WARREN -- While business closures might typically cause a downtown to shrink, Warren officials are fighting back with a plan to revive the heart of the city: Make downtown bigger and better.
A proposal to expand downtown might sound odd when there already are more than two dozen empty storefronts or partially vacant buildings within what traditionally has been the downtown business district.
But according to city planners, the best approach to attract tenants to the empty buildings, many of them classic designs in good structural condition, is to avoid a piecemeal approach.
Instead, they want to make the entire area more marketable by developing a consensus on what's desired and needed, explained Anthony Iannucci Jr., director of the Warren Redevelopment and Planning Corporation, and project manager Michael Maggiano. The logic behind expanding the downtown boundaries is that it will give the city a greater variety of properties to offer potential tenants.
While downtown Warren has taken its share of economic lumps, it remains a bustling business center in many respects. Dealing with the vacant buildings as part of a comprehensive plan is the best way to both preserve the city's architectural legacy and reinvent downtown for the 21st century.
"It's changed and it's never going to be what it was before," Iannucci said. "Our intent is to take advantage of the amenities we have and make it the best it can be right now."
A look around downtown Warren shows the area has much to offer: Green space dominates a historic Courthouse Square that gives the city a charming small-town appeal. The district is home to the busy centers of Trumbull County and city government, plentiful parking, restaurants, the Mahoning River, an outdoor amphitheater and beautiful homes along Millionaires' Row. Downtown also includes numerous law offices and an appeals court that serves five counties.
Although some people have a negative perception about downtown, a closer look reveals "it's very vibrant," Maggiano said.
A bigger downtown
City council's approval eventually will be sought to expand downtown as part of an overall review of its design, the officials said.
The district's borders now are Washington Street to the north, Chestnut Avenue to the east, South Street to the south and Mahoning Avenue to the west. Atlantic Street would be the new northern boundary, moving slightly beyond Chestnut to the east, Fulton Street to the South and Tod Avenue to the west.
The larger area will bring more challenges, however. WRAP has inventoried all 259 buildings within the proposed district and created a database of buildings and rental options for prospective tenants. The inventory shows:
U247 businesses in the surveyed buildings.
U88 buildings with space to lease.
U39 buildings with residential space.
U28 vacant store fronts.
U22 totally vacant buildings.
U29 business owners who didn't cooperate with the inventory.
"There are a lot of businesses down here that are successful; there are a lot of employees here," Iannucci said.
There also are several businesses that have closed or relocated, dealing downtown some setbacks but also providing an opportunity to reinvent Warren's center:
UOn East Market Street, the Robins Theater, former Lord Chesterfield shop and S.A. Barnes building are vacant. However, a closed pawn shop and hairdresser in the 200 block were purchased recently and will be redeveloped, Maggiano said. At the corner of Vine and East Market, WRAP negotiated the sale of a city-owned lot and a new building is going up for Doeberling-Muccio Physical Therapy.
UOn West Market, the former Showcase Books and Army-Navy store are gone. But Little Johnny's has opened an eatery nearby. That storefront and its neighbor, plus the Mahoning Building, are owned by Northcoast Holding Co., an arm of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. Further out West Market, in the area that is part of the proposed downtown district, is the site vacated by Diane Sauer's Martin Chevrolet, which moved to another location close to downtown.
UOn North Park Avenue, Richard's and Come to Your Senses recently closed. But those locations already have been purchased for future development, Maggiano said. Another business, Sprint, has moved out from quarters at the corner of Park and South.
UThe state Bureau of Workers' Compensation announced in July 2003 that the agency plans to close its office downtown and move the 74 employees to Youngstown. The BWC uses the Gibson Building on East Market Street. City and county officials protested the plan to close the Warren office. Jack Gibson built the $4 million building in 1997 to bureau specifications. It's being advertised as for sale or lease.
"Unfortunately these are some large buildings. But we have to look at that as a large opportunity," Iannucci said.
Most of the buildings are old but nowhere near tear-down condition, the officials said. The city also has special building codes and incentive programs that can provide flexibility for remodeling and facade fix-ups.
"The reason we are saying, 'Downtown Warren -- Back to the Future,' is we want to emphasize and accentuate the historic aspect of what we have," Iannucci said. "The last thing we want to see on the square is a missing tooth."
Some of the upper floors have nifty spaces for loft apartments. "One of the biggest things we need is residents downtown with disposable income," Maggiano said.
WRAP is 25 years old; it has a 25-member board and various committees. Iannucci, the former city auditor, has been on board since 1997 and in charge for two years. Maggiano worked in the automotive supply business for 30 years and had his own business in Michigan before returning to Trumbull County. Both are Warren natives.
The downtown business district revitalization program began in August 2003 and that's when expansion was envisioned. There were a number of "idea exchange" meetings with downtown business owners. Sessions also were held with the Urban Design Center of Northeast Ohio in Cleveland, affiliated with the Kent State University School of Architecture. The center is now working on a final report.
Promotion a key
WRAP's strategy to attract businesses downtown involves economic restructuring -- including tax incentives -- and help with financing and grants. The planners also formed a business subcommittee to bring in ventures that should be in the area and to assist those already there. The approach closely mirrors the National Trust's Main Street program.
Once the pieces are in place to lure businesses, a campaign to promote downtown will be critical, Iannucci said.
"Now, you've got to go out and sell it," he said. "We need to create downtown Warren as the destination, not an individual store, stop or business."
The goal is to work on the overall plan through 2005 and have a comprehensive proposal finished by year's end.
"If we have a plan and we can get everybody to participate, then everybody collectively would feel better about spending their money," Iannucci said. "We think if we develop that attitude, then we've got a chance for real, lasting development in downtown Warren."
Iannucci said people have to be patient, however, and understand that having a well-conceived, detailed plan -- not just ideas -- is important because it will pinpoint how community leaders want downtown Warren to look and how to make it happen.
"Let's put the plan together and then we can say, 'Here's how your building can fit into this plan,'" Iannucci said.
Maggiano also has a message for anyone already considering a business venture downtown: "We don't want people to stop just to wait for us. Go ahead -- we'll fit you into the program."