Despite losses of manufacturing jobs, the area continues to thrive.
SALEM -- One has been downtown a long time, running businesses through 25 years of changes as dramatic as major employers' leaving and Wal-Mart's arriving. The other just got here, having decided Salem is a better choice than northern California to start a new coffee roastery.
But through the eyes of both -- the veteran Salem native and the optimistic new recruit from New Jersey -- downtown looks the same. Not only will it survive this latest batch of manufacturing jobs losses, they say, downtown Salem has yet to reach its potential.
"It's probably more of a challenge than it was 25 years ago," said Gary Abrams, owner of Tennille's children's clothing store and Kolby's men's and women's clothing stores. "We didn't have the discounters, the big boxes. The malls weren't as prominent. But, with all that said, downtown Salem has been a fortunate community."
Across the street at Friends Roastery, Peter Mitchell Lynch, known in town as "Mitch," has been in business for a year in a historic building that opened in the 1850s as the Thomas and Greiner Private Bank. The beautifully renovated structure is the centerpiece to fostering the type of warm atmosphere Lynch and his wife, Patricia Tinkler, want to see grow in Salem.
"We know we have to work to replace the industry, because this area has taken a huge hit," Lynch said. "But we were attracted to the area, and think that Salem has nice growth potential. It is a nice area, and we couldn't get close to buildings with this kind of architecture for this kind of money in California."
Lynch estimated starting his business in a comparable historic structure in California would have cost "$1.5 million to lease it, $3.5 million by the time you got in the door." While he didn't disclose his investment in Salem, he said his costs allow him to focus on building his business rather than staying in business.
Recent manufacturing downturns in Salem include the closing of Eljer Plumbingware, the announced closing of Crane-Deming Pump Co. and job cuts at American Standard.
While larger cities such as Youngstown and Warren have launched major redevelopment efforts to revive abandoned storefronts, Salem's quaint downtown remains solid and diversified -- clothing stores, top-notch restaurants, banks, sports bars, Realtors and gift shops.
Indeed, only two storefronts sit vacant in the downtown area. One was an art store, and the other was a jeweler. In both places, said Abrams, who is vice president of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, "something is in the works."
Downtown Salem, Abrams is quick to point out, is not just a cute trip down memory lane to buy antiques and candles. While the Salem downtown merchants want to develop that market, they also want downtown to offer just about everything a pedestrian needs.
They want to appeal to the out-of-towner passing through who is struck by the Americana charm of a classic main street, but they also want to draw their friends and neighbors. The merchants want to remain a viable economic engine for the community and do not want to become completely specialized, such as an arts and crafts mecca.
"You have to make your downtown a destination for people to come to. Give them a reason to come. It could be a lot of reasons, but you have to promote those and market, and that's what we're all about," Abrams said. "And we've seen that change, from 80 percent local shoppers and 20 percent out-of-towners, to 70-30, 60-40 and now, I'd say it's about 50-50."
Lynch's coffee roastery seems to live in two worlds -- the local coffee shop and the arty tourist stop. There's a substantial newsstand in the front of the shop, with artwork for sale on the walls in the back. Lynch and Tinkler -- a Youngstown native and the local link who brought the two to the region -- have worked to become part of the Salem community. The artwork on display is all by local artists. The tips collected in the jar on the front counter are donated to the local animal shelter.
"The artists do really well here," Lynch said. "Potters, painters and glass blowers. We had a yoga class in the room upstairs and packed the place."
Ready for change
The ability of downtown Salem to hold its own in the face of tough employment news is not surprising to Mayor Larry DeJane. While some small merchants decried the opening of Wal-Mart and the plans for Home Depot, DeJane said they are just proof of a cycle.
He can remember when Salem lost other major anchor stores such as J.C. Penney, Strouss and Sears.
"It's always changing. But I own a store downtown, and I think, compared to other downtowns in other small communities, we're in pretty good shape," DeJane said.
He credits downtown's resilience to planning. In 1993 downtown Salem underwent a major renovation to accentuate its look as a classic Midwestern city.
"The renovation made sure the city didn't die, it kept it breathing," DeJane said. "And Salem is a great place to live. I've lived here all my life, except when I was in the Marine Corps. I couldn't live anywhere else."
Abrams said Salem residents are not taking job losses lightly.
"I'm not here to tell you everything is rosy," he said. "When you lose the amount of jobs we have, it has some impact. But if you throw up your hands and say, 'We lost, they won,' then forget it. You have to continue to fight."
Days of downtown
Lynch believes downtowns such as Salem's are ripe for a comeback. Why? People have grown tired of the typical shopping experience, he said.
"It's kind of funny. We build movie sets that look like old downtowns when we have real ones that are getting dilapidated," he said. "We want to bring the community back downtown instead of continuing with the mall mentality."
Indeed, Abrams said many merchants hear compliments from visitors who say they wish their hometown looked like Salem. The feedback made business owners realize that their downtown already has what people are looking for, they just have to let them know it's there.
"It makes you feel good when people say nice things about Salem," Abrams said.
With so many downtowns in small cities struggling, some out-of-towners nearly have made a habit out of visiting those still thriving.
"We see it every day, but they're coming for the uniqueness of it," he said.
And then Abrams paused, looking out his storefront window, before saying, "Salem is a nice community. We're not utopia, we're not perfect, we wish we could bring some more industry in. But we've got good people here and we keep working at it. We started working when we saw what was happening, and that's what we have to keep doing."