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On The Move In Maplewood

The up-and-coming city is a happening place, with new businesses, restaurants & a variety of festivals

The Manchester Road streetscape in Maplewood. |photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)

April 04, 2018
Maplewood isn't just up and coming anymore – it has arrived.

After years of a barely existent business scene, Maplewood looks completely different than it did two decades ago.

Walking along the shops and restaurants on Manchester Road that have put Maplewood on the map again, it's hard to believe that many of the storefronts sat vacant for several years. What was once a depressed strip of empty spaces is now part of one of St. Louis' most robust, walkable urban neighborhoods. Situated between Big Bend Boulevard and McCausland Avenue, the stretch of Manchester Road is home to a number of eclectic shops and unique restaurants.

"It's the 15-year overnight sensation," said Rob Birenbaum, who owns 14 retail buildings in downtown Maplewood and has served as chairman of the Maplewood Special Business District Commission since 1997.

Maplewood likes to describe itself as "somewhere between Mayberry and Metropolis." There's everything from craft breweries to fine dining, coffee shops to a cutlery store, a place to eat waffles and ice cream or explore a bookstore, enjoy homemade sweets and specialty food items, and much more. There's homemade candles to handcrafted beers, a leather shop, vinyl record store and still more.

Sutton Loop Park. |photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)

"We have more than 25 businesses that make and sell their goods on site," said Rachelle L'Ecuyer, who has been Maplewood's community development director since 2005.

Business is also bustling on Sutton Boulevard, which is home to a cat cafe, more coffee shops, a pinball lounge, one of the oldest bowling alleys west of the Mississippi River, a butcher shop, a place to hear live music, enjoy a slice of pie or bite into a strange doughnut.

"We literally have the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker," L'Ecuyer said, adding Maplewood has attracted several craftpersons and artisans to its business district.

With its abundance of unique small businesses, restaurants and coffee shops, a strong housing market and millennials making up nearly a quarter of the city's population, Maplewood recently earned itself a spot as one of the top "hipster" cities in the country, according to a study by Yelp and realtor.com, outranking Denver and even Eugene, Ore.

Maplewood City Manager Marty Corcoran and Rachelle L'Ecuyer, the city's community development director, at Schlafly Bottleworks. The two have worked together with several others to bring many businesses to Maplewood over the years. | photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)

A Team Effort

Maplewood now boasts more than 500 businesses, with over 200 of those in the city's Special Business District in Historic Downtown Maplewood along Manchester Road and Sutton Boulevard.

But it wasn't always this way. After being a streetcar hub and a major shopping area in St. Louis in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, the bustle became less and less over the next two decades.

Longtime Maplewood City Manager Marty Corcoran said Maplewood saw its worst decline during the '70s with the development of shopping malls that took shoppers there instead. Maplewood also wasn't immune from "white flight" during the same time when many city dwellers moved farther west due to an influx of minorities.

"Things hit rock bottom in the '70s," said Corcoran, who grew up in Maplewood and has been the city manager since 1983.

Although longtime corporate citizens Sunnen Products and Citizens National Bank remained in Maplewood, there wasn't much progress in the '80s or '90s. Several of the storefronts along Manchester Road sat vacant, and Maplewood's school district was less than desirable at the time.

"We kept trying to do a redevelopment, but it never got off the ground. We had a revenue issue and an image issue," Corcoran said, noting papered up storefronts along Manchester weren't exactly welcoming.

Downtown Maplewood finally got a boost with the opening of Bobby's Restaurant in 1997. Shop 'n Save's arrival on Manchester a year later in 1998 would also prove pivotal. Then came Schlafly Bottleworks in 2003 – and that was big.

Manchester Road in Maplewood with its colorful storefronts. |photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)

"Schlafly really helped us turn a corner because they were such a recognized name in St. Louis," Corcoran said, adding Schlafly also encouraged other businesses to move there.

"If we helped in the revival of Maplewood that's just another gratifying part of the business, but I think we just lit the fuse for something that was probably ready to take off," said Tom Schlafly, co-founder of The Saint Louis Brewery.

Clementine is one of the cats available for adoption that patrons can visit with at the Mauhaus Cat Cafe and Lounge, located at 3101 Sutton Blvd. | photo by Ursula Ruhl (click for larger version)
And take off it did. The city got another big boost a year later in 2004 when Walmart, Sam's Club and other big-box retailers came to Maplewood Commons on Hanley Road.

"Shop 'n Save and Schlafly revitalized the downtown area, and then Sam's Club, Lowe's and Walmart brought a much needed infusion of public revenue," Corcoran said.

As the business scene was getting off the ground, the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District started making great strides in 2001, which also played a key role in the city's revitalization.

"We could have had a business district that people drive to and leave, but because of the school district we have one that people also want to live near and walk to," Birenbaum said.

A Community Of Collaborators

With Shop 'n Save, Schlafly Bottleworks and Maplewood Commons in place, the stage was set.

Tax revenue from Maplewood Commons allowed the city to offer incentives to attract businesses. The city also hired a retail consultant to help prospective business owners find the right space and negotiate leases.

Designating first-floor spaces along Manchester Road as retail-only helped, as did the city's efforts to streamline the process of opening a business in Maplewood.

"We can take you through the zoning process in 45-60 days, whereas it usually takes three to six months or more in other cities," Corcoran said.

Ryan Reel, owner of the self-pour bar and restaurant Tapped, located at 7278 Manchester Road. The walls boast roughly four dozen taps that include an extensive selection of craft beer, wine, cider and even coffee. |photo by Max Bouvatte (click for larger version)

L'Ecuyer worked with the Special Business District to develop several programs to help businesses stabilize once they arrived. She also created a series of annual events including the Maplewood Coffee Crawl, Sweet Tooth Tour, Stringfest, Let Them Eat Art and several others, which helped boost business by bringing thousands of people to Maplewood each year.

More and more businesses moved in and the city hit a milestone in 2013 when all of the storefronts in Historic Downtown Maplewood were occupied for the first time in decades.

"The support the city gives us is amazing," said Ryan Reel, who owns the self-pour bar and restaurant called Tapped on Manchester Road. "If you can't open a business in Maplewood, you're doing it wrong."

Maplewood's chamber of commerce merged with that of Richmond Heights, creating the Mid County Chamber of Commerce, which was also helpful for business owners. The collaborative spirit among Maplewood's business owners has also been crucial to its success.

"We're friends, we support each other's businesses and we want each other to succeed," Reel said, adding Tapped serves dessert items from Pie Oh My!

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Dana Huth and Ben Triola, who own Maplewood businesses Mauhaus Cat Cafe & Lounge, as well as Rampant Interactive, echoed that sentiment.

"We buy our pet food at Airedale Antics and get our tea from Traveling Tea," Huth said. "Everybody is excited to be doing what they love and supporting each other. Maplewood is just so warm – it's like a little sweater."

"We Are There"

After years of struggle and hard-earned success, Maplewood is now an example to other cities striving for growth and improvement.

"In the early 1990's, we came up with the slogan 'Maplewood: We're on the Way' to send the message that we're moving ahead," Birenbaum said. "I can say today that we are no longer on the way – we are there."

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