Cleaning up an image

New signs for the Riverbend Business Park will greet visitors.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Businesses in the city's Riverbend section have had it with weeds, trash, abandoned buildings and a lack of respect.
They've banded together to clean up the area between the Mahoning River and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and are working on long-term improvements. The area, which is under the Madison Avenue Expressway bridge over the Mahoning River, was once called Monkey's Nest.
"We decided to take back ownership of our neighborhood," said Aggi Butler, office manager at Carney Plastics, 1010 W. Rayen Ave.
Some of the businesses rely on retail customers, so they hope the improvements will help sales.
"We've expanded here twice," said Laura Lonardo, sales and marketing director for DiRusso's Sausage, 1035 W. Rayen Ave. "We want people not to be afraid to come here."
Others don't have retail sales but still have customers visit their shops.
"We bring in people from all over the world," said Michael Kovach, president of City Machine Technologies, 773 W. Rayen Ave. The company rebuilds and repairs industrial equipment for clients across the globe.
Continuing investments
Brian Benyo, president of Brilex Industries, said the industrial companies in the area have invested large amounts of money into its buildings and machinery. For that investment to continue, the owners want to make sure the long-term future of the area is sound, he said. Brilex makes equipment for the steel industry.
The business group's first step came last month when they joined forces for a neighborhood cleanup.
The biggest concern were areas around abandoned buildings and overpasses. Trash was picked up. Overgrown grass was cut. Weeds were pulled. Trees that had grown up around the sides of old buildings were torn out.
Rob DiRusso, president of DiRusso's, was thrilled to show off a sidewalk along Manning Street behind his company.
The sidewalk had been covered with four inches of mud and littered with trash. Another neighbor, Dominion East Ohio, lent some heavy equipment to remove the mud and debris, and the business leaders found the sidewalk underneath was in good condition.
The next step will be the installation of signs that mark the area as the Riverbend Business Park and point the way to businesses inside.
"Everyone gets lost coming down here the first time," DiRusso said.
The area had been called the Riverbend Industrial Park, but the business owners are using a different name now because not all of the companies are industrial.
Looking ahead
DiRusso said the group's long-term goals are to focus on the abandoned buildings, lobby for having the roads repaved and correct street signs that are missing or inaccurate.
The most important job is getting some action on the handful of vacant buildings, he said.
City officials have been supporting the cleanup of the area and working with the business leaders to haul out trash and brush, but dealing with abandoned buildings is much more expensive, he said.
The business leaders hope the city will help them tear down a few smaller buildings, but their largest concern is the former Butler school building. DiRusso, whose business is next door, received an estimate of $200,000 to tear down the building because it contains asbestos.
DiRusso said he isn't sure what will happen to the building in the long run, but for now he is asking city officials to board up the open doors and broken windows.
Making sense
Kovach, from City Machine Technologies, said improving the area makes good business sense because it has highway access, sewers and sound buildings. The area just needs maintenance so it can remain an attractive place to locate a company, he said.
Once the Riverbend section is improved, property owners in other parts of the city might join forces as well, he said.
Last year, businesses along Andrews Avenue teamed up to complete similar work. They cleaned up their properties and erected signs that said Andrews Avenue Industrial Parkway in an attempt to unify the area and create some pride in the business district. City Machine also was part of that effort because it has a small plant on Andrews.

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