How do small businesses survive in small towns? These shops in rural Indiana are thriving on tourism

In the 1970s, The Francis Shoppe owner Terri Francis-Ahlfeld observed that downtown Wabash, like other rural downtowns, was dying. City and suburban malls were all the rage, so she decided to market in Fort Wayne.
 
“I thought if Wabash can go to Fort Wayne to shop, then I can go to Fort Wayne and introduce myself and let them know the service that I have,” she says.

Portrait of co-owners Terri Francis-Alfed, right, and mother Marjorie Francis at The Francis Shoppe, 65 West Market Wabash, IN. Marjorie opened the shoppe in 1961.
That service was, and is, providing classy special occasion dresses and women’s apparel, along with tailoring. 
 
“I started going to all the bridal fairs; I started going to Tapestry; I started going to Fort Wayne magazine’s bridal fair at the Grand Wayne Center, and all of a sudden they started recognizing me,” says Francis-Ahlfeld.
 
A big mirror in the back room at The Francis Shoppe, 65 West Market Wabash, IN.
Her urban outreach paid off, because now, Fort Wayne comes to her.
 
“If I have 10 customers in a day who will walk through my front door, nine of them are from Fort Wayne,” she says.
 
The Francis Shoppe is not alone in attracting out-of-area customers. In 2020, visitors to Wabash County spent $55.8 million, which generated $5.2 million in state and local taxes. Outside retail spending, accounting for more than $18 million, was responsible for about one-third of total visitor spending. Forty-three cents of every dollar spent stayed in the county. This data comes from an Economic Impact of Tourism report conducted by Rockport Analytics for Visit Wabash County and the State of Indiana.
 
Outside money is essential for the economy of Wabash and Wabash County, says Christine Flohr, Executive Director of Tourism for Visit Wabash County.
 
Christine Flohr, Executive Director at Visit Wabash County, has a meeting with staff members.
“You have to have enough population to sustain small businesses—that’s just the way it is,” says Flohr, citing Wabash’s population of approximately 10,000 and Wabash County’s population of about 31,000.
 
Since people in the city and county alone do not provide an adequate customer base for local businesses, visitors are essential.
 
Visitors also help reduce property taxes.
 
“If it weren’t for tourism dollars spent in 2020 (the year of the most recent economic report) in Wabash County, residents or households would have had to pay an additional 400 dollars per year in taxes to retain our current tax levels for state and local services, which is key,” Flohr says. “Visitors generate sales totaling about 24 million. That’s a benefit to a broad array of local businesses.”
 
Maria Smith helps customer Mike Barnett with a purchase at Eclectic Shoppe, 42 W Canal St, Wabash, IN.
Maria Smyth, who co-owns, with her husband, Eclectic Shoppe, a store in downtown Wabash, echoes this sentiment. She sells vintage items, antiques, décor, and local artisanal products.
 
“There are more than 10,000 residents here in Wabash, so 10,000 people can’t really support the whole downtown,” she says.
 
Smyth says that Wabash attractions such as the Honeywell Center bring in visitors who want to shop at local stores. Many of these people want to buy something to help them remember their time in Wabash.
 
“Visitors are looking for souvenirs; they’re looking for little things that maybe say ‘Wabash’ or the ‘Midwest,’” says Smyth. “People love that stuff.”
 
The Eclectic Shoppe features a lot of handmade and artistic goods at 42 W Canal St, Wabash, IN.
Numerous items sold at the Eclectic Shoppe are made by local artisans from Wabash and the immediate surrounding area. Not only does this keep money local; it also adds to a sense of place.
 
“We’ve filled this niche market, so I feel like we are part of that downtown heartbeat,” Smyth says.
 
Rhinestones & Roses, a North Manchester florist and women’s clothing boutique, sells flowers to students going to Homestead High School (Fort Wayne) prom and to brides from Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, and beyond. Their blooms have even gone to Mackinac Island.
 
Portrait of owners Josi Cripe Lambert, left, and sister Jentri Cripe Lengerich at Rhinestones and Roses Flowers and Boutique, 302 W State Rd 114, North Manchester, IN.
“We use unique and more exotic blooms when we’re designing, so we’re not a traditional florist,” says Jentri Cripe, who runs the shop with her sister, Josi Lambert.
 
This unique niche has helped Rhinestones & Roses carve a customer base well beyond Wabash County.
 
“It’s kind of cool to get people from out of town, being from such a small community,” Cripe says. “We really have had to market outside of our town alone, really, I would say to make it.”
 
At least half of Rhinestones & Roses’ business comes from out of town, says Cripe—a significant number of customers come from Fort Wayne, Warsaw, Akron, Columbia City, and Huntington. She says that business has increased by about 20 percent each year, even during the pandemic year of 2020, because of the shop’s broad reach. The store is prospering so much that they plan to add a location in Fort Wayne.
 
Owners Josi Cripe Lambert, left, and sister Jentri Cripe Lengerich work on creating a flower arrangement at Rhinestones and Roses Flowers and Boutique, 302 W State Rd 114.
Cripe remembers people warning her and her sister about opening a business in a small town, and she is proud that the naysayers have been proven wrong.
 
“Having the support that we’ve had just says something special about doing business in a small town,” she says. “It has surpassed every expectation, starting in a small town and getting people from everywhere to come and visit. They don’t just come and shop at our store. They ask, ‘Where’s your favorite coffee shop? Where’s your favorite place to get ice cream? Where can we eat? Where are other places to shop?’ That’s really what we try to do—get people to come from out of town, out of state, and really make it (North Manchester) a destination.”
 
Ultimately, says Flohr, everything starts with a visit, and the opportunity to bring more visitors to shop and experience Wabash County is the opportunity for more people to discover what Northeast Indiana has to offer and build a life here.

Portrait of Christine Flohr, Executive Director at Visit Wabash County. 
“That’s a role that tourism plays,” Flohr says. “We provide the introduction to our community to get people here, as a gateway to come and stay, spend a day, live here, retire here, build a business here, work here.”
 
In Smyth’s experience at the Eclectic Shoppe, it’s working.
 
“People are recognizing that Wabash is here and what we have to offer,” she says. “I can only imagine that as the city continues to grow and attract people from different areas, our business will also grow.”

Wabash is the focus of a new Partner City series in Input Fort Wayne underwritten by Visit Wabash County and Honeywell Arts & Entertainment. This series will capture the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.

Read more articles by AJ Hughes.