Our Towns

‘Our Towns’: Niles Stays Upbeat Amid Tough Times

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NILES, Ohio — Brian Orfin, proprietor of Nowhere Antiques and Toys in Niles, has owned and sold items that range from baseballs signed by Babe Ruth to turn-of-the-century toys and Tiffany lamps.

“You never know what’s going to walk through the door,” he says.

Orfin moved his shop from Tod Avenue in Warren to Robbins Avenue in Niles three years ago. Both the building and the surrounding neighborhood in Warren were deteriorating, prompting the move.

“It’s a comfortable environment” and the move has been “very successful,” he says. “Every day is a new adventure. I get to meet new people that I didn’t have a chance to in Warren.”

Niles Mayor Thomas A. Scarnecchia knows the city needs to attract more business. Although hopeful about the future of his city, the mayor harbors no illusions about what Niles is up against.

The city remains in fiscal emergency, a status Ohio Auditor Dave Yost gave the city in October 2014. The general fund remains “on the edge because we’re paying for a lot of mistakes in the past administration,” Scarnecchia says.

The infrastructure is in terrible shape, a consequence of many years of neglect, he adds. “We’re having an enormous amount of water [line] breaks” and roads are “horrible.” To address these issues, his administration is looking for money to bring back a grant writer, a position the city eliminated last year.

Over the years, Niles has lost businesses such as General Electric and PNC Bank, which closed its downtown branch. Farmers National Bank, which has a branch and operations center on South Main Street, is the downtown’s largest employer, he says.

“We had General Electric, Republic Steel, but that’s all gone,” Scarnecchia muses. “Now we have Allied Metals, and we have small industrial companies. Hopefully we can get more soon because we need to get more people working, more people living in this town and more people to improve it.”

Without the presence of the Eastwood Mall Complex, he wonders aloud whether Niles could survive. “All the workers are out there,” he says.

The city will benefit from the relocation of the Cafaro Co. headquarters to the mall complex, which he says should add $400,000 annually to the city’s struggling tax base.

“We’re looking for growth and I think we’re going to get it in the years to come,” he predicts.

Still, business owners in and near the downtown – many of whom are natives of the city – are largely upbeat about their community.

The city has “a very good business environment,” remarks Jim Tallman, owner and proprietor of Troutman Drug Co. The pharmacy has been at the corner of Robbins and South Cedar avenues since 1931, and Tallman and his wife have owned it since 1972.

“It’s a small town and we get to know people really well, and that’s very important when you’re using a drugstore,” he says.

Ciminero’s Banquet Centre opened at its North Main Street address in 2003. Owner Anthony Ciminero, who formerly operated Café Roma in downtown Youngstown, started doing off-premises catering. Needing a building to hold functions, he chose the community where he lives.

“Business has gone well,” he says. “This is a nice location. It’s centrally located and we pull bookings from a lot of different areas.”

Another Niles native, Brent Ross, chose his hometown when he decided to open his restaurant, the StoneYard Grill & Tavern. The downtown lacked “a sit-down restaurant where you can get a good meal,” he recalls. “I just saw an opportunity down here.”

Ross renovated the former Kuszmaul Pharmacy on South Main Street, stripping the structure to the four walls before opening StoneYard four years ago.

“We went through some rough patches, but overall we get great feedback here, and the reviews are outstanding,” he says.

Attorney Curt Bogan has a law office at 42 S. Main St. His family has had properties and businesses downtown for nearly a century – including Reisman’s Furniture, which closed in 1994. “My family worked for many years to bring new businesses into downtown Niles,” he says.

Bogan has provided legal aid to startups through the Warren Business Exchange and worked to connect entrepreneurs with other services.

“Niles is a terrific place to be in business and to do business, but it’s not easy with the local economy as challenged as it is,” Bogan says. Advantages the city offers include its own electric system, low utility rates and road and highway access, he says.

Bogan agrees that Niles is fortunate to have the Cafaro Co. and the Eastwood Mall.

“The mall creates a tremendous tax base, and even as someone in the old part of downtown, I have tremendous respect and admiration for the family corporation, which has made a point of not only remaining in the Valley but enhancing their presence in Niles,” he says.

One reason for Mayor Scarnecchia’s optimism is a possible emergence from fiscal emergency earlier than expected. “We may be out the early part of next year,” he says. “That would be our dream because we are making progress in many areas.”

And he expects “the legal problems” surrounding the past administration to be resolved soon so the city “can readjust and be itself again,’ he says.

Niles is working with the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber to reactivate its community improvement corporation. The Niles CIC’s role would encompass promoting vacant properties within the city, from industrial sites such as GE and Republic to the empty downtown storefronts. “We’ve got to bring the small businesses back to Niles,” Scarnecchia says.

A grassroots group, The Avenue & Main – named for Robbins Avenue and Main Street – was formed in December 2010 to promote the city. “We focus on downtown,” says Barry Steffey Jr., its president and 4th Ward councilman.

The civic group worked with the city to draft the commercial zoning code it lacked before 2011 and tends the flowerbeds in the decorative triangles around downtown, Steffey says. It has established block watches and gives gift cards to individuals who take care of vacant properties in their neighborhoods.

One of the most visible signs of its success is reviving the Harry Stevens Hot Dog Day celebration, commemorating the Niles native credited with creating the hot dog.

Other initiatives are working with City Hall to secure community improvement grants that the group would administer and work with CSX Corp. to collaborate on cleaning up and repainting the truss bridges that go through the city on Robbins Avenue and North Main Street.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.