Metro-East News

How much will St. Elizabeth’s departure hurt downtown Belleville businesses?

For Laura Spelbring, the uniqueness of her turned wood art gallery and other shops on Main Street in downtown Belleville will help them withstand the headwinds caused by the closure of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

“We’re not Walmart,” is a catchphrase Spelbring uses at Turned Treasures Gallery & School of Woodturning at 225 E. Main St. The saying promotes the idea that the things you find in Main Street shops cannot be found in a mega retailers like Walmart.

Several downtown shopkeepers interviewed by the BND are concerned by the loss of about 800 St. Elizabeth’s Hospital employees when the hospital closes on Nov. 4 and relocates to O’Fallon. The business owners also worry about losing the foot traffic from hospital outpatients and visitors who head downtown to get a bite to eat or to shop while they’re waiting for test results.

Andria Powell, owner of Circa Boutique & Gifts at 128 E. Main St., also said pharmaceutical sales reps who call on St. Elizabeth’s would visit her store, where some of the merchandise includes jewelry that she makes.

“It’s definitely I feel like a concern but it’s not something we’ll know … what it’s going to do to downtown” until the hospital is closed, Powell said.

“We understand the overall concern some area businesses have about the hospital’s move but we are confident that the 250 HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital colleagues that will remain in Belleville will continue to support downtown Belleville businesses,” Peg Sebastian, president and chief executive officer of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital said in an email. “Additionally, there are over 300 colleagues that reside in Belleville who already have established loyal relationships with many of the city’s services and organizations. We are not aware that any of these colleagues plan to relocate their residence out of Belleville. They will continue to live in Belleville and contribute to the local economy.”

St. Elizabeth’s will keep a walk-in clinic and two primary care clinics in two buildings between Lincoln and Washington streets in downtown Belleville. Other services include an outpatient laboratory, imaging with 3D mammography, physician offices and a coffee shop. These services are scheduled to open Nov. 6.

A contractor has been hired to demolish the main hospital building, the heart center and the parking garage.

Shopkeepers’ outlook

John Bigalke, owner of Beatnik’s at 215 E. Main St., said he gets most of his orders for his custom T-shirts via email and doesn’t think the departure of St. Elizabeth’s will affect his business one way another.

But others are wary of the hospital’s closure.

Spelbring said she didn’t see many hospital employees stop by her shop but she would meet people who visited Main Street before or after medical appointments at St. Elizabeth’s.

Chuck Blanquart, who owns George Blanquart Jewelers at 111 E. Main St., also said he often gets business from people who would stop downtown before or after appointments.

“Anytime you lose someone like an employer that has that many people coming downtown, it’s going to make an impact on business,” Blanquart said. “It’s going to be a big loss to all of Belleville and all of the businesses.”

Righteous Pig barbecue restaurant owner Scott Muir said the closing of St. Louis Bread Co. helped drive customers to his restaurant, where he has started a buffet to attract additional customers.

But he echoed Blanquart’s comment about the loss of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

“Anytime you lose that many people, there’s going to be an effect,” Muir said.

A couple of shopkeepers, Kareemah Lampley of The Luna Lounge and Julie Meeks of the Olive Oil Marketplace, said they haven’t been downtown long enough to gauge the effect of St. Elizabeth’s closure. The Luna Lounge at 104 W. Main St. opened earlier this year and the Olive Oil Marketplace at 18 E. Main St. opened late last year.

One of the older businesses downtown is the 90-year-old Meckfessel Tire & Auto at 415 W. Main St. near the hospital, which was founded in 1875 by three nuns.

“Those people that have been working over there have been working there for a long time,” said Mark Meckfessel of the hospital employees. “We’ve got established relationships with them. I don’t think they’re going to find that same personal attention out in O’Fallon, Shiloh that they will here.

“We’re hoping to keep them as customers.”

Meckfessel, whose grandfather founded the tire store in 1927, said one way he helps customers is to offer a shuttle service to take customers to work or back to their home while their car is repaired.

Alicia Chillemi Slocomb, manager of the Belleville Main Street Committee under the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce, said her group takes a “proactive” approach to promote the diversity of businesses in downtown Belleville.

For example, the downtown shops have been featured in the chamber’s weekly video series called “Where Are We Wednesdays?”

“We’ve got so much to offer,” Slocomb said.

‘Redevelopment opportunity’

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert and other city leaders fought to prevent St. Elizabeth’s from moving to O’Fallon by filing a lawsuit to stop the move but the case was dismissed in January 2016.

“We wish they would have stayed,” Eckert said. “We wish they would have built a new hospital there.”

Eckert added that if the hospital had closed in the 1980s when people stayed in the hospital longer than they do today, it would have had a greater effect than what will happen this year.

“Now are we going to miss them? Yes, we’re going to miss them. But I don’t believe we’re going to be dramatically impacted.”

Eckert said the city’s experience in seeing the former Belleville West High School campus converted into Lindenwood University-Belleville reminds him of what could happen at the St. Elizabeth’s site after the buildings are demolished.

Both Eckert and Annissa McCaskill, director of the city’s Economic Development, Planning & Zoning Department, praise the vibrancy of the city’s downtown businesses and festivals.

“If people are thinking that no one will come downtown anymore because the hospital is gone, they’re mistaken,” McCaskill said.

They also tout the St. Elizabeth’s site in downtown Belleville as a chance to attract a new development.

“That’s a redevelopment opportunity in the heart of downtown,” McCaskill said. “We have to have an outlook that this is an opportunity. How many communities would kill to have prime real estate right in their downtown sector available?”