DOWNTOWN Young investors hope to give city a new lease on night life
Since last summer, six bars or nightclubs have opened or plan to open downtown.
YOUNGSTOWN -- As midnight nears, twentysomethings in fitted tops and designer shoes grind to thumping electronic music inside Core, a chic new nightclub breathing a vibrant beat into a downtown trying to rebound.
The posh decor, dry martinis and sleek clientele seem a world away from the dingy facade and crumbling theaters near the bar on Federal Street, the heart of Youngstown's once-fabled night life. It is one of about 10 bars or clubs now open in the downtown that boasted dozens in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the times are a-changin'.
Determined to breathe some night life into downtown, young investors are trying to remake Youngstown into a trendy, upscale destination with restaurants, coffee shops, theaters, loft apartments and nightclubs.
Three bars have opened on Federal Street since the development of an entertainment district last summer, and three more upscale bars are to open there this year.
"Everything in this town is ESPN and chicken wings. It's time for a metropolitan vibe," said Bernard Morinelli, 32, who opened Core in April.
Drawing people into the city may prove difficult after decades of urban flight. Beyond general pessimism -- "Youngstown is dead," insists Billy Danielson, 23, of Hermitage, a photography major at Youngstown State University -- downtown ventures face competition from the familiar comforts of suburban franchises and perhaps irrational fear of a city that through the 1990s sustained one of the highest homicide rates in the country.
"I wouldn't go down there," Mindy Guyen of Boardman said last week of Youngstown as she sat in a bar in her hometown. "I'd get raped and murdered."
The city's reputation for violence is a tough hurdle to clear, acknowledges Jeff Kurz, 28, co-founder and board member of the Youngstown Arts and Entertainment District Association.
He contends the reputation is misplaced. Most violence, he said, is in the outlying urban areas.
"Downtown is probably the safest place in the Mahoning Valley," he said. "We see what Youngstown can be -- and that's a classy, upscale place."
Investors and city leaders say the key to rebuilding downtown is to link a vibrant night life with arts and entertainment hubs, including the Youngstown Convocation Center and 600-seat Eleanor Flad Pavilion addition to the Youngstown Symphony Society's Powers Auditorium.
"The downtown has to be a destination, not an event," said Kurz, whose Wine and Martini Bar is to open later this year at the former First Federal Savings and Loan building, 124 W. Federal St.
Seeking a mix
As late as the 1980s, Youngstown was "a jamming town," said Dennis Roller, a former booking agent who brought music legends such as Ray Charles and The Spinners to downtown.
"Every weekend there was a big entertainer," said Roller, of Liberty. "You never had to worry about a place to go."
The emergence of punk in the 1970s and 1980s spilled into bars such as Cedar Lounge at 23 N. Hazel St., a spacious club with well-worn hardwood floors and abstract paintings on the wall.
While noted nightspots such as The Tomorrow Club and Tony's Hideaway are gone, Cedar Lounge is among a handful of bars to survive the downtown decline. A small blue-and-red neon sign hangs in the window, the sole notice to passers-by that life lurks inside the first-floor bar and its adjacent restaurant.
Cities such as Youngstown prompted state lawmakers to allow the creation of entertainment districts, a designation that allows communities to exceed liquor-license limits to encourage new bars and restaurants to open.
The idea is to mix a vibrant night life with retail, education and residential space to entice young professionals to downtown.
Since Youngstown had reached its quota for liquor licenses before the entertainment district formed, new bar owners typically paid between $20,000 to $40,000 to out-of-business establishments.
Youngstown's designation opened up 15 new licenses at $2,300 each. The district covers about 120 acres from South Avenue to Belmont Avenue.
Other cities with entertainment districts include Columbus, Dayton and Sandusky.
'An artist's town'
On Tuesday, live jazz wafted from a center stage. Two dozen people, a mix of baby boomers and college students, sat hip to hip around a U-shaped bar that bears the dings and ring stains of age.
Plunked down at a table, Tony Valenzisi tapped his feet and sipped at a pint of Guinness as the quartet sank deep into a venerable John Coltrane tune.
"These guys are worthy to play on any world stage. That's the absolute truth," said Valenzisi, 40, a guitar teacher who lives in Boardman.
Teddy Pantelas, the ponytailed guitar player, has played at Cedar Lounge every Tuesday for the past 16 years.
Seated on a stool under a fuchsia light, Pantelas, 46, feathered his fingers across the electric guitar, melding with the drums, key board and stand-up bass.
Behind wire-rimmed glasses, Pantelas glimpsed at the small gathering and flashed a toothy smile.
Pantelas prefers this stage. This is his crowd, and he thinks it can only grow.
"Sometimes people come, and sometimes people don't," Pantelas shrugged between sets. "But there is a lot of potential in Youngstown. I think more and more people are realizing this is an artist's town."