Downtown businesses on the Square pictured on March 26.
Downtown businesses on the Square pictured on March 26.
Wyatt Reading

Turnover on Fountain Square: Local business share concerns and success stories

This story was originally published in the April 8 newsmagazine.

A coffee shop, a vintage clothing store, a health food restaurant and a candle store – what these four places have in common is not just their location, but their effort not to succumb to business turnover on Fountain Square.

Located in the heart of downtown Bowling Green, Fountain Square Park has been the subject of travel guides, local history books and newspapers since its opening in 1872. In over 150 years of its existence, the Square has hosted and let go of a plethora of businesses, including law firms, furnishing stores, Asian restaurants and much more.

On May 27, 1994, the Bowling Green Daily News published a news story titled “City’s downtown continues flow of businesses.” In an interview with reporter Stan Reagan, Cheryl Mendenhall, Downtown Business Association executive director at the time, said “Downtown has always had a natural attrition – some businesses fading away as others take their way.”

Currently, more than 100 businesses are located on the Square and the streets adjacent to it, Telia Butler, downtown development coordinator, said.

According to the City of Bowling Green website, one of the goals of the Downtown Development Division that Butler leads is to grow “existing Downtown assets appealing to young professionals, growing families, and anyone seeking a vibrant Downtown experience.” Butler said she also hopes to connect Downtown with the rest of the city, including Western Kentucky University and Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College.

The Downtown Development Division was created in December 2021, Butler said. Some of her team’s achievements since that time include raising $75,000 for Duncan Hines Days, a weeklong celebration held in June, as well as $12,500 for Light Up BGKY, receiving a $50,000 grant from General Motors Foundation that will be used later this year for new public art installations around downtown, launching the Fountain Row entertainment district and hosting familiarization tours of downtown.

Additionally, Butler said she works with downtown business owners and those who consider starting a business there, connecting them with the right government services they may require, such as the code compliance for complaints or licensing and permits for business operations. She also advocates for downtown businesses and communicates with them regularly via a monthly e-newsletter and a GroupMe chat.

One of the people that Butler works with is Amber Brooks, owner of Becky Brooks Vintage. Located at 432 E Main Avenue, the store sells thrifted vintage clothing, shoes, jewelry and other curious finds like teacups and decorative embroidery.

Brooks opened the brick-and-mortar version of her store on March 19, 2021, after a few years of selling clothes online via an Etsy shop. She said thrifting was just one of her hobbies at first – until she started finding things that “were almost too good to leave behind.” Several years later, picking clothes for the store is still her favorite part of the business.

“I love the thrill of the hunt,” Brooks said.

A WKU hoodie on the rack inside of Becky Brooks Vintage on March 27. (Wyatt Reading)

Brooks has lived outside of Kentucky, however, after returning to the commonwealth in 2019, she wanted to build relationships within the community, which is why she decided to open a physical store. She said she was lucky to have “a nice landlord” who helped her find a good spot – one that did not require a lot of renovations.

Brooks’ responsibilities, however, go far beyond hunting for clothes. Her week usually consists of many tasks that include laundering, setting prices and doing the books. Brooks works together with Brandy Tucker, or “the yin to [Brooks’] yang” and “the bread and butter of the shop.”

“She is dependable, reliable and great with the customers,” Brooks said.

“I got really lucky with my first shop employee.”

Tucker said she had been alongside Brooks since her Etsy shop days, and that one of her favorite things about working on the Square is getting to talk to different customers.

“The view isn’t bad, and being from here, it’s really special to be able to see the Fountain every day, but also, it’s the mix of people that you encounter – you have your locals that just hit the down- town shops, but then you have a lot of visitors,” Tucker said.

Some of the challenges that businesses downtown face revolve around the Square not always being “on your beaten path,” Tucker said. She added that since getting around the area may not be easy, people often need to plan to spend time downtown.

Brooks said some of the obstacles that the store faces are connected to the economy.

“We’re discretionary income. Nobody, technically, needs vintage clothes. It’s an amazing choice to buy sustainable options; they are amazing products because they are well made and last longer. But at the end of the day, it’s not food, rent, or utilities, so when people’s budgets tighten, clothing is one of the first things to go,” Brooks said. “So, that’s hard, as inflation has grown.”

Some months, she said, have been “tighter” than others. For example, when heavy snowstorms swept through Bowling Green at the beginning of January 2024, Brooks had to close her store for two weeks.

“Personally, I have never taken out a loan or a grant, so if the shop doesn’t make it, then I’m either not paying myself or I might even have to put in a little of my own money,” Brooks said. “I think that’s fine for a year or two but … it’s not viable to do that forever.” However, Brooks added that because her business started as an online store, she was able to save some money as a buffer.

In addition, Brooks said a restricting factor for businesses downtown is growing prices for rent.

Butler said the only property owned by the City of Bowling Green down- town is the park, the sidewalks and the streets. She said buildings and properties on the Square belong to private landowners and monthly rent rates range from $1,500 to $3,000 and beyond, depending on the size, amenities and other features.

Fountain Square Park pictured on March 26. (Wyatt Reading)

Across the street from Becky Brooks Vintage, right in the middle of the Square, is the Hebe fountain, erected in May 1881, according to the City’s website. Hebe, the goddess of eternal youth, as well as the fountain she is perched upon, has gone through several restorations. The construction is surrounded by four sculptures: Ceres, Pomona, Melpomene and Flora, the goddesses of grain, fruit, tragedy and flowers respectively.

On the other side of the road from Bowling Green’s Olym- pus, situated at 415 Park Row, Candle Makers on the Square lures customers in with an array of scents. Emily Summar, the daughter of Rachel Summar, who owns the business, said her favorite thing about Candle Makers is getting to hear personal stories about what different candle scents mean to people.

“Smells are so nostalgic, it’s a kind of a love language,” Summar said. “You can get somebody a candle, and it can completely take them back to a time that was good for them.”

Aside from selling the candles that Summar and the rest of the team make, the store also hosts workshops on candle pouring and does “fills.” Summar said customers are welcome to bring in their own jars that the store will fill with a candle.

As Bowling Green natives, the Summars were big fans of candles, the square and the store even before they bought it from previous owners in March 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding.

“People always ask if it was harder for us, but because we had just started with the pandemic, we really didn’t know anything different,” Summar said. “We were just looking at previous numbers that had come in from the last owner, and it was already doing a lot better.”

While the pandemic may not have been the biggest challenge, something that Candle Makers is struggling with is small spaces for work and parking, Summar said. Like the owner of Becky Brooks Vintage, she added that a challenge that some businesses on the Square face is rent.

Owner of Candle Makers On the Square, Rachel Summar, outside of the store on March 26. (Wyatt Reading)

“We’ve been really lucky to have a separate landlord than a lot of other stores on the Square. She’s been pretty lenient with us about keeping rent the same,” Summar said. “But then if they’re just raising the rent so that only certain businesses can stay – it’s really hard to see places that are staples like Little Fox go, and you know that they’re doing so well on the Square, but they just can’t keep up with the rent.” Something that Summar said she wishes Candle Makers had known about earlier is grants. Currently, the team is looking for financial support for women-led businesses.

“There’s money there to keep local businesses going, because I think people really want to see local business,” Summar said.

Butler said one of her goals is to establish “an official 501c3 downtown nonprofit to make more downtown grant funding and sponsorship fundraising more accessible for our downtown businesses and the downtown experience overall.”

A few paces down the street from Candle Makers on the Square is one of the newer additions to the community of downtown businesses – The 30 Bird. Born in 2018, the business sells “Whole30 Approved and compatible, Paleo, vegan, and vegetarian snacks, sides, and meals,” according to the store’s website.

Evy Lantz, WKU senior majoring in psychology with a minor in behavioral clinical communication, works at The 30 Bird, and said Ann Scott, founder and owner of the business, had a lot of success on the Bypass, which is why she decided to open another location at the Square in October 2023.

Lantz works with Piper McIv- or, a sophomore at South Warren High School. McIvor said her favorite part about working on the Square is getting to meet different people. Lantz added that working at The 30 Bird has taught her healthier ways of making food.

One of the challenges that the business is facing currently is that not enough people know about The 30 Bird and the kind of food that the business serves, she said.

“A lot of times people will come in for the first time and be really confused,” Lantz said. “There are obviously businesses down here that are very established and will stay forever, like Spencer’s, but then I feel like people don’t like to venture out to the new things on the Square.” In 2023, Spencer’s Coffee sold

138,000 lattes, making it the most popular and in-demand drink, according to the 2023 Spencer’s Coffee Wrapped, published on the business’s Instagram page. Currently, there are three Spencer’s Coffee locations in Bowling Green, with the oldest one located at 915 College Street.

Justin Shepherd arrived in Bowling Green in 1999 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in journalism at WKU. He then got a job at Bowling Green Daily News, where he worked as the weekend editor. Tuesdays through Thursdays his shifts started at 6 a.m. and ended at 2 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, however, Shepherd would work from 3 p.m. until 1 a.m., which proved to be unsustainable long term.

A regular customer at Spencer’s Coffee, he said he knew the owner of the business, and in 2005, Shepherd and his wife decided to buy the coffee shop.

“I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no business experience, no real training in food or management – none of that stuff,” Shepherd said. “It was a really stupid decision, but it worked out.”

His typical week now consists of meeting with the operational direc- tor, fixing issues that may pop up at different locations, greeting employees and connecting with customers, as well as reading and doing research on ways to improve the business and make the people who work at Spencer’s Coffee feel supported.

“I don’t spend a ton of time behind the counter, like I did in the beginning, but now I have the privilege to work on the business and help all of my team members do what they do best,” Shepherd said.

Justin Shepherd, owner of Spencer’s Coffee, poses for a photo at the counter inside the shop on the square. (Wyatt Reading)

Spencer’s Coffee went from four employees to 65 total, with approximately 20 working downtown, Shepherd said. He said at first, what brought him fulfillment was “creating a place [he] would want to exist if Bowling Green didn’t have it.”

Now, one of his favorite things about leading the business is “seeing customers find their place” at Spencer’s Coffee and “having the opportunity to help team members develop professionally.”

Just like the other businesses on the Square, Spencer’s Coffee has had to overcome some challenges over the years.

“Running an independent business in the age of Starbucks and Amazon is just a challenge for anybody,” Shepherd said. “A challenge in downtown, in particular, is there’s no ability to add a drive-through, and we don’t have a bunch of parking places dedicated to our building.”

Shepherd said that contrary to residents of more metropolitan areas, most of the population in Bowling Green is not used to parking several blocks away and then walking to their destination. This is what Butler calls not a “parking,” but a “walking problem.”

“There is ample parking. More parking spots equal less space for business, commerce, and gathering spaces,” Butler said. “Nowhere else in the city is the City expected to provide free public parking for private businesses except the Square because ‘it’s always been done that way.’ There are over 1,200 free public parking spots that are government owned and managed, that do not tow, within 2-3 blocks of all the downtown parks and major venues – that amount exceeds the typical number of parking spots for a city this size. Downtowns are meant to be walkable, you’re supposed to walk.”

The issue of parking spaces around the Square has been in the papers for almost as long as the Square itself. For example, on July 16, 1956, the Courier-Journal published a news story by Harry Bolser titled “Park at Bowling Green Unlikely to Be Converted to Parking Lot,” which explained that although some businesses and civic leaders suggested turning Fountain Square into a parking facility, city officials, including Mayor Lampkin, turned this idea down.

Butler said that her division conducted research on the two “busiest summer nights to determine our real traffic developments and infrastructure needs.” She said the results of “a minute-by-minute” traffic survey that took place from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on the night of a Hot Rods game, a Broadway show at SKyPAC, a film festival at the Capitol and a Concerts in the Park event at Circus Square Park indicated that the parking structure was full for 20 minutes.

“All the other downtown free parking lots were open, and the structure was only ‘unavailable’ for the peak 20 minutes of all 4 events happening at the same time. The other public free lots like BGMU, Paxton, Justice Center and its overflow and street parking were all available – and don’t tow. You just have to walk a block or two,” Butler said.

Besides parking, Butler said that some of the issues that businesses downtown face are simply false perceptions that could be overcome through education. For instance, she said there is a misconception about the activities that downtown offers.

“The perception that there’s nothing to do downtown is based on a thought process that’s nearly 20 years old because SKyPAC, the Ballpark, Circus Square and the parking structure were built over the past 12-15 years,” Butler said.

Considering why so many businesses come to the Square and leave, Shepherd said most people in Bowling Green do not go downtown unless they have a reason to do so, which adversely affects businesses.

“With breakfast and lunch, and coffee, and pastries, and a lot of seating we offer people a reason to come frequently and multiple ways to interact with us,” he said.

Another way Spencer’s Coffee has been trying to avoid falling to the Square turnover is by creating “afford- able luxuries.” Shepherd said those are the products that are not so expensive that a student would not be able to buy them, but also not so cheap that they become “cookie-cutter” and uninteresting.

“We don’t try to fit into some niche, we just try to do coffee, food, and customer service in a genuine way, and lots of people appreciate that,” Shepherd said.

News Reporter Mariia Novoselia can be reached at mariia.novoselia765@