By Ron Newlin '76
A couple of weeks ago I sat down with Rita Price Simpson in her Mentone office, to talk about how the town – in particular Main Street – has changed over the years.
Anyone who’s ever listened to a Valley sporting event broadcast on WRSW knows Rita. The school district has been her “beat” since before it existed – in fact, she’s celebrating her 52nd year with the Warsaw radio station this year, having started there in 1959 after graduating from Bourbon High School.
Over the years, she’s become even more ensconced as the voice and memory of Mentone – especially since she and her husband Jack bought a business and moved there in 1979. Over the years, Jack has served on the town board, and Rita still serves as President of the Chamber of Commerce. You don’t get any more engaged than the Simpsons.
“Realistically, I look at Mentone as a suburb of Warsaw now,” is her candid opening assessment. More than in the past, the people who live here and in the surrounding countryside “are not just farmers and local small businesses. They work at DePuy, or Zimmer, or Biomet.”
“That’s the reality in small towns these days,” she adds. “Compared to a lot of places, we’re pretty secure, with pretty good employment opportunities.”
“Another real asset is the improvement to the elementary school,” Rita continues, with the irrepressible enthusiasm one would expect from a Chamber president. “We have a very dedicated staff, good teachers.”
“And when the library moved downtown, that made a real difference,” she goes on.
The Bell Memorial Public Library, which shares a new facility on the southwest corner of Main and Broadway with a day-care and a senior center, is routinely ranked in the top five libraries of its size in the nation by national library organizations (see here). “It’s very well used, and a beautiful environment. It took a long time, but it was a wonderful collaboration between the town council and the library board.”
The new buildings in downtown may house public-funded entities, but they probably wouldn’t have happened without private investment – specifically, philanthropy.
One of the things that brought the library collaboration to fruition was a remarkable bequest from long-time resident Russell Eber, who quietly left almost a million dollars from his estate to five local organizations, including the library,
Rita and Jack have been mainstays on Main Street for 30 years, but her involvement goes back even further.
“I started coming to Mentone in 1959, the year I started working for the radio station. I sold advertising to about everyone in town,” she told me.
In 1979, when long-time businessman Darrell King decided to sell his furniture and carpet store at the west end of downtown, Rita knew the community well. “At that time Jack was in the real estate business. We talked to Wayne Tombaugh, who had worked for Darrell for twelve years, and when he agreed to manage the business for us, we decided to buy it.”
“We didn’t know anything about the furniture and carpet business, so keeping Wayne was key,” she said. “And we didn’t have to take an income out of it.” They continued to work at their day jobs, investing their return on the furniture store into expanding the business and buying other properties over the years.
Business was done more casually thirty-plus years ago. “Darrell King sat down with me and went through his checkbook with me,” so she could see first hand what the expenses of the business were, and what its owner was able to take out of it. Then she and Jack talked to Farmers State Bank president Forrest Miner, saying, “’Forrest, we’re interested in the furniture store.’”
In an inspired move that today might be called “branding,” they renamed the business Valley Furnishings, in tribute to the growing sense that all the towns feeding into the new high school halfway between Mentone and Akron constituted a community.
At that point, Rita went from being the voice of Valley sports on WRSW, to a member of the family. Jack and Rita’s middle daughter Kelly finished high school at Plymouth, but essentially became an honorary member of the TVHS Class of 1980. She now lives in Portland Oregon with her husband Bernie Doering. Youngest daughter Dana (now Pierce), a bonafide TVHS grad in ’86, now lives and operates a coffee shop in Bremen. Main Street retail is in her blood.
Over the next thirty years, Jack and Rita acquired several more buildings on the
As they expanded the carpet business, they needed additional warehouse space, which led to acquiring properties that once housed Cooper’s Department Store, the Frank Manufacturing building, and an empty gas station.
“It got to the point where we weren’t running the business, the business was running us,” she says with a laugh. And so they sold off their carpet business, and eventually transitioned the rest of their holdings into rentals (including space for a consignment shop, an antique store, and a chiropractor’s office), and of course into Java Jack’s coffee shop.
“We never had any problems renting,” Rita shares. “But nobody wants to buy.”
One complication, she points out, is how Indiana’s recent property tax restructuring affects the cost of business property. Taxes are capped on residential property at 1% of assessed value, and commercial property can be taxed as high as 3%. “Factor in the homestead credit,” Rita points out, “and it costs more in taxes to own a $100,000 building on Main Street than a $350,000 house on the lake.”
Meanwhile, “The Valley Furnishings name was in town for 29 years,” she says, with much more pride than wistfulness.
I blog here largely for the people who grew up here and have moved away, so I’m interested in what’s changed, and what’s stayed the same. My honest assessment is that at first look, the last 30 years represent progress. And that a closer look reveals some challenges.
If you approach Mentone from Warsaw on 25, not much has changed … the BK drive-in
The western approach to Mentone has even more striking signs of progress. The familiar industrial and commercial structures of Midwest Spring and Cargill are still focal points on the north side of State Road 25. On the south, in addition to attractive new “Welcome” signage, the original small brick building that houses the Lawrence D. Bell Aircraft Museum (where I installed the plumbing as part of a
Other than the new library, “nothing’s much changed as far as structures” on Main Street, Rita points out. What’s different is the mix of businesses in those structures.
We’re in her office beside Java Jack’s, which occupies what used to be Cooper’s Department Store. I try to figure out whether her office is in what was once the L&B grocery store. Thirty years ago, Mentone had two groceries. A few years ago, it had none. Now it has one – thanks in no small part to Rita.
“This is something we have to work very hard at,” she says, referring to the Chamber of Commerce and the community as a whole. “We don’t have space for industrial development.
“But we are very active to encourage and welcome new businesses, particularly commercial businesses. When I’m out selling ads, I will stop in businesses like the one I’m trying to recruit, and let them know about the opportunity.” That’s how she not only got a new grocer to move to town, she attracted multiple offers, “and I chose the most experienced.”
Across from the grocery, there's now a Dollar General store. Further west, the familiar signs for Baker Appliance and Boggs and Nelson Insurance are still prominent. Both businesses are closed. Another agency bought the insurance company, but moved into another space. The appliance store remains as a time capsule, merchandise visible through the front window, as if the owner is simply out for lunch. Rita agrees that well-kept signage is better than obviously empty storefronts.
Down the street, the beloved Teel’s restaurant is still there, operated by lifelong restauranteur Karen Clark. (Mary Teel, by the way, is living in a retirement community in Warsaw.) But the namesake restaurant is only open for dinner on weekends. I’ve had a couple of great meals in the Bulldog Tavern, but families who don’t want to take children into a smoking establishment on a weeknight are out of luck.
But there’s an answer for that coming, as well. The chamber has attracted a nearby Subway franchisee to open his fourth store on Main Street this summer.
As much as I’ve enjoyed my visits to the Bulldog, I’m aware that it occupies what used to be Mentone’s drug store, The Pillbox. Owner Bill Wynn, who came to Mentone about the same time as the Simpsons, refocused his business on home medical equipment a few years ago and was not able to find to find a buyer for the pharmacy. “Bill told me that was one of the hardest decisions he ever had to make,” she shares.
Rita subsequently devoted herself to recruiting every local pharmacist in her advertising territory. The person she talked to was Harry Webb, who owns pharmacies in Rochester and Akron. The challenge, Webb told her, was finding qualified people who are both pharmacists and good store managers – and competing with CVS to pay them.
“I always asked myself, if you lived in Mentone and didn’t have a car, could you still get everything you need without ever leaving town,” Rita says. “Until we lost the pharmacy, the answer to that was yes.”
The fact is, small towns are not as economically vibrant as they were 30 years ago. The number and diversity of locally-owned businesses isn’t as great as it was; and when one of the “staples” closes or leaves, a replacement no longer automatically appears to fill the vacuum.
Mentone is in better shape than a lot of them. Not many have a Chamber President with a job with a radio station that puts her in contact with hundreds of other business people in surrounding communities, where she can recruit new investors. And one who has an inventory of downtown properties that she can lease, if not sell, to prospective entrepreneurs. How do small towns that don’t have a Rita Price Simpson keep up?
And what will Mentone do when she leaves the scene?
My final question to Rita is, what does Mentone need most now? Her response: “Five years ago, I could have told you a lot more things than I can now.” She ticks back through the improvements to the school, the library, the daycare and senior center, the museum; and adds improvements to the park and a new senior housing development. The loss of a pharmacy tasks her, but the loss of a grocery store – the death knell for many small towns from Georgia to North Dakota – has been rectified. She would still like room for an industrial park, “but we’re landlocked. And the farmers who own the land around the town limits will not sell anything. They’re emphatic about it.”
As we wind down our conversation, Rita’s husband Jack joins us. She asks him the same question. Jack, a former town council member, also zeroes in on the lack of an industrial park, especially one with access to a railroad siding. “We’ve got the best railroad track in the world,” he claims, which is why Mentone was able to resist an attempt by a neighboring community to lure away Cargill recently. He floats the idea of the town exercising eminent domain to acquire the necessary land. Rita looks skeptical. That’s a different downside of a small town – it’s easier to use the muscle of eminent domain when the property owners are strangers rather than neighbors.
Jack points out another way in which property tax reform has hamstrung small towns. He refers to a small development just outside the city limits, and suggests, “The state has lowered taxes on homes so much, that it doesn’t pay to annex them.” It would cost the town more to extend water and sewer service to them, than they would generate in revenue.
So, to recap: Between the school, the library, the emergency building, the museum, and a senior housing community, Mentone has some significant capital improvements over the past few years, thanks in no small part to private philanthropy. The small industrial base is solid but static. The commercial base is smaller than it was 30 years ago, but better than it was five years ago.
And people make a difference.
I can’t help but notice that the old American Legion building, at the intersection
of State Roads 19 and 25, has a for-sale sign in front of it. Rita thinks it may have a buyer, but the sign is still there. It doesn’t have a cannon out front any more, but it still has the ventilation system and the three-phase electrical service for a commercial kitchen. And an eye-popping price of $39,900.