Once the economic engine of the Mill Creek Valley, the village of is barely recognizable today as the regional hub of manufacturing and retail activity that it was decades ago. But a small group of Wyoming and Lockland residents are working to turn the page in this community and bring back its economic viability, starting with one mission – to re-furbish the Stearns and Foster office building.

Entrance to Gertz Garden Center from Wyoming Avenue.

Wyoming resident and entrepreneur Margee Moore and residents and business owners Cody and Sara Gertz are working together to lead Lockland Rising, a group of concerned citizens teaming up to save Lockland’s historic buildings.

The Gertzes bought the old Stearns building from the city of and converted the garage and yard into a thriving landscaping business.

It all started with a casual conversation over landscaping selections at Gertz Garden Center, says Moore of the day last year that she and Gertz started discussing the future for the Stearns building and the village of after she stopped in to purchase plants. Cody and Sara Gertz had purchased the building for their business, and Moore says as a keen historic preservationist, she was interested in what would happen to the structure. She is also looking to launch a co-working venture, and the old building is a perfect space for such an endeavor.

Cody and Sara Gertz, owners of Gertz Garden Center, which occupies the former garage and yard space next to the old Stearns and Foster headquarters.

“We need to start somewhere,” she says of the group’s initiative. “ Rising is committed to turning Lockland’s vacant buildings into usable spaces that benefit the entire community.  Our first goal, however, is to reinvent this building as a small business incubator to spur economic growth for the neighborhood.”

Cody Gertz, a lifelong resident who says he is committed to finding new growth and jobs for the town, says he hopes this project will propel investment in the area.

“We really just feel like this building could be the catalyst for a renaissance in our neighborhood. It sits right in the heart of town on a prominent corner. If we can bring life back to the center of town, the hope is that it will impact everything.”

The old garage structure, which is now the heart of Gertz Garden Center, was filled with rotting equipment and assorted trash before the Gertzes cleaned out the structure and stabilized it to turn it into their business operation.

While big visions of business revitalization are still in the long-range concept phase, Moore says the only concrete plan at this point is to replace the roof of the derelict Stearns building to prevent more water and environmental damage.

A community fundraising campaign (details to be announced soon) will be launched with a goal of raising at least $30,000 for a new roof. Up until this point, the Gertzes have done a great deal of work themselves with the help of friends and family to shore up the structure by boarding up broken windows and painting exterior trim to make the building more attractive. The biggest impact by far, however, has been the refurbishing and utilization of the empty garage space as a welcoming garden center, operated by Sara and Cody Gertz.

These renderings of the future renovations inside the old Stearns and Foster building show how it could be converted into usable business space. The renderings were provided by A359.

Once the roof is replaced, more work can commence on the rest of the structure to bring it back to its architectural glory. The exterior renovation will preserve the building’s early 20th Century heritage, but the interior will be 22,000 square feet of contemporary, upscale office space that will serve a variety of business needs, says Moore. The total costs of rehabbing the building are expected to top $1 million.

For those unfamiliar with the history of and Stearns and Foster, it was once a leading employer in the region with thousands of square feet of manufacturing space for the upscale mattresses marketed around the country. The Stearns family built many homes in Wyoming, and was a key part of Wyoming’s early history. Lockland was a village bustling with business activity from the manufacturing site, as well as many retail businesses that served the employees and their families as well as neighboring communities like Wyoming.

The company was sold to Sealy in the 1980s, and the factory space gradually fell vacant. The factory buildings were razed several years ago with the hope that new business would move into the acreage. ’s fortunes followed that of the mattress giant, unfortunately, with jobs and retail activity declining as the manufacturing site emptied. Lockland Mayor Mark Mason says he is optimistic this cycle can be reversed, however.

“I’m excited to see the vision of Rising and support their efforts in preserving the historic former Stearns and Foster office building,” says Mason. “Preservation and revitalization of our existing buildings, as well as the development of the former Stearns and Foster factory site, are the first steps towards economic growth in the entire community.”

Winds of change are also stirring in the village with the rise of new leadership. Last November, a new team of leaders were elected who want to spur economic growth. In addition, this August, HCDC (the Hamilton County Development Company) received a Duke Energy Foundation Grant for $20,000 to focus on economic development and readiness for the 12-acre Stearns and Foster Factory Site.

Wyoming City Manger Lynn Tetley says she is thrilled to see momentum building in Lockland to develop the historic community with growing businesses that will help it thrive again as an important part of the of the and its heritage.

“This is really exciting to see this initiative get underway,” says Tetley. “We support our neighbors in Lockland as they strive to preserve their historic village and draw new business ventures.”

Lockland Rising will be at Wyoming’s Fall Festival (Oct. 6 in Wyoming’s business district) and at Lockland’s Fall Festival (Oct. 13 in the village of Lockland) with more information about the initiative, plus t-shirts and other goodies. To learn more about the project, or to volunteer to help, go to locklandrising.org.