Historical society set to make over Ross Radio site

By Guy D’Astolfo

Historical society set to make over Ross Radio site

A $6 million fund-raising drive is planned for the downtown center.

YOUNGSTOWN — A building recognized for its role in the nation’s history will be transformed into a regional history center and a potential tourism destination, under plans announced Wednesday.

The Mahoning Valley Historical Society has bought the Ross Radio Building at 325 W. Federal St. downtown, and plans to turn it into the Mahoning Valley History Center.

Harry Burt, a confectioner, operated a candy and ice cream factory and store in the building in the 1920s, and he first produced his famous invention there, the Good Humor bar. The Good Humor bar, the first chocolate-dipped ice cream on a stick, represented a new way to eat the cold treat and became a national favorite.

After Burt’s death in 1926, his family continued to make and sell candy in the building until 1935, when it sold it to James Ross, founder of the Ross Radio Co., which has continuously operated at the location ever since. In 2006, the building was recognized by Parade magazine and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 most historic places in America.

The historical society bought the building without fanfare in September for $150,000, according to H. William Lawson, executive director. A capital campaign is being organized with a goal of raising $6 million: $4 million to renovate the building and $2 million for an endowment.

The MVHS is in the process of hiring an architect for the project. Lawson said there is no firm opening date, but he expects construction to begin in 2009.

The Ross building is across the street from the Western Reserve Transit Authority bus station, and is surrounded by privately owned pay parking lots.

Unlike many older downtown edifices, it is in remarkably good condition, said Lawson. “It has been continuously occupied since 1922,” he said. “A lot of it is original, going back to Burt. It was a candy factory, so it is utilitarian, but very original and interesting.”

A well-preserved 3,600 square-foot ballroom with a bandstand still exists on the second floor of the three-story building, said Lawson.

There are some unused parts where there is soot buildup, and plaster damage from a leak in the roof.

The Ross Radio Co. will remain in the building under a lease agreement, although its future is up in the air.

“We are looking for a new place,” said Jeff Clark, owner of Ross Radio, which does business almost entirely by phone and fax orders. The company sells electronic parts.

“We’ve shut down walk-in traffic. I might be able to run the company out of my home, or a small office, and just rent some warehouse space” for inventory, said Clark.

The eventual moving of Ross Radio will end its 73-year presence in the building. Clark, a Poland resident who has run the company since 1996, acknowledged that it will be hard to leave downtown. “Things will be different,” he said. “I’ve come here every day for 12 years.”

Lawson said the History Center will have several functions. “It will be more than a museum. It will have classroom space and exhibit space for large events. Space will be available for exhibits and for storage of the society’s collection” of artifacts.

Lawson said the Smithsonian Institute, the Library of Congress and many large museums prepare touring exhibitions which could be brought to the History Center.

The MVHS has long been aware of the space limitations at its signature building, the Arms Family Museum of Local History at 648 Wick Ave. That is the reason it began looking for an additional site.

The Ross Radio Building will not only meet the society’s needs, but play a role in the renaissance of downtown Youngstown, said Lawson.

The MVHS plans to move its archives — which are housed in the Carriage House behind the Arms Family Museum and in rented warehouse space at several downtown locations — to the Ross building.

Lawson stressed that the MVHS is not de-emphasizing the Arms Family Museum. The building, a 1905 Arts and Crafts-style mansion, is the former residence of Olive F.A. and Wilford P. Arms. It functions as an historic house, regional history museum and archives facility.

“The Arms residence is the most significant artifact in our collection and it is our responsibility to care for it,” said Lawson.

“But, it is also our responsibility to present the entire history of the Valley. The residence buildings were designed to be a private home, not a museum, and we are challenged every time we develop a new exhibit. Because of space limitations, we are unable to display the vast majority of our collection. We have little space for educational programs, and our ability to care for the collection is compromised because we have to store most of our artifacts away from the museum in spaces with inadequate climate control.”

The historical society’s board studied several locations before settling on the Ross building. “This site offers so much,” said Lawson. “First, it is a historic structure. And, with over 22,000 square feet of available interior space, it is a great facility to enhance the level of service we provide to the residents of the Valley. Its location downtown is also important and will hopefully stimulate further redevelopment of the city’s core.”

Lawson said the fund-raising campaign will first seek grants and large gifts from area businesses, corporations, foundations and individuals. The campaign will widen its reach after design work is complete, in about 10 months. A fund-raising company has been retained for the project.

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