STOCKTON — Steven Mongeau remembers as a kid in the 1980s the char-broiled burgers he got at Stockton’s famous Cindy Lou’s restaurant and ice cream shop, both located in the side-by-side buildings at 409 and 411 Main St.

“When I grew up, Cindy Lou’s was a restaurant that was very well known,” he recalls. “I was probably in Junior High and if you brought your report card in with certain grades you got something free.”

His favorite was the Cindy Lou burger and a large chocolate shake.

All that’s changed. The restaurant is long gone and the old location has seen a number of businesses come and go.

Mongeau, likewise, came and went. A career in real estate, economic development, urban planning and historic preservation led him to Los Angeles, but in 2015 he returned to his hometown. Now at 46 he’s back at Cindy Lou’s with a plan to bring the old buildings on Main Street back to life.

“We’re really, really excited, we just signed a lease for the east side building,” Mongeau said during a tour of the two properties on Wednesday. “These buildings are really large, so we’ll break it into smaller spaces, incubator spaces, for small businesses.”

The idea is something similar to what Mongeau and his business partner Denae Denio-Odle did at their Stockton flower and gift shop, Twig & Vine, 406 Main St., which they opened in March 2018.

“Twig & Vine is kind of the model for all the buildings we’re doing on Main Street,” Mongeau said.

The shop sells chocolates, balloons and fresh flowers, has a candy counter, a tanning salon, a hair and nail salon, an antique shop, Mongeau’s corporate offices for Rooks County Holdings L.L.C. upstairs, and Denio-Odle’s Twig & Vine interior design firm.

“It’s worked out as a good collaboration, by breaking up these big buildings into multi-users, so that people can get started without having to buy the whole building and having all your utility deposits,” Mongeau said. “It’s hard to get a business off the ground, and even harder in small towns. With this you can rent a small space, get in, start to build your clientele and either move into a larger space, or continue on.”

With $25,000 in financial seed money from Rooks County Economic Development in Stockton, Mongeau and Denio-Odle formed the 501c3 non-profit Main Street Development Inc. about a year ago, said Roger Hrabe, economic development director for Rooks County Economic Development. The owner of the two buildings, Barbara Schindler, Stockton, donated both of them to Main Street Development.

Then Dec. 28, Heartland Community Foundation, Hays, awarded Main Street Development an $8,946 grant to repair the Cindy Lou buildings for business incubator spaces.

“It’s a big Main Street for a small town,” said Hrabe. “It’s a lot of buildings, so keeping everything full is a challenge.”

For the Cindy Lou buildings, the idea has been to get grant money and begin fixing them up, Hrabe said. That’s the plan with the Heartland grant, Mongeau said.

“If I wanted to do these kinds of projects in L.A., I’d have to be a multi-millionaire,” he said. But with the Heartland grant, Main Street Development will put in some walls to separate the two buildings, and install new heating, air conditioning, a hot water heater and plumbing. Tenants will do most of the cosmetic finishes, like flooring.

In the smaller building, 409 Main St., which is 1,175 square feet, Mongeau plans to add a camera-ready commercial kitchen fully compliant with state regulations by the end of 2019. Small business owners making jams and jellies and other food products can rent it out, and it can also be used to host parties, as a pop-up restaurant during hunting season, or to film cooking classes, he said.

The new tenants in 411 Main St., which is 2,054 square feet, are Shey and Jed States, Stockton. They are opening their Five One Five Studios. Shey will relocate her hair and nail salon from Twig & Vine. Jed, a tattoo artist, will open his tattoo studio, while continuing to work in Hays at Sore Loser Tattoo and Body Piercing Studio, 717 Vine St.

“Mainly it’s because I want to spend a little more time closer to home, and still come over here and tattoo the people who don’t want to make the drive,” said Jed States. It’s possible Five One Five Studios may open by May, he said, adding “We’ll see how it goes.”

The dilemma of old buildings on main street is one familiar to small towns everywhere, Hrabe said. They can be torn down or fixed up. Fixing them up can be very expensive, and tearing them down can leave a big hole in a downtown street, he said.

“The Heartland grant allows them to stabilize the building,” Hrabe said. “They can go in and fix it up and there will be multiple businesses inside. That is one of the most successful models for getting new business started.”

Tenants, who couldn’t otherwise afford to buy their own building and fix it up or invest in a commercial kitchen, can just pay rent.

“It’s something you’re seeing more and more of in the small towns in rural areas,” Hrabe said. “It’s a great way to take a home-based business and turn it into a commercial business and expand. You incubate the business in there and they grow up and get bigger.”

In 2018 and 2017, about nine new businesses started each year in Rooks County, Hrabe said. That was a decline from 2016, due to oil and farm commodity prices being down. In 2016, 19 new businesses were started, he said. Typically the business owner is someone already in the community, or they have a local tie, or they had ties and have come back to the area like Mongeau.

Generally, Hrabe has seen that 70 percent of the businesses that start up in his area survive.

“Of the 19 that started in 2016, 14 or 15 survived,” Hrabe said. “Those that didn’t, the people either moved, sold the business or transitioned to something else, so they were not all failing.”

Since Mongeau returned to his hometown in the Spring of 2015, he’s purchased and renovated properties in Hays and Stockton through his Rooks County Holdings.

In Hays, those include the old El Charro motel, 2010 E. Eighth St., in 2016, which he fixed up by remodeling the inside. This summer the outside will get a make-over. Now the Rustling Pines Lodge & RV Park, the units are fully occupied, Mongeau said. Rooks County Holdings also purchased the Sunset Motel, 500 E. Eighth St., completing a full historic renovation that was finished in October, 2108. Now Sunset Court Apartments, the units are fully leased.

In Stockton, Rooks County Holdings has done historic renovations of The M Motel, 1401 Main St., and the Owl Motel, 521 N. First, now the Owl Motel Apartments.

Things are moving fast for the Cindy Lou project as well. Friday morning Mongeau met with another prospective tenant, he said.

“We met with someone wanting to open a cafe this morning,” he said. It’s his hope that ultimately people in other towns and cities will visit Stockton to shop and eat on Main Street. He gives credit to the Stockton Chamber of Commerce for its backing.

“Our Chamber is awesome,” Mongeau said. “They’ve been very supportive.”

Jayne Prockish, executive director of the Stockton Area Chamber of Commerce in Stockton, said Mongeau has taken an interest in helping the community grow and remain viable in a world where small communities are often forgotten.

The renovated building that houses Twig & Vine and the companion retailers has provided a fresh frontage for Main Street and rejuvenated businesses, Prockish said. The Chamber applauds their efforts and looks forward to helping with their efforts, she said, particularly since downtown Main Street defines the community.

Main Street Development’s Cindy Lou project will add businesses and job opportunities too.

“The spirit and excitement they show in saving and renovating the existing buildings on Main Street has inspired others to work at renovation of their store fronts,” Prockish said in an email to The Hays Daily News. “One building, one business at a time helps to preserve and revive our community. Their mindset brings hope, energy and vision to the town residents that their town will continue to grow and remain alive for future generations.”

The Chamber also has that mind set, she said, “and works to promote that it takes the whole community working together to bring people to our town, supporting our local businesses and keeping what we have, as well as bringing in new.”

Mongeau hopes to secure more grant funding, as he expects the total investment in the Cindy Lou buildings will run about $140,000.

“I’m a believer in economic development through historic preservation,” Mongeau said. “We have a unique built environment here and we should do everything we can to preserve it.”