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SPOTLIGHT: Man working to revitalize Vandalia

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VANDALIA, Ill. — Tony Flowers is taking a lot of liberties in downtown Vandalia.

And they've come up roses with a string of successful businesses that have "liberty" in their name and success in their bottom lines. The effect has been to seed some life and sparkle back into an area of town on West Gallatin Street which looked pretty but was also pretty dead from a retail point of view before Flowers turned to his fellow citizens and said: "Well, what kind of new shops do you want?"

The surprising answer, within a couple of blocks of each other, turned out to be a new fabric shop called Sew Liberty and a store retailing all kinds of specialty cheeses called the Liberty Olde Towne Cheese Shoppe. That's right next door to the Lamp of Liberty Coffee and Ice Cream coffee shop, which isn't that far from the Liberty Stop, Drop-n-More eBay consignment store.

The eBay emporium offers full online listing, pricing and pictures for clients yearning to rid their attics from huddled masses of stuff they no longer want. It's now in the process of moving to bigger premises it will share with a gun store called Liberty Trading Guns and a collectible coin business named, of course, Liberty Trading Coins & Precious Metals.

"Why 'liberty' in the names of all my businesses?" asks Flowers, an Army veteran. "Well, I'm a patriot."

And fearless when confronted with launching new business sorties in an area many other retailers had written off as missing in action. The retired builder had fired his opening salvo on Gallatin Street rather inadvertently when he was looking for a fresh business venture with his son, Sam, and son-in-law, Sean Cook, and came up with the idea of the Liberty Trading Coins & Precious Metals, the first shop to bear the Liberty name.

"We deal in numismatic (collectible) coins and gold and silver bullion," he explains. "We've had some real old 1700/1800 coins and we've done well." The coin store opened downtown in May 2010, and he says it wasn't long before they had a number of famous football and basketball player clients (they don't like being named) and from there, Flowers got into building specialty cases to house sports memorabilia such as jerseys. That resulted in a spin-off business called Liberty Custom Woodworking & Engraving.

Customers kept pouring in and, in between buying, were constantly bemoaning the lack of places to spend their money on the elegant but moribund Gallatin Street. A big city landscaping project to beautify and clean up some three retail blocks of the highway had resulted in what Flowers described as two years of construction that made shopper access a no-go nightmare.

"When it got done, the street was beautiful," he adds. "But it killed many of the local businesses."

So Flowers posed that question about what new retail people were hungry for and combined the various requests with some ideas of his own. Using rented space, he followed the coin shop with the woodworking shop and the other five additional Liberty-themed shops in just four months between June and September 2011, answering the public need and creating 15 jobs while he was at it. Other entrepreneurs have since followed his lead, and now businesses ranging from a day spa to a clothing boutique and alterations shop have joined the Gallatin revival movement.

Grateful customers see his Liberty empire as the shining beacon that started it all by forcing back the encroaching edges of retail darkness and creating a warm, comfortable spot to shop locally. Beverly Hood, 71, is a major Flowers fan and one among a group of 11 or so good-humored and rather raucous friends who gather at the Lamp of Liberty every week for coffee, fun, food and fellowship.

Recalling the days before the Liberty shopping renaissance, Hood says you could have fired a gun gown Gallatin Street after 5 p.m. most days and been pretty safe from a charge of reckless homicide. "Now there are people here, cars parked, and the restaurants are all busy," she announces with pride. "It's exciting."

Peggy Williams' late father used to run a drugstore where the coffee shop is now and says watching the old building come back to vibrant life is special. "It means a lot to me," adds Williams, 65. "If Tony Flowers hadn't have come along, it all would have kept dying."

The accidental retail hero, who keeps saying he never intended to spend his retirement saving the day, remembers there were lots of nay-saying voices keen to try and dissuade him from ever trying. But apart from a Herculean work ethic, it turns out the 5-foot-4, 136-pound Flowers has a got a muscular stubborn streak.

"When somebody says 'You can't do this, you can't do that,' it just makes me want to show 'em I can," he explains. "And so I did."