When Juan Vasquez looked to build his own restaurant away from the many Mexican ones that already populate the Cleveland region, he sought an area devoid of Mexican food.
His cousin-in-law, who lives in the township, recommended Vasquez scope out Belmont Avenue in Liberty.
First, Vasquez noticed the high traffic levels running north from Youngstown and south from Interstate 80. Second, he noticed the new Walmart also on the avenue.
“They don’t just build those for no reasons,” said the 26-year-old Vasquez. “They do they research.”
So he opened the doors of Fiesta Tapatia at 3632 Belmont Ave. on Aug. 8 and became one of five businesses to open along the avenue in the last 30 days and one of 70 that opened since 2003.
All along the corridor, gas stations and restaurants that were empty for decades are now hotels, shopping centers, food manufacturers and newer, mostly locally owned restaurants.
“We are the next big area for development,” said Pat Ungaro, Liberty Township administrator since 2003.
Before taking the reins in Liberty, Ungaro was Youngstown’s mayor for 14 years, from 1984 to 1997. He said during that time, Ungaro learned to market the city’s assets to businesses.
It was that philosophy, and the business contacts he developed in Youngstown, he brought to Liberty and realized its greatest advantage was its highway access with state the Route 11, 711 connector and Interstate 80 interchange. And unlike his time in Youngstown, the growth in Liberty comes without tax abatements.
Township trustee Jody Stoyak said another factor in Belmont’s improvement is its appearance. She said before Liberty became a home-rule township in 2006, zoning inspectors were limited on the standards to which they could hold property owners.
“Blight kind of progressed going north,” she said of Belmont.
But after 2006, the township could keep tighter zoning control on the businesses. With that, Stoyak and 30 volunteers planted flower beds in boulevards and grass curbs with new red and gold Liberty welcome signs placed at all the township’s entrances.
“It’s kind of a nice greeting,” she said.
Ungaro said the improved appearance snowballed by increasing residents’ pride in the township and encouraging residents to invest into it. Locals opened restaurants such as Jimmy’s, an Italian restaurant, and Charley’s Grilled Sub that replaced vacant bars and gas stations. Then came retail chains such as Citi Trends, Aron’s and Walmart.
“I called Arkansas every day,” Ungaro said of the four-year ordeal of bringing Walmart to Liberty.
The growth still is slowed by banks not lending as freely as they used to, Ungaro said. But he believes the township is set up for more growth in the future by installing water and sewer lines in 2006 on the north border.
“[Near] Youngstown, it’s all about revitalization; by [Interstate] 80, it’s all about stabilizing, and north of that is all about the future,” Ungaro said. “We lost everything a little bit at a time. But now we’re gaining it back a little bit at a time.”