Nelsonville - Homegrown Tools

Nelsonville, OH

Updated: 2022

Civic leaders in this historic coal mining community subsidized downtown storefront rent for artist-retailers. Over a period of five years, artists cleaned up downtown storefronts and brought the town’s downtown square back into economic productivity.

Population2020 4,785
Median Household Income2020$32,328
Poverty Rate 202034.0%
Proximity to Urban Center 12 miles from Athens, Ohio
Proximity to Interstate Highway 50 miles
Case Study Time Frame 2001-2006
Data Source: US Census, American Community Survey
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From 2001 to 2006, Nelsonville’s downtown square went from desolate storefronts to a bustling artists’ haven with the help of subsidized rent for artist retailers. The town’s historic architecture, anchored by the turn- of-the-century Stuarts Opera House, has been rehabilitated and brought back into productive existence. Coffee shops, restaurants and other social gathering places buzz with community activity. This contrasts with six years ago, when the downtown occupancy rate was 25 percent and buildings were crumbling. “Nelsonville is reinvigorating itself,” one long- time resident said.


What are the lessons learned from this story?


A community of artists can reinvigorate a dilapidated downtown. Subsidies for artist entailers catalyzed downtown development. The development of the arts community created activity in Nelsonville’s downtown square. This activity has been a means to attract higher value development projects. The presence of art studios and creative energy attracted local and regional investment into a new coffee shop and restaurant. Downtown real estate values are climbing. As the downtown artist retailers increase their revenues, the initial subsidies that the town offered are being repealed.


Artist-driven development can help a small town attract tourists. Not only have artistic activities created economic activity and helped to maintain historic buildings, but they are re- creating Nelsonville’s regional reputation. The arts community has put together a Final Fridays event to showcase local artists, which is held every month and has received substantial press coverage as far away as Cincinnati and Lexington. This level of positive publicity would cost thousands of dollars in paid advertising. Additionally, the Stuarts Opera House, with its historic character and performance lineup, attracts visitors from distant locations. As with tourism in general, enticing people to visit a community is a vital step in revitalization because visitors have the potential to become new home and business owners.


Small groups of committed residents can jump-start development in small towns. The arts community in Nelsonville was the outgrowth of small, informal, grassroots groups of collaborators who refused to see their town die. They did not wait for elected officials. They partnered with property owners and other residents with the means to activate their strategy.