The icebreaker in the conversation was the toilet paper shortage that marked the beginning of Noble County’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
Eric and Suzette Stitt were, as usual, staying busy. After all, they work full time jobs while operating two brick-and-mortar retail stores, an e-Bay store, are remodeling two historic buildings, and are landlords to multiple tenants.
It was Ligonier Mayor Patty Fisel, former owner of a historic three-story building on Cavin Street, whose enthusiasm for the couple led to the meeting. Fisel had purchased the former hotel, built in 1886, in 2006. Her first term as mayor commenced in 2008, so although Fisel had great hopes for restoring the once grand structure, life got in the way. When the Stitts came along, the mayor’s hopes were renewed. Her enthusiasm for the couple’s entrepreneurial spirit was quickly understandable. Upon meeting the Stitts, their story of hard work, risk-taking, and rewards, was found to be both aspirational and inspirational.
Eric grew up in Ohio and moved to the area over 20 years ago. His wife, Suzette, is a Kendallville native. Together, they raised a family, and now, in their forties, their latest ventures are, according to Eric, their “retirement”. Though that may be a few years away, they have a good plan.
“I always liked this building,” Eric explained, as he and Suzette conversed over the check-out counter at E&S New Merchandise Warehouse before opening the store one Saturday morning in March. They moved their store to Ligonier in 2018 after outgrowing a space in nearby Cromwell. Featuring large street-facing display windows and a spacious retail floor filled with diverse, new merchandise, Eric said he rented the building without telling his wife, Suzette.
“I came home one day and said, ‘I rented a building’,” he recalled. Her response was simply, “Here we go again.”
Once the Stitts took ownership of the building, Eric said, he felt a lot better about investing in it.
“There was barely any hot water upstairs,” he remembered. Several apartments on the second story needed cleaned up to attract the kinds of renters he and Suzette wanted. Since 2018, they have been able to create clean, safe, affordable living units for local workers. They hope to continue that trend in their second downtown space, the former hotel, a few doors north of E&S on Cavin Street.
Not everyone who knows the Stitts shared their enthusiasm over taking the risk. Eric, however, was undeterred. “I got this. We’ll be all right,” he assured the naysayers.
The Stitts have learned some key lessons over the past few years. One, said Eric, is the value of recruiting and hiring local people to help. He and Suzette say Facebook’s Marketplace has been an important tool for finding the help they need, and the price is right. Users can post and sell for free.
“When we arrived in Ligonier, we knew no one,” said Suzette. “My job was transferred to Cromwell, so we moved here.” Marketplace, Eric said, connected him to people with skills looking for work, including drywall installers, painters, and laborers to help with clean-up and prep work for remodeling projects.
The Stitts have seen advantages to hiring local people. They say doing so can typically keep costs down, versus hiring large contractors from larger, outside communities. They also place value in putting local people to work and keeping their investments local. There are, though, some challenges.
Like other communities, the redevelopment commission in Ligonier encourages property owners to make façade improvements to downtown buildings by offering a 50% matching grant for qualifying projects. So far though, the Stitts have not applied because they say hiring local talent typically winds up costing less than the 50% a grant might cover if they secured a larger, licensed contractor to do the same work.
“The façade grant program has sometimes been a head-butting thing,” Eric explained. “There is a lot of money on the table, but having to submit bids from three licensed contractors,” Stitt said, “Who has the time?” He explained that in most cases the Amish and other local workers who need work have exceptional skills, but are not licensed, so they fail to meet the contractor requirements of a façade grant application.
“I like to hire local guys. Anyone can paint,” Eric said. “It would be nice if those programs could be made easier. I mean, I work a regular job, all day Monday through Friday. It just takes a lot of time to try to pull together an application.”
Grant or not, the Stitts have nonetheless begun work to clean up and remodel the former hotel’s second-story rooms and have a vision for making the structure an asset once again in downtown Ligonier. They currently use some of the first-floor retail space to operate an online store. Another retail store, offering merchandise at $5 or less, was closed during the pandemic, at least temporarily.
“People are not really interested in looking through bins of goods right now,” Suzette explained. “It’s just not a feasible business now. We are thinking about other possibilities for that space.” Eric sees a lot of potential for downtown Ligonier.
“The closest appliance store is in Goshen. Someone could open a bait store, or a pet supplies store,” he said. “The opportunities are endless. The only business that doesn’t make it is the one you don’t try,” he continued. His message to other small business owners is not to give up too soon. “That first year is tough. It takes two to three years to get established.”