DECATUR — Phil Hoots began working with Macon Resources Inc. just a few months ago, but has already been rewarded for his talent and expertise.
Hoots is the groundskeeper for MRI. “I just picked out what I like,” he said. “And I thought I bought too much.”
His efforts were honored on Thursday as MRI was one of the winners in the Beautify Decatur Coalition's annual “Let’s Keep Decatur Bee-utiful” contest, now in its ninth year. The nonprofit organization, which works with children and adults who have developmental disabilities, won the award for Best Signage. The flowers and greenery surrounding the blue-and-white sign — Hoots' handiwork — added the attraction judges were looking for.
“And this was my first project,” he said.
The coalition this year revamped its annual contest, a tradition among local businesses working to beautify the community. In the past, businesses earned recognition in different categories based on the number of employees, but this year the contest was changed to allow all businesses to compete in different categories.
Awards included Best Use of Flowers, Best Landscaping, Best Use of Signage, Most Litter Free, and the online popular vote, Best in Show. Coalition members surprised the winners throughout the past week, with each receiving a trophy and a gift certificate from a local business.
Contest co-chair Jill Davis said this year’s competition was more enjoyable for the coalition members as well as the judges. “We’re not concentrating on all of the nit-picky details,” she said. “And the businesses are getting into it as well.”
The organizations and businesses chose which category they wanted to compete in. After the judges reviewed the submitted photos, they selected a few to visit for the final judging. All competitors were automatically registered for the Best In Show, which was selected by online popular vote.
“We’ve had thousands of people come by our site and vote,” Davis said.
The judges consider many aspects during the award process, but the decision is usually based on what they call the "Wow Factor."
On Monday, Mike Wilcott, Jill Applebee and Jamie Gower from the Decatur Park District accepted the award for the Most Litter Free business in front of the Devon Lakeshore Amphitheater in Nelson Park. The amphitheater received the award because the judges said they were impressed with the staff’s ability to clean the area hours after a big event.
“We visited all of the businesses the morning of July 5 after they had a party on July 4,” said judge Ellen Hearn. “They had over 4,000 people here all day long.”
The judges arrived at the amphitheater 10 hours later and the area was free of all litter. “That clinched it,” Hearn said. “All the other establishments were gorgeous and looked great, but how many of them had 4,000 people drinking and partying the night before.”
Wilcott praised the hardworking crew at the Nelson Park maintenance, but also gave credit to the community. “You see guests not only pick up their own stuff, but often they pick up others' (items that) someone might have left behind,” he said.
According to Wilcott, an average show at the Devon Amphitheater ends at 10 p.m. The maintenance crew works quickly and are often leaving within 30 minutes after the crowd. “As soon as the wave of people move out, our wave of staff goes right behind them,” he said.
On Tuesday, employees of the Brass Horn Too were given the Best Use of Flowers award. “We were surprised and honored,” said Kyli Heckenkamp, co-manager.
The managers said they know their elaborate flower plants and pots are a positive addition to the area.
“We feel lucky to be a part of downtown as it grows,” Heckenkamp said. “People talk about how nice it is to walk around downtown Decatur, and that’s because of how nice the storefronts look. It draws people into your store.”
George Streckfuss is the co-owner of the Brass Horn Too, which opened in 2017, and the men's clothing store The Brass Horn next door. The latter business has been a downtown staple for nearly 29 years.
“We have won before,” he said. “We have a nice store on both sides and we just want to be appealing when comes in. That is your front doorstep.”
The larger planters are decorated to represent the store.
“The pink is the Brass Horn Too’s branding,” said Stacie Ostrander, co-manager. “The big pink pots with the yellow ties all of that together.”
Along with the trophy, the Brass Horn Too employees received an office chair from Striglos: Everything Office and gift certificates for Papa Murphy’s pizza.
“All of this for just having pretty flowers outside,” Ostrander said.
Julie Stalets and her staff at Coffee Connection on North Main Street accepted the Best Landscaping award on Wednesday. “We spend a lot of time keeping it up,” she said. “It’s nice to be recognized and be able to thank these guys.”
A past award winner in the contest, Stalets said she understands the importance of keeping an attractive storefront.
“It is important for the community,” she said. “When you see a business and it looks pleasing aesthetically, that attracts customers. And it’s a nice experience for them.”
Many businesses may find it challenging to devote the time and cost to maintaining curb appeal. “You just have to take pride in it,” Stalets said.
Stalets chose to compete in the Best Landscaping category because of the restaurant’s entire outdoor display. “And because of the things our customers have said,” she said. “They enjoy it, sitting on the patio.”
Amy Bliefnick, executive director of MRI, said the agency tries to do its part to keep the city beautiful.
“I love Decatur and it’s a great place to live,” she said after receiving the award on Thursday. “The more we can each take ownership in making what we have here, the better image it helps us portray throughout the world.”
More than 3,000 votes were cast in the Best in Show category, a welcome addition to the contest. The Art Farm, a downtown retailer selling the work of local artisans, was the winner with 741 votes.
Organizers said the category was a welcome addition to the contest. “We thought this would be a really fun way to involve the community,” Davis said.
“We feel this was successful,” said co-chair Susan Avery. “We may tweak it a little bit but we are going to do it again.”
Art Farm owner Peggy Baity received a $500 certificate from Lowe’s Home Improvement along with $250 worth of gardening tools. “I have regulars that have supported me since day one,” Baity said.
The front of Art Farm can be easily seen from Central Park, but the back of the store is also impressive with a mural and other painted features.
The store opened less than two years ago, so receiving the award was a special honor for Baity.
“It means the world to me,” she said. “I picked this location just on my heart; so far it has served me well.”
Baity was already thinking about how she could do more for next year's competition.
“Maybe I’ll buy better plants next year,” she said. “I try to top myself every time — that’s how you grow.”