Making a Difference
in Downtown Kent
by Heidi Shaffer, Kent City Council Ward 5
owntowns are neighborhoods just as much as they are places for commerce. As city council representative to Kent’s center city neighborhood, I have a unique opportunity to meet and get to know the people that keep Kent’s downtown alive and well. A person I have known, for the 12 years I’ve been renovating my home, is Sue Nelson.
Owner of Sue Nelson Designs, Ltd., Sue has been a downtown community member for 30 years. She is passionate about localism and sources her products first locally, then regionally and then nationally. Early to embrace the green movement, Sue has turned down products that were green but made outside the United States, not just for quality reasons, but more importantly, says Sue, for local jobs.
“It has to start here,” Sue says about the economy. Jace McMillan, a knowledgeable employee you would be likely to meet at the store on South Water Street, calls her staunchly local perspective Sue-enomics. Sue says your dollars are your votes for the kind of place in which you want to live, work and socialize. “It’s the life cycle,” she says. “We’re all linked together and our local spending creates a ripple effect.” Sue Nelson’s Designs opened in 1989 after her brother, Bruce, and her husband, Rick Davis, persuaded her to buy the old Kline building, then a market and sandwich shop. Sue called the pressure she got to start the business a tsunami although now she recognizes it as a calling.
Mo and Fran Kline helped finance her and she received a special city loan and a loan for minority-run businesses. Together with her husband and brother, they painstakingly restored the building. They removed the black and white vitrolite glass that covered the facade and stripped the wallpaper layer by layer. Sue had the original wallpaper duplicated which is what hangs in the store today.
Even though Sue’s primary business is in the city of Kent, her economic impact is county-wide. Sue and her husband now own a paint store in Ravenna and they have a farm and workshop by West Branch State Park. Their storefronts and shops employ more than a dozen local craftspeople who build furniture, paint, hang wallpaper, and lay floors. Several more employees staff the stores, assisting customers with skillful advice and friendly smiles. Two of her adult children work in the business doing furniture upholstering and window treatment installation. Sue also hires autistic children and adults who otherwise may not have an opportunity for employment. Sue says she loves to “see them bloom.” By force of her personality, strong moral compass, and a work “flow” that she has developed through the years, Sue keeps the business flourishing.
Growing up, Sue was one of eight kids with a father who was a carpenter. Working for her father, Sue’s job was to sand, varnish and paint. In high school and college, she started a sideline business sewing drapery and bedspreads for teachers and professors, some of whom are still her clients. She began study at Kent State in the Home Economics department and then transferred to Hiram College to complete a degree in art tailored to her interest in design and fabrics. Sue’s first job out of college was to work for Jacob’s Paint & Wallpaper for 10 years where she learned more about paints and varnishes and “things I would have never learned anywhere else.” While at Jacobs, she was part of the eminent team that restored the old train depot which is now the Pufferbelly Restaurant.
According to Sue, the business is the last true design studio in Northeast Ohio and many of her clients are regional and even international. Her business comes largely by word of mouth or walk-by, which is how I encountered it.
During the many projects involved with restoring a student rental back into a Craftsman-style single family home, I have visited the store on a weekly, sometimes even daily basis. I have found I can call in orders ahead of time and they keep my paint colors on file. The convenience of having the store close by frequently outweighs any cost savings I might obtain by driving to a big box store. In the end, it is the quality and the friendly, expert advice that create a sense of partnership in my projects I would not get elsewhere. And I get the satisfaction that my dollars stay in the community, helping to keep the roads repaired and the safety forces paid.
“Kent has treated us well,” Sue says of the support and patronage individuals, craftspeople and institutions such as Kent City Schools have provided. In return, Sue gives back to the community, at times offering her expertise at no charge for small businesses and churches. She recently helped the Kent Natural Food Cooperative choose its interior color scheme and she cheers on efforts by businesses and organizations to improve downtown facades and public spaces. Sue said her own store is planning some exterior updates and she looks forward to planting her sidewalk and hanging flower gardens this year. Along with Kent residents, Sue mourned the loss of her friends at Kent Hardware, but was quick to integrate some of their essential services like key cutting and repairing door and window screens into her business to help in the transition.
Over the years, Sue and her business have become an integral part of the neighborhood fabric. Her youngest children, Gordon and Tia, were raised in downtown Kent. The shopkeepers who looked out for them include Emory the barber, Carl of Franklin Square Deli, Karen of City Bank Antiques and many more. Recently, Sue joined the Chamber of Commerce to support its community-building efforts. Each year, Sue Nelson’s offers a Black Squirrel ornament created by a local glass artist and will soon be unveiling a new locally-made ornament celebrating Kent.
Sue carries local jewelry, period lighting, and decorative art—much of it by local artists. A new line of locally designed and built leather-and-tapestry upholstered furniture is currently receiving interest in New York City upscale design circles.
Sue Nelson Designs is a local gem with a growing international status. It is the kind of business we can be proud to have in our downtown neighborhood.
Sue Nelson Designs carries three major paint labels…
…all manufactured within 200 miles
– Pratt & Lambert, Benjamin Moore, and Pittsburgh Paints.
Not only are your dollars staying in the region,
the product you’re purchasing is eco-friendly.