Crown Corp. breathes new life into old Ohio farming community

The company hopes a refurbished downtown will revive the historic district.
NEW BREMEN, Ohio (AP) -- The refurbished downtown of this western Ohio farming community could give "company town" an attractive image.
Thirty-four of the 36 shops and businesses in the historic business district, many dating to the 1800s, make up the corporate offices of Crown Corp., which manufactures forklifts.
Buildings owned by Crown are leased out as a coffee shop and office of the chamber of commerce. The result is that New Bremen, 45 miles north of Dayton, is a 21st century version of the "company town," and the 6,000 residents like the idea.
"We're about as close as you can get to a perfect town," said Gregory Myers, executive director of the Southwestern Auglaize County Chamber of Commerce.
"I know it sounds like I'm a booster for Crown, but from a chamber standpoint, we're really happy they decided to buy the old properties, upgrade them and stay here," Myers said.
How it began
Crown chairman and chief executive James Dicke II said Crown faced a tough decision in the late 1980s -- where to expand. Instead of building elsewhere, Crown bought downtown New Bremen, one building at a time.
"The downtown was run-down," Dicke said. "Many of the buildings were being used for storage or rented out as inexpensive apartments. The businesses were moving to the outskirts of town.
"The downtown buildings were not being kept up," he said. "If we were going to stay here -- and we wanted to because my grandfather, who started the company, was born here -- we needed to help the town remain vibrant so people would want to live and work here."
Crown started to buy buildings along Monroe Street: The old five-and-dime store, the doctor's office, a furniture store and the former town bank buildings were purchased and carefully rebuilt.
Over the past 15 years, Crown has bought every building available in the downtown business district. The company now owns almost all of them in the town center, except for a pharmacy and a grocery store.
More than offices
From the outside, company buildings don't look like offices. They are fully restored, turn-of-the-century businesses, each with the name of the company department it houses written discreetly somewhere on the building. Crown also opened a free bicycle museum, featuring bikes more than a century old.
"Look at this. Beautiful, isn't it?" Mark Manuel, a Crown vice president, said of the ornate woodwork in the town's only movie theater. "This was originally a movie house, opened back in 1913, ironically called the Crown Picture Show. It was closed after a fire in the 1940s, reopened briefly and closed again to become a print shop and later a senior citizens center."

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