Unlikely Developer Becomes Catalyst for Downtown Spencer Revitalization

Mike Sudol stands in front of the historic Agricultural Epitomist building, now loft-style apartments.

What started as one man’s way of generating retirement income is bringing a small downtown back to life.

In 2010, Mike Sudol, a businessman in the tech industry, left his life of international travel behind to settle down with his wife in Spencer, Indiana. Mike had long been interested in downtown architecture and real estate. When land near his home went up for auction, Sudol decided to purchase and renovate the property. With subcontractors and a bit of elbow grease, he and his wife fixed it up and turned it into a rental property.

Mr. Sudol realized renovating old properties was something that he enjoyed. Shortly after, in the summer of 2012, an old historic building in downtown Spencer with its façade subtly engraved, “Agricultural Epitomist,” went onto the market.

An original copy of the Agricultural Epitomist (dated 1902) that Sudol acquired to learn about the historical significance of the building.

The three-story limestone structure along South Main Street, constructed in 1910, was originally built to print a famous farming periodical circulated throughout the country. The Agricultural Epitomist was a publication with an audience of people leaving the east coast and settling on large plots of land in the Midwest and throughout rural America. Many were unfamiliar with rural living and farming and turned to the Agricultural Epitomist to educate them on when to grow certain crops and what farming machinery to use. At one point in time, the magazine had over one million subscribers. Eventually, the publication’s name was changed to “Farm Life Magazine” before shuttering in the 1930s.

Like many rural areas across the country, when big box stores came to Spencer, many small businesses closed their doors, devastating downtown vitality. After the magazine shut down in the 1930s, the building served a variety of purposes. When the Agricultural Epitomist building was put up for sale, Cook Medical was funding the historic Tivoli Theatre’s renovation, also located in downtown Spencer. The Sudol’s were inspired to bring The Agricultural Epitomist building back into good use when he saw the theatre being transformed. A town Sudol had thought was dying showed potential of returning to the vibrancy of a century ago.

The renovated Agricultural Epitomist building. The upper floors house tenants while the bottom floor awaits the perfect commercial business to fill the space.

Once the Agricultural Epitomist building was in his possession, Sudol rolled up his sleeves and got to work. The building was in bad shape and in need of work. A new roof, windows, and a heating and cooling system were installed first. The rest of the restoration took two years to finish, with Sudol doing all the design work himself. Upon completion, Sudol had created five four loft-style apartments and first-floor commercial space.

Having never worked in real estate or historic preservation, Sudol learned along the way. He read up on the subject (which included original copies of The Agricultural Epitomist from 1898 and 1902) and learned about best practices from around the country. He also got involved with Spencer Main Street and the Historical Society to build community connections throughout the renovation process.

Over time, other downtown buildings came onto the market. The Sudol’s bought what was previously an Odd Fellows Club and, in 15 months, turned it into his wife’s current business, The Dragonfly Gallery. Around the time of the Gallery’s opening, both the Tivoli Theatre and Mainstreet Coffee opened, creating a newfound liveliness in and around downtown Spencer.

The inside of The Dragonfly Gallery honors the building’s past exposed brick, wood floors and beautiful hand-carved columns.
The 60 E Market St building now features renovated commercial space and loft-style apartments on the second floor.

Sudol next renovated buildings at 54 and 60 E Market St to create three commercial spaces on the ground level and three loft-style apartments on the 2nd floor.

“If a community has a strong economic base, good schools, is close to nature, and has community involvement, then it has real potential for success,” said Sudol. “Spencer has all four.”

It just took an unlikely resident to become a small-town developer and a catalyst for change. Mike Sudol is an excellent example of how everyday residents can significantly impact and help transform their communities and, in the process, advance possibility and prosperity in the Indiana Uplands.