DULUTH – The buildings had once been a haberdashery, a tea store, a bank. One had been, most recently, a call center. But mostly, storefronts in this Duluth neighborhood had been empty.

Then businesses with a handcrafted bent began moving in.

"This was empty for a really long time," said Candace LaCosse, inside the hip home of Hemlocks Leatherworks, a studio and storefront where LaCosse fashions custom shoes. The company's mascot, a mini dachshund named Oliver, barked at the latest visitor.

And there are many visitors these days. Once seen as a rundown stretch in the western part of the city, this business district has experienced a makeover at the hands of makers — starting with businesses that manufacture camping packs and craft beer. With the help of a city-run loan program, targeted to this ZIP code, a flurry of businesses have renovated brick buildings along Superior Street in a blue-collar neighborhood long known as Lincoln Park. Since 2015, at least 14 businesses have opened in the district, the city reports.

"This has always been a neighborhood of makers," said Shannon Laing, director of partnership development at Ecolibrium3, a nonprofit in the neighborhood. "Now, we have people who have come into the neighborhood and invested in the neighborhood and realized, 'Hey, we're this generation's version of makers.' "

On a recent Saturday, the area recently dubbed the Lincoln Park Craft District teemed with people who peeked inside a soon-to-open pottery studio, watched a man fashion a wood bench in the new Duluth Folk School and browsed for canvas bags at Frost River.

Oh, and they waited in line at a trendy restaurant. Because any neighborhood revamp seems to need one of those.

"It was like night and day once they opened," LaCosse said of OMC Smokehouse, the barbecue joint that opened next door in February. "Some days," she laughed, "you can't find a place to park."

That's a new kind of problem for Lincoln Park, a neighborhood previously known — some say unfairly — for petty crime, low incomes and cheap bars. When Chris Benson decided to move Frost River into a two-story brick building beside a pawn shop, his wife, a Duluth native, thought he was crazy, Benson said.

"She said I was not allowed to come down here at night," he said.

Benson never intended to transform the neighborhood. He just coveted the West Superior Street address for online sales, which then made up the vast majority of his canvas and leather bag business. "I felt the address was superior," he joked. But when Bent Paddle Brewing popped up across the street, Benson was optimistic that the craft brewery would help bring folks into Frost River's first-floor store.

"I remember very distinctly saying, 'If they bring 70 people a week down here, we win,' " he said recently. "Well, there's 70 people in that brewery in the first half hour they're open."

Sales in the Frost River store have grown faster than via their website, surprising those in charge, said David Hoole, marketing coordinator. Six years ago, "people were apprehensive to visit us," he said. "As we've been getting neighbors also making cool stuff, there's been more and more traffic."

Restaurant boost

In 2013, Benson called Tom Hanson, owner of the Duluth Grill, the popular breakfast-to-dinner, farm-to-table restaurant in west Duluth. There's an empty storefront across from Frost River, Benson told him. Perfect spot for a second restaurant?

At the time, that perfect spot was "a disgusting old bar," as Hanson put it. He took a look at the place, then listed at $90,000, backed away after a health scare, then drove by again a year later, after successful surgery. The owners were asking less: $57,000. Hanson and his wife, Jaima, bought it for $37,000 cash.

Then they stripped it down to the studs.

During the two years it took to renovate the building, the pair traveled across the south — to Texas, Missouri, South Carolina — eating, working in restaurants and picking up tips on making good barbecue. In February, they opened OMC Smokehouse, its initials winking at the slow-cooked meats they serve: Oink, Moo, Cluck.

The place is packed regularly, with dozens of diners on the waitlist. Hanson alerts customers to their open table by text so they can explore the neighborhood: Go have a beer at Bent Paddle. Check out Hemlocks Leatherworks next door. And soon, for dessert, try Love Creamery.

Construction is underway in the building beside Frost River, which Benson also owns. The family behind OMC Smokehouse will open a deli there, next to what will become a permanent home for Love Creamery and its locally made ice cream. Benson had considered all kinds of businesses for the space but wants "people around me that bring additional, similar customers to the area," he said. So he declined an offer from an insurance company that called. He turned down a vape shop (which he misheard as "bait" shop — maybe a more likely fit).

After two years of making ice cream from scratch and selling it from her cart, Nicole Wilde, the owner of Love Creamery, had her heart set on the Lincoln Park neighborhood. She had offered $60,000 for a building. But the cost of renovations — $550,000 to $600,000, plus pricey kitchen equipment — was too much.

That's a common problem in this area, where the buildings, "while more affordable than many other parts of the city, needed quite a bit of investment to render them safe and operational," said Jason Hale, a business developer with the City of Duluth. So last year, the city partnered with a nonprofit to create the Advance West program, lending businesses as much as $50,000 to buy and rehab buildings. Some of that's forgivable, depending on how many employees a business hires.

So far, four businesses have taken the city up on the program, Hale said, with several more in the midst of the application process.

For Wilde, renting space rather than buying it made opening a shop possible. Knowing Benson and Hanson have her back helps, too.

"I feel like I'm taking a big leap here," Wilde said. "But I know I have these other individuals who are going to help me make my business happen just by the fact that they're working to make their businesses happen."

Coolness quotient

Giving a neighborhood tour on a windy afternoon, Hanson greeted fellow business owners with a broad smile: "I'm being the neighborhood ambassador," he explained. He asked about their new windows, their marketing, their plans for the district's open house the next day. Again and again, he offered his help.

Hanson "is like the one-man concierge," said Karin Kraemer, who opened Duluth Pottery last month in what was once a bank, then a paint store, its back so close to Bent Paddle that guests could smell the day's mash. Hanson encouraged Kraemer to move to Lincoln Park, where she's discovered like-minded business owners. "This is where I want to be — where people are making things and doing things."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168