SHELDON—While much has been reported on the demise of downtowns in rural communities, Sheldon has fought off that negative trend.
The downtown district of the O’Brien County community of about 5,200 is filled with boutiques, gift shops, clothing stores, Hispanic markets, shoe stores, professional service offices and more.
In fact, only one downtown storefront remains vacant in the community’s main hub.
“We have every building full except one, how many towns can say that?” said Amy Van Marel, who owns Mr. B’s and Lady B’s in Sheldon.
As proprietor of the women’s clothing store for the last 23 years, Van Marel has seen the ebbs and flows of downtown Sheldon up close.
“A lot of people have gone in and out of business since I’ve owned this store,” she said.
However, she noted downtown is going strong and many of the stores feed off each other’s presence. It also helps because the district offers a variety of stores and services.
“Personally, our store draws from like a 60-mile radius because we have a lot of things other small towns don’t have,” Van Marel said. “There’s five of us that sell women’s clothing, so we have something to fit everyone from teenager to when you’re 90 years old. Come to Sheldon, somebody will find something for you.”
In addition to the amount of places to patronize, the customer service offered by locally-owned retailers also appeals to shoppers.
Maria Schwartz of rural Sheldon is a semiregular at the downtown shops. She said likes the great selection of items, enjoys supporting local business, and likes the helpful and friendly nature of shopkeepers and their employees.
Van Marel provided an example of Sheldon’s renown customer service Tuesday afternoon
At various points, Van Marel was grabbing garments for one shopper in the dressing room, helping another try on clothes in an adjacent booth and later she chatted with a third customer about their families.
“My favorite part of my job is customer service,” Van Marel said. “That’s why we draw so many people from other towns. There’s not many people who will help pin up their pants if they’re too long — we do alterations — if they need help dressing we help them dress.”
Having is strong central core is something Sheldon Chamber and Development Corporation executive director Curt Strouth is quite proud of.
His office works to recruit and retain business in the community, and he is aware of the challenges shopkeepers are seeing.
“Cash flow for small business is difficult, small business in general can be difficult because of all the competitors out there, especially in the online market — dealing with the Amazons and everything online — it makes things difficult,” Strouth said.
SCDC has two incentive programs to help small businesses. One is a forgivable loan to help with exterior renovations, and the other is similar loan that helps finance interior renovations up to $15,000.
“If we are able to leverage dollars to help our local small businesses grow and stay in Sheldon and continue to prosper, then those are the programs we want to put in place,” Strouth said.
Having a prosperous downtown is a great marketing tool for the community.
“Sometimes, the health of downtown can be determined by vacant storefronts,” Strouth said. “If you’ve got a bunch of vacant storefronts, that can be detrimental to a downtown and it can be hard to revitalize it because if you are trying to recruit a business to Sheldon. Seeing a bunch of empty storefronts, it tells you business probably isn’t very good here.”
Sheldon’s downtown did take a blow with the loss of Dollar General, which moved to a new store off Highway 18 in November. However, that large space did not sit vacant long.
It is occupied by The Warehouse on 3rd, a new store owned and operated by Megan Helgeson (Kats) and her siblings.
Her family also owns and operates Hallmark stores in Sheldon, Sioux Center, Sioux City and Spencer.
“You need local entrepreneurs to be able to step up like the Katses — and you got a number of them downtown — you need to be able to do that, fill those gaps and be able to continue to move forward,” Strouth said.