Standing on the corner of Xenia Avenue and Limestone Street, the Mills Park Hotel is the largest building downtown. The hotel slowly rose from the muddy lot when construction started two years ago, giving villagers hints of its intended grandeur as the project edged closer to completion. For a while in early 2016, the hotel appeared to be finished, with a grand opening just weeks away, but delays kept villagers waiting like K. in Kafka’s The Castle, eager to go inside but prevented from experiencing the reality for themselves.
Questions about the hotel’s effect on village life were commensurate with its size. Many touted the economic and employment opportunities the hotel would bring the town, while others worried that the hotel’s size and appearance would alter the homey look and feel of Yellow Springs. Would the hotel’s guests crowd the village? What effect would it have on local businesses?
The proprietors felt the anticipation as well. The Mills Park Hotel is not just a 28-room hotel but also a restaurant, banquet hall and gift shop. To Jim and Libby Hammond and their daughter, Katie, the area residents who built Mills Park, the opening of a hotel seemed at times like a never-ending headache, a project bigger than any they’d previously undertaken. The hotel opened on April 25, 2016, and since then, the Hammonds and the town are learning some answers to questions about the relationship between the town and the hotel.
Busier than anticipated
According to Jim Hammond, while he assumed the hotel would draw a significant number of guests, the hotel has been even busier than anticipated since it opened. The hotel has made more than 5,000 reservations since April, drawing a variety of guests ranging from business people to wedding parties to bicyclists to people simply coming to stay at a hotel different from others in the area. There have been six full weddings and 17 wedding receptions, 10 reunions (such as those of Omar Circle residents and Wittenberg alumni), birthday parties, baby showers and seven Christmas parties. There have been 46 business meetings held in the hotel’s conference room, reserved by companies local and beyond. Every weekend at the hotel was booked from April through November of 2016, with many weekends booked well into 2017.
In Hammond’s estimation, the high number of guests has been good not only for the hotel but for the entire village. While he has not been in direct contact with business owners about how the hotel has affected their respective shops, he knows that the hotel has brought people to the village who had never been here before. Yellow Springs is increasingly known as a “destination town,” he said, and people want to experience the shops, galleries and restaurants conveniently walkable from their hotel.
“People never realized a village like this was here,” he said. “A whole lot of people are in town who wouldn’t normally be here.”
Local business owners and employees have confirmed that the hotel has had a noticeable effect on their traffic and sales.
“It’s very obvious that the hotel has brought people to Yellow Springs and increased business,” said Saruh Morrison, who works at Kismet. She noted that unlike other area restaurants or bed and breakfasts, Kismet’s wares are not in competition with the services the hotel has to offer. For a shop that sells clothing and jewelry, the influx of more patrons can only help the business, she said.
Jennifer Niece-Smith of Jennifer’s Touch said that people from a number of the hotel’s retreats and events have come into her jewelry store. People staying at the hotel tend to wander in and out of shops when they’re in town for business or holiday, she said, and such wanderings have led to a 20–25 percent increase in her business over the past eight months.
“Everyone who’s stayed there has had nothing but good things to say about the hotel and the village,” Niece-Smith said.
Emily Anglemyer of Wildflower Salon has done the hair of entire wedding parties at least four times over the past year, with some appointments already booked for 2017. Though the work the hotel brings is a nice bonus, it is not crucial to the salon’s success, she said. However, the hotel could prove to play a more important role in Wildflower’s business, as Anglemyer expects traffic to increase as the hotel becomes more established. It is not just wedding guests who get their hair done but often people on vacation who decide to treat themselves to a day at the salon, she said, and those guests have helped the salon’s business as well.
While there isn’t as pronounced a rush now as there is in the summer, said Kate Mooneyham, owner of Dark Star Books, there has been a small increase in customers since the hotel opened, and these customers tend to have a little more buying power than the average customer.
“They have a different set of interests than the standard tourists” who come through Yellow Springs, she said. “They are interested in more military history or first editions. One customer spent $500 on classics.”
The hotel has even had a small effect on the Smoking Octopus, a smoking accessories store next to the hotel. Sarah Webb, the shop’s owner, said that the hotel’s patrons tend to be cigar smokers, which has caused her to expand the Octopus’ cigar offerings. Smoking is prohibited on the hotel’s property, so its guests often mosey over to the patio of the Smoking Octopus to burn one down.
Hotel fills a void
Karen Wintrow, president of the Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce, said that hotel also fills a void when it comes to providing visitors to Yellow Springs a place to stay.
The Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce website and the information it provides is often the “first point of reference” when it comes to guests looking for what to do and where to stay in Yellow Springs. Wintrow said she often hears visitors and would-be visitors lament the lack of overnight options. While there are an abundance of nearby bed and breakfasts, some people aren’t comfortable with such a setting, and the number of overall available rooms in the village often isn’t enough to accommodate demand, and guests instead stay in nearby suburbs.
“The hotel helps keep people in Yellow Springs who might otherwise stay at a Hampton Inn or something similar away from the village,” she said, and the more people that stay in town, the more likely they are to patronize local businesses.
Miriam Eckenrode Saari, of Sam and Eddie’s in King’s Yard, said that the hotel is not only addressing the demand for rooms but reflects the kind of close-to-home vacation currently de la mode. Years ago, Yellow Springs used to be the only place in the region one could get art in abundance or offbeat knickknacks, she said, and people would travel here to buy them. But as those sorts of accoutrements have become more widely available, she has seen a decrease in people looking for strange odds and ends and an increase in visitors on business trips or the ever-popular “staycation,” in which people treat themselves to vacation-like luxuries without traveling far from where they live.
The YS Chamber doesn’t keep specific records on revenue generated by members of the chamber (“asking store owners to do this would be too intrusive,” Wintrow said), but she believes that feedback from the downtown business community is “mostly positive” about the big hotel on the corner.
The area is currently served by five bed and breakfasts but Wintrow noted in an interview last week that the number of available places to stay in the village has actually decreased in the past year — the Glen House Inn Bed and Breakfast closed in spring 2016, for example — but she attributed the closing or selling of a few local bed and breakfasts to the changing interest of the owners or the general economic difficulties of running such an establishment, and not to the opening of the Mills Park Hotel.
Another place to eat
Ellie’s restaurant, the restaurant inside the hotel, has offered the village another place to eat, an option with its own ripples throughout the community.
The restaurant aims to have options that aren’t available elsewhere in town, and as a result, manager Lindsay Burke said that Ellie’s clientele is about half locals and half hotel guests. This mixture offers a dining experience different than the restaurants in town that have a consistent group of patrons. Regulars may not eat at Ellie’s as frequently as the regulars at Sunrise might eat there, she said, but the option for a change of pace appears to count for a lot when it comes to bringing locals to the restaurant in the hotel.
The effect of a new restaurant has been noticeable from the perspective of established village restaurants as well.
Brian Rainey, who owns Sunrise Café, one of the restaurants closest to the hotel, said that Sunrise did approximately $10,000 less business in April than usual, the month the hotel opened and started serving breakfast. Business at Sunrise steadied again, but then in August, when the hotel began serving dinner, Sunrise experienced a similar month-long drop in business. Rainey said he is just now breaking even for the year, which amounted to 10–15 percent less sales than would normally be expected for the year.
But Rainey said he doesn’t hold it against the hotel, as such dips in patronage are par for the course in the restaurant industry. Anytime a new restaurant opens, nearby restaurants can expect a decline in sales as people try out the new establishment, he said. A new restaurant, even if it affected his business, “is something the town needed, and a step-up in quality,” he said.
“People like to go to Yellow Springs, and people like to go out to eat,” Rainey said. “I think there’s room for all of us — us restaurant owners are all in it together.”
Jobs and diversity
According to Hammond, the hotel has not only brought guests to the village but jobs. Mills Park employs around 60 people, with 20 of those employees working full-time. With the exception of a few employees who live in Springfield or Xenia, Hammond said, the hotel is staffed primarily by Antioch students and people who live in town. The hotel’s web design, insurance and other business needs are handled by local businesses, he added, as was much of its construction and painting.
Hammond semi-seriously said that he prefers hiring people who live locally so they can walk to work even in inclement weather, but Libby Hammond added that the choice to try to employ locals, like the choice to hire as many local contractors as possible, was a deliberate choice that the family made in an effort to benefit the community.
Eckenrode Saari said she hasn’t run her sales numbers for the past year to see how much effect the hotel has had on her business, but she estimated the job-creation aspect is probably more significant for the town than a small increase in business.
But while the increase in jobs and foot traffic appears a boon to the economy of Yellow Springs, some residents see the type of economic development it fosters as inimical to the health of small towns and a factor in what they see as the increasingly less diverse makeup of the village.
Cheryl Durgans, a resident born and raised in the village, said that her family came to Yellow Springs because, as African Americans, they could not build a home in Springfield or other nearby cities. The fact that she grew up in a town that fostered diversity was “very special to her,” but she feels that the village has de-emphasized those aspects in favor of economic growth.
While the hotel has offered jobs, she said, they are primarily service jobs that do not pay employees enough to live in the village without having at least one other job. As a result of the increase in such jobs in recent years, the economic and racial diversity of the town has decreased as residents do not earn enough to live here and are forced to move from Yellow Springs.
“Yellow Springs’ history of diversity has not been given the importance it deserves,” she said, when it comes to maintaining that legacy in the present day.
Another oft-repeated concern about the hotel is that it looks uncomfortably like a plantation home, which carries its own set of objections, Durgans said.
Approaching first anniversary
As the hotel nears its first anniversary, the Hammond family and the hotel’s staff will be developing promotions and updating services and changing the menu as they figure out what works to make the hotel a success. And the Hammonds will continue to be at the hotel on and off every day, Jim said.
Hammond admits that the construction phase did not necessarily make for a pleasant sight and understands the skepticism villagers might have felt when the hotel was being built, but he feels that many residents have come around to the presence of the hotel. People took issue with the size, the scope and, for example, the potential parking problems. But the hotel has become integrated into the timbre of downtown life, he said.
“People think the hotel is a restoration, which is what was intended,” he said.
Business owners will likewise continue to see how the relationship between the hotel and the village develops. The Mills Park Hotel is built near the site of the 19th century home of settler William Mills, and whatever form that interaction takes, the hotel has secured its place in the annals of Yellow Springs history, much like the historic home on which the hotel’s design is partly modeled.