Toasting an undeniable downtown surge

This morning, an 11 a.m. brunch will mark two years in business for The Lemon Grove restaurant and cultural hub in downtown Youngstown.

It’s two years that have been a lifetime for owner Jacob Harver.

And also for downtown.

Downtown Youngstown, a gasping shell of what it was two generations ago, has had pockets of residential and social business activity for years, from Caf Cimmento in one corner to Cedars in another, to the Draught House and spot places in between. (And you have to mention the Royal Oaks, just on the fringe, as an established downtown place, or the Kennedys will morra you into submission.)

In addition to its places, it’s had its residents, such as Rich Mills and Jimmy Sutman and James Pernotto — all living where they want to live.

But each of them hoping that someday, others may feel the same.

Today just may be the day.

A new neighborhood sprouted up overnight within the last few weeks with the tenants of the Federal Building moving in — 14 units making for 20-some instant neighbors.

A week ago, Al and Fidaa Musleh opened Downtown Circle convenience store, a sparkling place to munch and mingle.

Vernon’s Caf is set to open soon the V2 Wine Bar Trattoria on the first floor of the Federal.

And it goes on for about five or six more significant projects in a 12-month span that can’t help but make you stop and say — it’s happening.

“It’s people who are not forced to be downtown due to cheap prices, but who are here because it’s cool,” Sutman said. He moved here in 2000, in part because of cheap prices.

He and his wife live on Phelps Street and moved in after they opened Iron and String Life Enhancement for disabled adults below them. Sutman said he could not afford Boardman office prices of the 1990s. Unwanted downtown space at $44,000 was what he could afford.

The Phelps building was supposed to be offices for their multifaceted ISLE agency, which includes Touch the Moon Candy Saloon — a must-stop for my kids when we’re downtown.

Then his wife, Jill, saw the second floor.

“This is where I want to live,” Sutman recalls her saying.

More are saying that now.

Sutman and Harver point to a collision of reasons, not just one.

It’s Youngstown State University’s new Williamson School of Business; it’s Realty Towers; it’s the Youngstown Business Incubator; it’s city efforts and tax credits; and it was the now-closed Rosetta Stone restaurant.

And within all these places, it’s the people.

“There’s a new generation that’s not satisfied with living in the suburbs. It’s not our bag,” says Sutman, a former Poland resident, college grad and soccer coach.

Harver remembers sitting at the Imbibe bar years ago for a brainstorming chat about downtown. Just beyond age 21, he and the crew envisioned a downtown that was like any big-city destination, but yet kept what he calls the “quintessential Youngstown — like Cedars, Royal Oaks or Kravitz Deli.”

“We’ve come a long way from talking to doing, and it has so much more potential,” Harver said.

What’s inspiring and interesting, too, are the names that have gotten behind this latest surge.

The Gattas are based in Niles; Dominic Marchionda’s company from Poland is taking on the Erie Terminal building; Strollo Architects’ six decades of Youngstown experience is rolling into a $4 million plan for the Wells Building; Gloria and Roger Jones helped make the Oh Wow! children’s center.

This is not a mix of out-of-town speculators and Internet buyers from North Carolina.

And from a residential perspective, you have to include the decision two years ago by Mike Morley and Anita Lin to be the first folks to buy into an upscale downtown life with Realty Towers. Lin said it’s a decision they don’t regret and has only gotten them more invested in their “neighborhood.”

“Realty Towers has been fabulous for us,” Lin said. “It’s great to walk everywhere. And whenever we have meetings with our groups, we schedule them downtown. We rarely use our car.”

She said at last count, Realty had 14 of the 23 units filled. She and her husband marked their one-year Realty anniversary last year with $100,000 in donations for downtown groups.

They’re also investing in the future with the downtown Paramount Theatre demolition/facade-saving/park effort. And while they’ve decided for the near future to spend more time living in their New York City apartment and less in Realty, Lin said that will only make her and Morley more driven about downtown.

“Our efforts are even more focused because our time here is more limited,” she said.

One of the new Federal residents is Phil Kidd, and where Phil goes, so too does organizing, engaging and assessing.

Friday night was his first Friday night in Federal. And Saturday morning was his first morning-after cleanup walk — his effort to contribute to his neighborhood.

Among the cleanest storefronts of all the nightspots was the Love Lounge, now called Club Xclusive — an 18-month-old urban club that some folks whispered would kill downtown momentum. Well?

And of the night before, Kidd said it was a scene to behold. Crowds spilled out of every nightspot in view of his apartment. Traffic crawled. Police casually walked the street without much adieu. It was a rollicking downtown scene. And the sun rose Saturday.

My grandfather left Ireland as a young man and jumped on a boat for the States. His steamer trunk sits in our Poland living room. I often wonder what his family thought from the shore as the boat faded west into the waves and he eventually found Buffalo.

Crazy and scared, I’d guess initially; but ultimately proud and grateful, I would hope, that someone risked, then gained for themselves and for others.

I hope, pray and expect that 20 years from now, we’ll be able to look down on a thriving downtown and its latest incarnation.

The heated debate that moment will not be if downtown is worth it or not, which seems to nag at us now.

But instead it will be to whom do we give proper credit:

Frangos or Sutman? Mills or Morley? Cedars or Lemon Grove? Gatta or Marchionda? Mayor Williams or Mayor 2013? YSU or YBI?

I’d hope they’d raise a Rust Belt beer and toast them all.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at He blogs, too, on

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