do we need job skills training, but we need job placement,” she said.

Directly across the street from the Ulmers’ Cornerstone Café is one of the newest businesses in Hyde Park, the Sun Café, which opened in February.

The café, at 1435 Salisbury Street, is operated by Sun Ministries, a nonprofit group established by Terry Goodwin, a former pastor.

The café is the most public face of the group that provides services to the community by helping them learn marketable job skills with on-the-job training, fostering entrepreneurship and encouraging business and home ownership, Goodwin said.

The group helps residents get GEDs, driver’s licenses and obtain job skills by working at one of four businesses owned by the ministry, including the café.

All of the businesses are nonprofit, and the workers who manage them are volunteer missionaries.

“The goal is not to be profitable, the goal is to provide $10-per-hour jobs,” Goodwin said.

“It has to be sustainable so we can keep the lights on, but everything above that goes into creating jobs.”

Julie Longyear of Blissoma also has been busy creating new jobs in Hyde Park, adding three full-time staff in the last month.

Blissoma’s products are selling well, Longyear said, with both nationwide and international sales.

Blissoma is doing well enough that Longyear projects the business may soon need more space than can be provided at her current location, and she has started looking at buildings on the market.

She would like to stay in Hyde Park if possible but says there may be some roadblocks to making it happen, saying it is difficult to get construction loans in an area where few similar sales prevent banks from determining collateral value.

Longyear — who also lives in the building her business occupies — said she was lucky the first time she bought in Hyde Park as she found a turn-key building that did not need significant renewal.

“It was a lot easier since this was both my business and my home, and it cost less than either one alone would have cost in another part of town,” she said.

Goodwin of Sun Ministries agreed that it could be difficult to buy a house or other property in Hyde Park unless a person has sufficient cash in hand to pay for renovation out-of-pocket, this despite the fact that restorable buildings can be purchased for as little as $5,000.

The mission itself has purchased several residential properties in the area with the goal of renovating them for use by the organization’s missionaries.

With several newly renovated buildings in the neighborhood, banks could have a better guide to property value in the area in the future.

Terrance Holmes, a lifelong resident of Hyde Park and co-owner of Got U Faded, a barbershop at 1430 Salisbury, says business has improved since others have started moving to the neighborhood.

“It’s good to see other entrepreneurs open up, it’s a win-win for everybody,” he said.

For many years, he never even knew the names of fellow business owners in the neighborhood, Holmes said. Now, they communicate and share ideas.

Both Longyear and Goodwin believe there is potential for everyone to thrive in the neighborhood, both longtime residents and newcomers.

One of Sun’s goals is to help in the development of low-income housing and is planning to hold home ownership workshops for current Hyde Park residents.

Longyear has said that in her time in Hyde Park, her neighbors have been very welcoming. When she was looking for building, neighbors even stopped by to try to persuade her to move in, she said.

Anthony Estelle, who described himself as a lifelong resident of Hyde Park, said in the past 10 years, things have gotten better around the neighborhood. Crime is down, and he even sees more children playing in the park and sidewalks.

He would like to see every house in the neighborhood with a family living in it, he said, but knew that it would take some time for the neighborhood to heal.

“Every building here touched somebody’s life in some way, and when you look at them, it seems to twirl you a little bit, but you still come back to the reality of it: We can’t save everything, but we can save what’s around us,” Estelle said.

“Ten years from now, I’d like to walk the street and see every house smiling back at me.”

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