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It took half century, but cleanup underway at Ohio Leatherworks property

Remediation work tries to reinvigorate Ohio Leatherworks property in Girard

GIRARD — After more than 50 years of waiting, work is underway to rid the former Ohio Leatherworks property of any contaminants, getting it revitalized and usable.

The city now owns the 27-acre site. Mayor James Melfi said the aim is to finish the revitalization project at the property off North State Street before year’s end.

“When you think of the history of Girard, the Ohio Leatherworks is a very important part of the city’s history,” Melfi said.

He said work was able to begin after the nesting season of the Indiana brown bat, a state and federally protected species, ended this fall.

From April 1 until Oct. 1, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources encourages that trees not be chopped because it not only removes the bats’ habitat, but it could kill bats sleeping in the trees. ODNR can pursue charges for death of an endangered species protected by the Ohio Revised Code.

“Work is in progress for the cleanup this week to remove any contaminants. The soil will be remediated. I think it is of historic note that this is a business that closed in 1969, and for decades it looked like an eyesore. After 50-plus years, the cleanup begins, which is a new chapter for the city going forward,” Melfi said.

On Tuesday, a crew with Great Lakes Construction Co. was working to remove contaminated soil, as well as leveling the area.

The city has been working with consultants from Brownfield Restoration Group LLC of Akron to get the property back to use.

Melfi said testing showed there is no polluted water at the site.

Work also has included removing some trees. Two man-made earthen ponds on the property that once held tannery products need to be removed.

City officials want to bring the original 27 acres back to public use. They have discussed a bike trail, walking areas and a park on the property, and viewing areas for wetlands and wildlife.

Melfi said his father, Nick, worked at Ohio Leatherworks as a teen during World War II.

“He would tell us about what it was like to work there. He made 85 cents an hour, which was good money then,” he said.

HISTORIC SITE

Melfi said the business was always a big part of the city’s history.

“The property has historical value. When many immigrants came to the area, they worked there. People of different nationalities worked there over the years. Quality leather products were made there,” he said.

Ray O’Neill, a Vienna resident and Girard Historical Society member, said he speaks to various groups about the Ohio Leatherworks.

“There were 600 employees there at one time before they closed down,” O’Neill said.

Whereever he has spoken, O’Neill said he is always approached by someone who knew someone who worked there.

“They were a big employer and major business in the city. I have people who tell me they worked there or someone in their family worked there. They hired men and women and people of all nationalities. People over the years say it was a very smelly place to work at,” he said.

The Ohio Leatherworks began in 1899 and closed in 1969. Animal hides were tanned, dyed and tempered with chemicals to make them soft and pliable. Only a few remnants of the factory remain, along with piles of gravel and dirt. The leather was used by many companies for making purses and other products.

O’Neill’s talks include details of the fire at the site in 1979 that many people remember. He will be speaking in February at the Harriet Taylor Upton House in Warren and has spoken at recent Vienna Historical Society meetings.

YEARS OF LITIGATION

Melfi said for 25 years the city was in litigation over the property. He said the city’s attorney, the late Frank Bodor, helped Girard acquire the property — which allowed the city to receive state and federal grants to clean it up.

The Western Reserve Port Authority was able to secure a $225,000 grant to get the soil tested and to evaluate what contaminants were there.

In May 2021, testing was completed at the property. Girard and Brownfield Restoration Group were able to secure a $500,000 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to clean the land.

“It was a very competitive grant to receive with only a few grants given out for brownfield assessment cleanups,” said Melfi, who noted the city had to contribute $100,000.

“This project was a community effort with the county planning commission and many other groups’ help,” the mayor said.

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