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More businesses investing in the downtown

Published: Sun, December 9, 2012 @ 12:09 a.m.

By Burton Speakman and Jamison Cocklin



There was a time in Youngstown's past when downtown was just down. Period. Today, that trend has reversed itself as wave after wave of business relocates and reinvigorates the Mahoning Valley's core district.

However, opinions vary on the success of downtown renovation efforts and the pace and future potential.

Business owners and property developers downtown agree that the area is on an upswing, with development at a pace not seen in decades.

But that momentum and optimism are cast against one overriding concern: It is happening without a collective vision.

Within the last six months, more than 10 projects have been either announced or completed along Commerce, Federal and Boardman streets. Restaurants, bars, retail outlets, residential living spaces and industry-driven projects such as the National Additive Manufacturing Institute are all finding addresses downtown.

At one point, rents in the downtown were only a couple of dollars per square foot and were among the lowest in the nation, said Tom Humphries, president and chief executive of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.

“You couldn’t get space for that in the suburbs or anywhere else,” he said.

It’s a positive development for the downtown that rents are increasing, and there is competition for quality spaces, Humphries said.

“I came to the downtown in 1997 and the difference between then and now is night and day,” he said. “When you go out now, there’s people and traffic. You used to go down at noon, and there was nobody there.”

As the national and local economies continue to emerge from the recession, a trend toward urbanization is occurring nationwide that mirrors the growth of downtown Youngstown.

In June, the Census Bureau showed that the nation’s 27 largest cities grew faster than their surrounding suburbs at a rate not seen since the 1920s.

“I think this is part of the young professional movement across the country,” said Richard Mills, who as president of the Ohio One Corp., owns several buildings downtown, including the Commerce Building and City Centre One on downtown’s east end. “There’s a lot of interest in moving back to the central cities to work, live and play,” he said.


Several developments have aided growth in downtown Youngstown, Humphries said.

The first was the addition of a public arena, now known as the Covelli Centre. Another was the retention of banks and government workers in the downtown. The Youngstown Business Incubator and other developments added workers and brought customers, he said.

Those entities created the need for restaurants, while the Covelli, along with DeYor Performing Arts Center and Stambaugh Auditorium, helped attract consumers for dinner and night life, Humphries said.

That reciprocal effect will continue to be important downtown, business owners, city officials and proper- ty developers say.

Growing interest and population near downtown have led to more than 5,000 people heading downtown on Friday and Saturday nights, said Imbibe owner and property developer Jeffrey Kurz.

“Back in 2005, when we were first putting the entertainment district together, we envisioned the downtown growing in stages,” Kurz said. “And that has really come together for a nice mix, but we still need more — about five or six more businesses to get it to where we want it.”

Those phases for Kurz included entertainment, retail, residential living and infrastructure that can support daily life, such as a grocery store.

“We need that retail to attract more people from the suburbs. Grey Land is perfect,” Kurz said of a new gallery store that just opened. “The problem though is there’s not a lot of storefronts left.”

The downtown efforts are focused solely on clubs and restaurants, said Barry Silver, owner of Silver’s Vogue Shop, which has been downtown since 1970. There is little support for developing retail downtown, he said.


Many say downtown needs more “daytime” businesses, something other than bars, restaurants or nightclubs, to continue developing.

A grocery store such as a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s would help, said Rocco Sait, owner of Grey Land Galleries, which opened recently in the former site of Wig Warehouse, on West Boardman and South Phelps streets. The business sells artworks by regional artists, industrial and mid-20th-century modern furniture, vinyl records, vintage clothes, high-end vintage sound systems and other items.

Sait said his attraction to opening downtown came through his grandfather, who was a Youngstown police officer for 30 years.

“I heard all these stories about what the downtown used to be with people all over, and I guess I’ve always thought it could be like that again,” he said.

Jacob Harver, who owns and operates The Lemon Grove, agrees with Sait, saying he fears that as demand picks up in downtown, those who worked to bring it back will be pushed aside.

“It’s more important than ever to preserve those elements that make it quintessentially Youngstown,” Harver said. “The downtown was never truly dead. There’s always been a vibrant arts community. When it seemed like a ghost town, things were still going on.”

Harver said a primary factor in purchasing the larger building where the Lemon Grove now does business was “to protect against the downtown becoming gentrified.”

“You don’t want it to get to the point where the people that made this place hip can’t afford to be down here anymore,” he cautioned.


Dominic Gatta III, who owns the Federal Building and Gallagher Building where Cedar’s Lounge is located, said his goal is to “get buildings developed and occupied.”

Gatta plans to open a high-end burger restaurant and a separate coffee bar on the first floor of the Gallagher Building at North Hazel and West Commerce streets. Commercial offices will be added on the second floor, and 10 apartments will fill the third and fourth floors. He now has 14 apartments in the Federal Building.

Cedar’s will be closed, with plans to open the restaurants next spring.

For now, Gatta is choosing to focus on smaller buildings with a quick window for redevelopment.

“Stambaugh and Wick are enormous buildings,” he said. “It takes the right developer for the right project, and you’re probably going to see a local developer partner with something like a national hotel chain to fill the larger footprints.”

The limited number of spaces remaining have let property owners “get greedy” and push up rents, Silver said.

Rents are going to go up because of supply and demand, said Dominic Marchionda, owner of several downtown buildings including the Wick Building and Erie Place Terminal. Erie Place only has a few of its 40 rental units available.

“There are young professionals who want to live in the downtown and have a fully furnished place with all the amenities,” he said.

Rising rents could move some businesses from the downtown area, but Marchionda said he believes the businesses that helped build the downtown will find a way to stay. It’s a sign of success that rents are increasing, and customers are demanding more amenities for downtown space.

“It used to be you took whatever kind of renter you could get,” he said. “Now we get calls daily from people wanting to live downtown and suburban businesses interested in getting involved downtown.”

Erie Terminal Place, Realty Tower Apartments and the Federal Building have added apartments to the business mix in the downtown.

“We’ve seen a push for new residential conversion — apartment projects like the Realty Towers, the Wick Building and Erie Terminal — which maybe spur other things like a downtown market and potential offshoots for more business,” said William D’Avignon, deputy director of Planning and Zoning for the city of Youngstown.

Residential and business rents in the downtown are significantly higher than a few years ago. The apartments here range between $800 and $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom, Sait said.

Data from the Mahoning County Auditors Office, which assesses property downtown, show that property values have risen.

But hurdles remain in revitalizing the long vacant structures that could one day serve as space for retail outlets or hotels.


“The demand is far beyond the supply in terms of spaces available,” Harver said. “A lot of these places haven’t been refurbished in decades, and they’re multi-million dollar projects.”

As urbanization continues, many cities have established merchant associations or partnerships that appoint board members to represent business owners. The partnerships prove effective in marketing activities that enhance the distinct identity of a particular downtown and encourage retention and growth of commercial, residential and cultural life.

Over the years, similar groups have formed among downtown business owners in Youngstown but have not lasted, Kurz and Harver said.

For instance, the Youngstown Arts and Entertainment District Association was instrumental in lobbying the Ohio Legislature to amend laws that define an entertainment district, helping reduce the required population from 100,000 to 20,000, Kurz said.

The change allowed Youngstown to qualify for 15 liquor licenses at reduced rates, and it gave rise to the bars on West Federal Street.

“It also provided an inside track to state, federal and private funding,” Kurz said of the money that was used to open up and beautify Federal Street. “But we didn’t do as much as we could have in attracting more money. I think the key is watching how a place like Columbus attracts that sort of money and trying to match what they do.”

Not every business that recently opened in the downtown had the intent to be part of a downtown revitalization.


Dan Mitchell, who owns Two Guys Clothing with his wife, Kim, at the 20 Federal Place complex, recently opened Two Girls Clothing across from the men’s store.

The couple had purchased Two Guys and had to move the store after the building was sold to a new owner. They found their current location by happenstance, Dan said.

“We looked all over Youngstown for a new location,” he said. “Then a meter maid told us we needed to look at the space here at 20 Federal Place.”


1ytownsteelman(680 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

I don't know what is so bad about gentrification. Businesses can't survive catering to poor people.

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2author50(1121 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

Nice repeating job! Why not a story on how much money from the taxpayers have gone into the projects and what the return for ALL the taxpayers has been?

With all due respect to the 'movers and shakers' (except for Mr. Mills) identified in this story - without taxpayers money none of you would be open and you couldn't scrape together the required cash, credit, etc to lease or buy a business in Boardman, Austintown, Struthers, etc.

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3peggygurney(408 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

"I don't know what is so bad about gentrification. Businesses can't survive catering to poor people".

You're absolutely correct ytownsteelman, businesses can't survive by catering to "poor" people, but they would be making a very big mistake by isolating themselves from the lower-income population altogether. Our money spends just as good as that of our higher-income counterparts, and the low-income population is larger, at least for now. IMO, if downtown is going to cater only to the higher income population, it is setting itself up to fail.

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4CongressWatcher(225 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

Lower the income tax rate and some business will return to downtown. Keep it the highest in the state, and businesses will not come back. Downtown may still succeed, but it will be much slower and involve much more government funds to do so.

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5city_resident(528 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

"Why not a story on how much money from the taxpayers have gone into the projects and what the return for ALL the taxpayers has been?"

Revitalizing cities seems like a good use of taxpayer money to me. Especially since government policy encouraged their decline, in the first place.

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6IslandMike(764 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

How can businesses possibly be doing this? Wasn't the world supposed to come to an end with Obama having been elected President?

Only 43 shopping days until Obama's 2nd Inauguration!!

HILLARY 2016!!!

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7greene(167 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

author50, only one of the business, in the Incubator, can get credit, etc. How much has been spent on that money pit?

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8unionmb(1 comment)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

With all this new business moving in it's a shame a local business like Farmers Bank has moved out of downtown.

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9author50(1121 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

@greene... I heard its millions of taxpayers dollars. Good luck on getting the facts about that place.

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10lovethiscity(169 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

You're right, Moffie, that EVIL incubator needs thoroughly investigated. They are all a bunch of slimy, tax payer fleecing, do nothings down there.Close the incubator down now!!!

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11najjjj(106 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

Gentrification is an interesting thing. Think about it. Aside from the mills where did businesses begin and grow in the early years. Downtown. Neighborhoods began to sprout and grow from the downtown area. Just like in every major city in the 50's and 60's white flight began and ppl ran for the burbs. Gentrification........taking the downtown back. With that said, it should be for all. In major cities there are ratios of how much affordable housing should be built along with standard housing. It has worked wonderfully in many cities and brought them back from the end stages of decay. There is no reason it should not work in Youngstown. Youngstown's future is looking brighter.

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12candystriper(575 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

Try to land a small CVS that will offer some groceries and a minute clinic. Offer great deals to existing small businesses in Boardman
to expand downtown...like pizza shops.

Las Vegas downtown has Zappo's pouring millions in and it still can't get a Trader Joe's or
Whole Foods.

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13James_S(268 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

Why didn't this article include the fracking businesses that want to frack up Youngstown :^)

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14iBuck(231 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

It'd be good if they had a "before" and "after". As it is, I'm not seeing much in the way of actual, you know, business, just a lot of government illfare spending, foreclosed office buildings, etc.

Still, najjj asked an interesting question: "Aside from the mills where did businesses begin and grow in the early years."

Typically, in the USA, they crop up at the mouths of rivers and streams or in natural harbors because of transportation and power in ye olden days. Later, it was where railroads and canals intersected or just went through. The railroads needed frequent stops for water and fuel (coal or cord-wood); the canals needed frequent stops to change mule and work-horse teams to let them rest and eat.

But sometimes, they are established at a high spot in the middle of a swampy area (Tallahassee, FL), at the fountain-head of several streams (Zanesfield, OH and near lake Constance, Switzerland as I recall). Sometimes, it was just some enterprising farmer's land (Jasper, IN).

In Youngstown there are clues to development in the name "Mill Creek" (ditto in Cincinnati there were early settlements east and west and south at mouths of rivers, but much city development followed the mill creek); and in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN; Richmond, VA; and Louisville, KY in existing water-falls.

But, after a few cycles of "renewal", the core typically shifts.

Let me know when a real hardware store opens (not one of those trashy cheapo big box atrocities)... and then a do-it-yourself electronics and additive manufacturing hobby shop, maybe a couple app shops employing more than a dozen US citizens each. Then I'll know there's been some recovery.

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15peggygurney(408 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago

Trader Joes. YES, we need a Trader Joes downtown. There are plenty enough downtown residents to sustain a grocery store.

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16One_Who_Stayed(240 comments)posted 3 years, 7 months ago


There is a do-it-yourself electronics store downtown. Hell, until recently - there were 2. The building that is now the historical society building (across from the WRTA station) used to hold Ross Radio which had been there for years. Across the street in the middle of the building that houses the Pawn Shop and Taxi company is a store called Armies Electronics which is still in business today and has been here for many years as well.

I agree though - we are in desperate need of a decent hardware store. There is a TrueValue down by the water treatment plant, but that's a bit of a hike.

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