By Todd Franko
A warm smile engulfs the face of Sandy Slanina when she mentions a memory of Strouss’ department store.
Ditto for Maxina Gohlke.
Terry Esarco mentions G.M. McKelvey’s department store.
“One of those two is where you always went when you came downtown,” he said.
Both are long gone and represent a former era of downtown Youngstown.
McKelvey’s was on the site of what is now state and county offices on West Federal Street.
And Strouss’ became 20 Federal Place — a city-owned tower that is home to businesses, restaurants and government services. Some Phar-Mor signs still grace it in some places — a memory of its last major identity.
And on Thursday afternoons in the food court, it’s the place you will find Slanina, Gohlke, Esarco and others who have bought into their mission.
Thursday is their day to come back downtown to eat, to shop and to reminisce.
It’s also a chance to invest in the future of downtown, and they’d like others to join an effort they launched several months back.
“We hear people say that they’ve not been downtown in 20 years,” said John Slanina, Sandy’s husband. “There was a gap when nothing was here. But it’s changed, and people have not been down to see it.”
Dennis Spisak is another of “The Wandering Diners,” as they call themselves, who joined me on a recent Thursday.
“At YSU conferences, they’d give us 90 minutes for lunch, and I could not figure it out,” Spisak said. “People would head out to lunch at the franchises on [U.S. Route]224. I enjoy it downtown. [There’s] more value for your money. It’s a hidden jewel that people need to rediscover.”
Rediscovering is key to rejuvenating, said Spisak.
“Recovery starts from the center — the heart and soul. Downtown is a great place to spend an afternoon.”
The group has been doing this for several months, and slowly spreading the word.
One tool for them is the Internet. On mahoningvalley.info, they have a message board where they and others share places they went downtown and items they were able to get downtown.
Places to eat are a main topic.
But hidden services slide in as well: Alterations, men’s clothing, jewelry, watch repairs, eye care, a bookstore, collectibles, shoes, pizza, hair salon.
Jim Villani is the owner of Pig Iron Press publishing company on Phelps Street. He’s been downtown since the ’70s and said right now, nighttime traffic downtown is better than daytime.
“I welcomed these folks in,” said Villani, who touts that “officially” there are 85 various business-services available on his street alone.
“We need more [patrons like] this.”
Sure, there is a need for leaders who look to rebuild downtown one business at a time, one sold-out concert here and there, and one building developer a year.
But quietly in the corners of Tommasino’s pizza shop or in line at the yogurt stand, downtown also needs folks such as Spisak, the Slaninas, Gohlke and Esarco — leaving the lives they lead around other parts of the Valley to take in downtown — again.
“It may take a while to catch on,” Sandy Slanina said. “But we’re going to try.”