Our Towns

Merchants, Mayor Witness Salem Coming Back

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SALEM, Ohio — Overnight, sometime late March 29 or early on the 30th, part of the west wall of the three-story building at 363 E. State St. in downtown Salem collapsed. The former tanning salon, closed for several years, had fallen into disrepair and on itself.

Last fall, a stabilization project added netting to the building to catch any loosened bricks that might fall onto adjoining buildings or passers-by.

But strong winds that night sent the bricks in the crumbling mortar into the shell. The next morning, the city safety director closed off a block of downtown – State Street between Broadway and Lundy avenues – as a demolition company prepared to finish what the gusts of wind began.

Safety forces set up barricades, closing several storefronts. Some merchants near the intersections turned on the switches to their “Open” signs and customers straddled the wood fencing or crawled under the yellow tape.

As the week went on, the preventive measures were moved or removed to allow easier access to the first two or three storefronts on each corner. The razing itself began April 6. “I do believe it could have been handled better and quicker, but what matters is that we’re dealing with it,” says Scott Cahill, who owns Courtyard Square Shopping Mall half a block east of the closed-off road. “If we can take this experience and learn how to better deal with the next problem building and the next one after that, then we can get to where our buildings don’t crumble like that.”

Cahill calls the situation a “black eye” for the city and businesses alike but makes sure to point out the city has turned a corner over the past few years.

While empty stores remain downtown, they are beginning to fill up. By Cahill’s count, 10 new businesses have opened in downtown Salem over the past year – “I don’t think even downtown Youngstown can say that,” he asserts.

Helping to drive this development are the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce and the Sustainable Opportunity Development Center.

“We’re fortunate to have a downtown that’s in good shape. There are a few problem properties, but it’s mostly intact,” says Michael Mancuso, executive director of the Sustainable Center. “The downtown is a reflection of what’s going on. We want to spend time working to develop it.”

The state of Ohio classifies Salem as a small city outside of a metropolitan region, one of 54 so designated across the state. What that means for the city, Mayor John Berlin says, is that reliance on larger cities, such as Akron or Youngstown, isn’t necessary. The distance is what allowed downtown to grow in the first place, he explains.

“We are a rural community. Having someone able to purchase just about anything they want without having to leave the community is important. We have a Walmart and Home Depot, which are big stores, but also small stores that offer many of the same things,” Berlin says. “From video sales to food to barber shops to doctors to lawyers to real estate, there’s a multitude of businesses throughout downtown to attract people.”

The proximity of so many stores to one another helps drive business. Salem chamber executive director Audrey Null says that while the downtown has its vacant sections, stores tend to group together.

“Having it all together in one spot, it promotes a synergy for our downtown,” Null begins. “People can come in and when they stop at one store, they’ll see another that they may want to go to right across the street.”

Along State Street and South Broadway Avenue are locally owned businesses – hobby shops, restaurants, barbershops, an office supply store, coffee shops, a Christian bookstore, banks and more – some established, others starting out. It isn’t until you drive State Street out of town in either direction that you see the chains.

“Things seem to be mostly service-oriented, but we are starting to see retail come back in. We’ve seen a lot of businesses come and go, but people sought us out and kept us going here,” says Kay Thompson, owner of the Knit-Wit Knits in Courtyard Square. “We enjoy the new surroundings through downtown and hope it’ll draw more people in and help everyone down here.”

Courtyard Square was developed by Cahill and his partners who purchased a block of historic buildings on State Street and are renovating them into office and retail space.

With new businesses gaining a foothold and established ones growing, Cahill says he’s seen the direction of shoppers change. Despite not being part of a major metropolitan area, Salem residents who used to drive to Youngstown to shop stay in town and people from other cities come to Salem.

“That’s huge. That’s magnificent. It shows you that the things that draw people to a city are beginning to awaken,” Cahill says. “I believe with all my soul that Salem is going to become a destination that people will come to enjoy the history and the ambiance and the nightlife.”

This juncture is crucial for Salem, he says. Over the past couple of years, the mindset of those involved in downtown Salem, whether they’re government officials, business owners or economic groups, has changed and many now have confidence that the necessary work can be done.

“I’ve seen magnificent positive changes. I’ve seen the very psyche of the people involved morph into a positive attitude,” Cahill says. “City Council has become proactive and aggressive and willing to change and take on difficult situations. The city is on a great rebound.”

Helping businesses, Mayor Berlin notes, is the downtown’s designation as a historic district, meaning that when renovations are made on an older building, the requirements aren’t as cumbersome as they would were the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We want to make sure businesses are safe, but the state does recognize that old buildings are sometimes hard to retrofit with things they require,” the mayor says. “Having the designation is a benefit to the business owners that want to invest in their buildings.”

With that register, historic Salem is kept alive, Cahill believes. Buildings that were present in the 1800s during the women’s rights movement or the Underground Railroad – both prominent in the city’s history – can be kept as close to their original plans as possible. And part of that history is a downtown in the traditional sense – a center of the community that played a vital role in Salem’s culture and economy.

“The city, historically, is awesome,” Cahill says. “This city has a rich treasure of history that’s too precious to let slip away. I see those great things coming back.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.