By Ashley Luthern
Downtown has undergone many changes over the last century, but the neoclassical facade of 26 N. Phelps St. has remained nearly untouched since its 1910 construction.
The building was the home of the Frankle Brothers Tobacco Co. from 1933 to 1985.
Now it houses Pig Iron Press, a publishing company; a copy service; Pig Iron Literary and Art Works, a nonprofit organization; the Mahoning Valley Greens political party; and The Pig Pen, where people can buy vintage and collectible items.
Jim Villani, owner and operator of Pig Iron Press, said the building isn’t the only classic feature of his business. He still uses a handcrafted light table, vinyl binding and the same methods of printing he used when he founded the press in 1975.
“My argument is, I can be more specific with the type,” he explained. “Everything here is completely crafted by myself.”
Villani said the benefits of having a business in an old building balances the drawbacks.
“It has a sense of history. Some people are attracted to that, but some are split and don’t like it,” he said. “But it’s also solid, stable and has a better ambience than a new building.”
Villani said the disadvantages include upkeep of original features, such as the lathe plastering, and making some “cosmetic” changes.
T. Sharon Woodberry, the city’s economic-development director, said it can be difficult to attract businesses to older structures.
“There’s definitely a challenge with historic buildings,” she said. “Being older, additional work usually needs to be done to bring it up to current standards. It’s a balancing act.”
Woodberry said federal and state historic-tax credits often are available for those purposes and that owners of business ventures in the Federal Building and Erie Terminal Building were looking into those resources.
Villani said his companies still fall short of upkeep costs, so he also teaches English at Walsh University in North Canton. It hasn’t stopped his building’s being foreclosed upon, however.
Villani, who took over the building in 1993, did not pay his taxes on the building for four years. As a result, the Mahoning County treasurer’s office foreclosed, put a lien on it and sold that lien to American Tax Funding. Villani said he’s involved in a court battle to resolve the $11,000 he owes.
But, he said, his failure to pay taxes was based on a specific decision.
“It was to protest the economy and that there’s no help from the city to create daytime business. They’re just interested in bars,” he said, asserting that he had more foot traffic 10 years ago than today.
Woodberry strongly disagreed with that statement, however.
“I can understand that there is some frustration with businesses in terms of wanting to see more foot traffic. What I disagree with is that there aren’t any efforts to do that,” Woodberry said.
She cited the VXI Global Solutions inbound call center, which has about 700 employees, as one example of the city’s bringing people downtown during the day.
Villani said he remains optimistic, especially with the possibility of downtown housing catering to college students and young professionals.
“The building is in very good shape,” he said. “You know, I still have a functioning elevator that’s original to the building.”