ROANOKE – Alice Eshelman likes to tell the story of a prodigal son.
It seems a Roanoke native left the community, vowing never to return to what he viewed as a one-horse town.
But a chance encounter during a walk on a Florida beach changed the man’s opinion of his hometown.
Whenever he would wear (shirts) with Indiana on them, people would stop and ask him about Bobby Knight, Eshelman said, referring to the former Indiana University basketball coach known for his tirades. One day, someone asked him what part of Indiana he was from.
The man sheepishly replied, Roanoke.
The woman asking him said, That is my favorite city,’ Eshelman said. It seems she lived in Fort Wayne and was raving about Roanoke.
The man came back to visit the town to find a renaissance underway. That was more than a decade ago, but the improvements in this community of fewer than 2,000 residents continue.
‘It’s not all about us’
Eshelman and her husband and business partner, Pete, are a big reason for Roanoke’s growth. In the nearly quarter of a century they have lived in the area, they have founded the popular fine-dining restaurant Joseph Decuis and several other businesses.
They started the restaurant five years before Pete Eshelman sold American Specialty Cos., an insurance company specializing in sports and entertainment, in 2005 to Brown & Brown Insurance of Daytona Beach, Fla. In January, the company announced that by year’s end, it will move to Fort Wayne with its 65-person staff.
But Eshelman, through his real estate company Arete Development Inc., is in talks to sell the 28,000-square-foot American Specialty building to Britton Marketing & Design Group. The company had planned to invest $4.1 million and lease property near its main customer, Vera Bradley.
(Britton) has about 50 people, Eshelman said.
The businessman is intent on making sure Roanoke doesn’t become a ghost town.
The crusty, brick buildings lining the town’s main drag and the narrow streets may have a yesteryear feel, but there is activity – not boarded storefronts. Merchants are on a first-name basis with each other, and smiles are easy to come by.
Hey Pete, is how mechanic Rob Wrightsman greets Eshelman when he walks through the door to say hello at Hartley Garage. Wrightsman is busy restoring a 1978 yellow Chevy Camaro.
How’s it coming? Eshelman asked.
Pretty good, Wrightsman said. It’s my hobby, when I have the time.
Without question, the Eshelmans are invested here – and not just in dollars and cents.
One of the things we realized early on was how important it was for the area surrounding us to thrive, he said. It’s not all about us. We need others to step forward, and we need to help create an environment conducive to that.
That is why the Eshelmans invested in Roanoke’s humble downtown business district. Since 1990, they have spent at least $7 million buying property in a three-block area, as well as starting six businesses and owning 20 rental properties, an upscale villa community and related developments.
In June, the couple expects to open a $1 million, six-room bed-and-breakfast on the grounds of a restored 1880s farmhouse just outside Roanoke.
You don’t typically see those kinds of projects in small towns, said Mark Wickersham, executive director of Huntington County Economic Development.
They’re what you hope for in a corporate citizen, he said. I’ve never seen a business owner have that much personal pride. They also have a commitment to make sure that not only their business is doing well, but that the area as a whole does well.
The Eshelmans say that’s the only way to progress.
When we came here, there were a lot of elderly people that saw what we were trying to do and encouraged us, Alice Eshelman said. We want to do the same.
‘Make it come true’
Some folks, however, weren’t exactly thrilled with the couple’s acquisitions in town.
They remember in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, how vibrant Roanoke was, Alice Eshelman said. There was a little bit of that, Who do they think they are?’ feeling, but it’s much better now.
Tina Bobilya believes so. She is executive director of the Huntington County Visitor & Convention Bureau. Bobilya said the Eshelmans’ enthusiasm is contagious.
They’ve contributed to the overall look of the town in so many ways, Bobilya said. They have been an enormous help to downtown with the planning of events and other activities. When you drive down Main Street, it doesn’t look like a typical small town in Indiana. It’s not tired-looking. It’s appealing, and it’s still evolving.
Karima Davis of Fort Wayne wants to be part of the evolution. She owns the North End Boutique in Roanoke. Construction crews are renovating a former drugstore at North Main and East Second streets to make way for her women’s apparel shop, which is slated to open in August.
The establishment also offers visitors a place to stay with a suite and regular room above the 3,200-square-foot building. Davis purchased the 1800s structure from the Eshelmans. Davis is investing about $500,000 in property, furnishings and inventory.
I looked around at several different places, but I really liked what they were doing in Roanoke, she said. I’m going to be going to Italy soon to meet with vendors in hopes of bringing something really unique here.
The Roanoke Public Library is another project the Eshelmans have a hand in. They are landlords of the book center, which celebrated its one-year anniversary last week. The library moved from next to the Town Hall on North Main to sharing space with a Web design firm, marketing company, insurance agent and frame shop in a building that once housed a radio coil manufacturer.
Community members came together and raised $300,000 to renovate the space for the book hub, and the Eshelmans struck a 40-year deal in which the library pays utilities and $1 a year for rent. The arrangement boils down to a $1.2 million donation, Pete Eshelman said.
Library Director Celia Bandelier loves her new digs.
We have a fireplace, six computers and Wi-Fi access for visitors, which is really important because a lot of families can’t afford Internet, Bandelier said. When Pete came to me, he asked what would be your dream library. He helped make it come true.
‘The right fit’
Gary Hartley has run his auto repair garage in downtown Roanoke since the 1950s or, as he puts it, since dirt.
The mechanic says he’s been around long enough to know that without the Eshelmans’ contributions, Roanoke would be a much different place.
This town would have died had it not been for them, he said. There are so many towns where that happens. The one thing I would worry about is making sure the business district stays how it is.
Hartley said economic development is great, but he doesn’t want Roanoke to lose the quaint quality that draws people to the area in the first place.
Pete Eshelman said there’s no chance of that.
We always look for businesses that are the right fit, he said. We also don’t want this to be about us. If we drop off the map today, we want someone to keep it going. The horse-and-buggy days are gone, and we want Roanoke to be contemporary but still retain its small-town charm.
Oh, and whatever happened to the prodigal son?
He ended up coming back to organize his high school class reunion, Alice Eshelman said. He’s proud to say he’s from Roanoke now.