Five years ago, when local business visionaries John Oglesbee and Connor Walters looked at downtown Longview, they didn't see blocks of empty buildings.

Instead, they envisioned the cornerstone of a cultural hub, where people could connect with each other and cultivate ideas in the heart of the city.

Put simply: They wanted to revitalize downtown Longview into a place where people could feel like they belong.

"We wanted to be in downtown because it had the most potential to bring a uniqueness to Longview and to bring the heart of Longview back into existence. We wanted to create energy in our community," said Walters, one of the owners of Silver Grizzly Espresso.

"We saw this as a building block into revitalizing downtown Longview into a unique cultural environment where people feel like they belong, where people feel like they can thrive. That has been our goal. I realize it sounds very simple, but the fruits that come out of that are immeasurable. When people are able to come together and feel like they belong in a space, when they can collaborate and share their stories, good things come out of that and we are seeing that right now in our community."

That vision which started with Silver Grizzly Espresso and Oil Horse Brewing Co. occupying opposite street corners in downtown Longview has spread. More individuals have come forward to open restaurants, boutiques, salons and a variety of other small businesses, continuing downtown revitalization efforts.

In 2020, despite a pandemic, downtown Longview experienced significant growth. At least 10 new businesses opened and historic buildings were transformed into housing.

More growth remains on the horizon as more spaces are being renovated to house future businesses that will continue to push downtown Longview toward the cultural hub that Walters, Oglesbee and a slew of other small business owners believe it can be.

"This year was rough in so many ways, but if you take downtown Longview alone and look at that as the center of the universe, 2020 has been amazing," said Longview Main Street Coordinator Melida Heien. "We have had so many new businesses open. It has been exciting to see such a transformation take place downtown. We are on a really good path for our future."

That future started about five years ago when Oil Horse Brewing Co., a local brewery, and Silver Grizzly Espresso, a local coffee shop, each opened in 2016 at the corner of Tyler Street and Center Street in the heart of downtown.

"When we came in in 2016, we liked the space and we liked where we could see downtown going, but we were really the only business down here," said Oglesbee, who owns Oil Horse Brewing Co. "Silver Grizzly came in shortly after us. Combined, it really helped to perk up downtown and we kind of became the anchor point."

Oglesbee recalled working with other downtown businesses at the time, laying forth a vision for what the community center could one day become. Then in May of 2017, downtown Longview suffered a devastating loss when longtime restaurateur Gerald Rodriguez passed away. Rodriguez owned Tyler Street Bistro and the adjacent upscale bar, Gerald's, on Tyler Street.

"It was devastating personally and it was devastating for downtown," Oglesbee recalled. "Gerald pushed so hard for the community. He was one of our biggest cheerleaders when we started up. He was really excited about where he could see downtown going with us."

After his death, downtown Longview suffered several additional losses as other businesses shuttered, turning several once-occupied storefronts into empty shells.

"Between us and Silver Grizzly, we kept the anchor here," Oglesbee said.

Both Oil Horse Brewing Co. and Silver Grizzly Espresso strived to be a hub for the community. Oil Horse began hosting weekly events, such as trivia nights, to draw crowds downtown in the evening while Silver Grizzly served as both a daytime and evening hotspot for people to meet friends and business associates or to find quiet time alone.

Between the two locations, they began creating a "vibe" that the community enjoyed.

"Over time, other people started to become excited about what we were doing here and other people decided they wanted to join us," Oglesbee said.

That included people like Laura and Chad Nevils who have played a role in opening two downtown businesses this year, Books & Barrels and Ollie's Skate Shop. Books & Barrels is a bookstore and wine bar while Ollie's Skate Shop, which Chad Nevils co-owns with Zahck Israel, sells items that can be used at Longview's new skatepark, Dodson Action Sports Complex.

"Downtown has a great vibe," Laura Nevils said. "I really just want people to come, hang out and have a good time."

The bookstore has played host to meetings and book clubs who patronize the store and enjoy the local wine and beer selection available at the bar. Nevils said opening a small business during the COVID-19 pandemic set back Books & Barrels planned opening date, but she said it allowed time to put finishing touches on the business.

At Ollie's Skate Shop, Chad Nevils said the most difficult aspect was getting inventory. Many items ship from California, where a shutdown was more stringent than in Texas.

"We hope the renewed interest people have had in getting outside will help continue to drive our business in the future," said Israel, who also owns Longview Cabinets. Israel and his wife also relocated the cabinet shop in 2020 to Cotton Street near the heart of downtown.

In addition to Books & Barrels and Ollie's Skate Shop, other new businesses that opened downtown in 2020 included Lumberjacks Axe Throwing where patrons can try their hand at axe throwing; CoCo & Meg, a boutique; Blush Salon, a hair salon; Booboo's Place, a bar; The Lab on Center, a creative space with various shops and services; Little Light Pediatric Therapy, which provides therapy to children with Sensory Processing Disorder; Phine Salon + Apothecary, a salon that also sells beauty apothecary items; and Wild Honey Creamery, which produces small batch ice creams made in-house.

"We started out with just a little cart and our owners went around and did different events, private events. When they decided to open up a shop, they wanted to be downtown," said Logan Davis, a manager at Wild Honey Creamery. "It's a really nice place and there's a lot of opportunity down here with different businesses."

Such "opportunity," as Davis described it, has led to a collaborative spirit among the small business owners downtown. Wild Honey Creamery features ice creams made utilizing coffee from Silver Grizzly and Oil Horse's Big Inch flavor. Meanwhile, Silver Grizzly keeps Oil Horse beer on tap and Books & Barrels sells Oil Horse's beer.

"We all work together and it's really fun," Davis said.

Deborah Bolton, who has owned the downtown sandwich shop Deb's nearly 20 years, said she has been excited to see the growth taking place downtown.

Bolton opened her lunchtime restaurant in 2003 in downtown Longview because she wanted to be off the beaten path. By maintaining quality food and affordable prices, Bolton has thrived downtown.

"We're personal here, our customers are like family," she said. "One of the benefits of a small business is that you get to know your customers."

Newer business owners echoed those same sentiments of striving to create a more personal environment and customer service.

In addition to small business ventures, downtown Longview also saw a new event venue, Landmark Social, open in 2020 and finishing touches were placed on new downtown living options.

Heritage Tower, located inside a historical building at 208 N. Green St., began taking applications for apartments to serve seniors 55 and older or people with disabilities. Meanwhile, the historical Petroleum Building was converted into the Alton Plaza apartment complex earlier in the year. Alton Plaza has income and rent restrictions but no age restrictions.

Heien said the new living options have "transformed our downtown from being just a commercial core to being an actual neighborhood, an actual community."

Oglesbee said the new downtown living options will continue to facilitate the atmosphere that small business owners are striving to achieve.

"I think our future is really rallying behind small businesses as best we can," Oglesbee said. "If we're getting some additional people who live down here that is going to help to solidify what we have for an anchor down here. I hope that one day this is a place where people can do almost everything they need to do without having to leave downtown."

In 2020, despite the growth that downtown saw, Oglesbee was among business owners forced to shutter amid COVID-19 restrictions placed on bars. So, he adapted his business model.

He purchased an automated canning line to speed up the process of canning Oil Horse beers, which were previously canned by hand. Focusing on partnering with other businesses to sell Oil Horse products, he grew his outside accounts from seven to about 40, an increase of nearly 500%.

Likewise, Silver Grizzly Espresso had just opened Silver Grizzly Coffee Roasters right before the pandemic hit. At the roastery, Walters and his team focus on creating their own in-house coffee that can be distributed to others to use in their own coffee shops or sold by the package. Going into 2021, Walters said the business is focusing on its online and wholesale accounts.

Both Silver Grizzly and Oil Horse hope to grow outside accounts so that those accounts sustain their business model. That would mean sales in-house at the coffee shop or brewery would simply be added funds, but the businesses would not be threatened to permanently shutter if in-house business declines, such as it did during the pandemic.

"We want to make our business more sustainable," Walters said. "By doing so, we can invest more into our staff, we can invest more into our customers and we can invest more into our community. We intend to be here for the long-term and we want to give back to our community."