SALEM, Ohio – Five years ago, there were 34 vacant storefronts in downtown Salem.
Today, there are 14 – and seven of them are undergoing renovation with tenants that plan to open as soon as they can.
It’s a remarkable turnaround, and one that is not even close to being complete.
Ground will be broken within weeks on a project that will renovate the former Key Bank building, at State Street and Broadway Avenue, and construct a building on the lot next to it.
“It’s the single largest project in downtown’s history,” says Joe Havorka, the developer.
The imposing but empty bank building sits at the center of downtown, next to a vacant lot that looks like a missing tooth along the street’s outline. It will become a restaurant, taproom and retail center that will anchor downtown, Havorka says.
The lot was the site of the Butler Institute of American Art’s Salem branch, which had to be razed when the abandoned building next to it collapsed.
Havorka owns 10 downtown buildings and has been rehabilitating and reopening them for the past four years.
His other big project is the former Goodwill building on Broadway. Construction is in progress at the 18,000-square foot brick structure – the largest downtown. The ground floor will have four retail shops, including a women’s apparel store and a deli, with up to 15 apartments on the upper floors.
What is happening in Salem is part of a trend that began a couple decades ago – the return of downtowns as the place to do business, to be entertained, to live and shop.
With a large business district that serves the city of 12,000 and its surrounding townships, Salem is belatedly taking advantage of the trend.
Downtown has always had its share of insurance, accounting and financial professionals.
Restaurants such as BB Rooners, Mike’s Penn Avenue Grille, Ricky’s English Pub, Heggy’s and Ezio’s are also anchors, as is the Salem Community Theatre. There is also The Stables Inn and Suites and banquet center, and adjacent Boneshakers restaurant and tavern.
What’s new is the flurry of specialty shops that create downtown foot traffic and a retail component.
There are shops for gamers, records, vintage toys, bicycles, comic books, home décor and books, coffee shops, and Kast Iron Soda Works – which offers a modern take on the old-fashioned soda fountain.
The owners are almost exclusively local entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of downtown’s affordable rent, charming brick buildings, free parking and core of “destination” shops.
More are on the way, including an ax-throwing place in one of Havorka’s buildings.
Wild City Feed and Seed on Broadway is one example. Owner Kevin Shaffer opened the store, which offers seed to attract birds and squirrels, as well as bird baths and feeders, and lawn décor, in June. He’s already looking to expand.
“Business is going great,” Shaffer says. “Downtown will be the happening place within six months or a year.”
The desire to make your backyard “animal-friendly and pretty” began during the pandemic when people were stuck at home, Shaffer says. It’s continuing, he says, because homeowners like it.
Julie Needs, executive director of Salem’s Sustainable Opportunity Development center, says it’s a good moment in history for the city.
“This country is having a return to appreciation of small cities, and we are positioned well because of the industry we have here,” she says. “We have tremendous support from the manufacturing and health care sectors.” The SOD center is the city’s economic development arm.
Unlike some cities, manufacturing remains the foundation of the Salem’s economy, with large companies such as Ventra and Butech Bliss, and many smaller factories.
The downtown, in turn, sustains the manufacturers and makes Salem a desirable place for a company to relocate.
Needs calls it “an essential part of the quality of life” that potential employers look for, and which encourages existing companies to stay and grow.
“It’s the aesthetic,” she says. “It attracts business and makes people want to visit. It takes you back in time, where you want to put your phone away and enjoy [the atmosphere].”
Havorka is one of the key reasons for downtown’s resurgence. His efforts could return the retail sector to heights it hasn’t seen in decades, while adding residents who live in second-floor apartments above stores.
Work is in the preliminary stages on a large vacant retail building on Broadway, across from the Goodwill building, that already has tenants under contract who will open a restaurant.
The second floor will become a short-stay rental apartment with a Broadway theme, Havorka says. “It’s on Broadway Avenue,” he points out.
Both Havorka and Needs see residential as necessary for ensuring the downtown remains lively after hours and on weekends.
Havorka envisions Broadway Avenue becoming a place for young professionals to live in loft-style apartments with exposed-brick walls.
Needs says the SOD center is encouraging building owners to convert their upper floors to apartments.
“It’s an extra source of income for them,” she says. Currently, there are only about 14 apartments downtown, but that number should more than double within two years.
“You have to always have movement downtown to create vibrancy,” says Needs. She points out that there is a Sparkle market just a few blocks away – a necessity to lure people into downtown apartments.
They are trying to do more. “Getting a specialty grocery downtown is on our list,” Havorka says.
When Joshua Buck decided to go into business for himself, he looked to downtown.
Buck opened State Street Records a year ago on the second floor above State Street Tattoo. Like many of the new downtown shopkeepers, it’s his first business.
It was also based on a personal passion.
“I started as a record collector,” Buck says. The desire to make it his livelihood came later.
On a week day in late September, the cozy shop had several customers browsing and discussing music. That’s exactly what Buck was hoping for.
“People come into a record shop for the experience,” he says. “You can get your records delivered to your house if you want. But if you come in here, you can talk to the owner or to other people who are into music.”
He’s also aware of the synergistic effect of downtown, where customers go from store to store. Buck routinely advises them to check out Kast Iron Soda Works or a restaurant while they are in town.
“It makes them stay downtown, and maybe spend more money,” he says. “[Customers} are receptive to it. Many have personally thanked me for opening this shop.”
Downtown’s rebirth is not without its growing pains, as Buck points out. State Street is also a state highway, and there is a steady flow of tractor-trailers rumbling through town, as well as motorists going way over the 25 miles per hour speed limit.
He says it’s unsafe for pedestrians and he’d like to see the city do more to reroute truck traffic around the downtown.
Across the street from State Street Records is Rocketeria, a coffee shop with sandwiches and pastries, and a throwback gaming room
What makes it extra cool is the vintage rock’n’roll theme, which reflects the tastes of owners Michael and Gayle Johnston.
“Business is fantastic,” says Michael, a musician who has been in rock bands. “I don’t want to say that Salem is up and coming, because it’s already there.”
About a block away sits GC Murphy Bicycle company. It’s located in a former GC Murphy five and dime store, and retains the look.
The shop, which opened a couple years ago, offers new and used bicycles and repairs.
It also has a unique sideline of merchandise – vintage-style ink pens and watches. It makes sense, says manager David Honeywell. “Those items seem to appeal to the same type of people [that purchase bicycles],” he says.
Not all of the storefronts are occupied by specialty retail shops.
David Woods II opened his Wood Shop Media a few weeks ago. It’s a marketing firm where he makes video and motion-graphic advertising for clients from Pittsburgh to Cleveland.
“I had been working out of my house, but I needed more space to do studio production and photography,” he says.
Woods lives just a few blocks away, which was another factor in his desire to open downtown.
“I love being in downtown Salem,” he says. “Parking is easy. I can back my car up to the back door to load in equipment. I can meet clients at coffee shops or restaurants, and my insurance agent and accountant are on the same block.”
Here is a list of new businesses that opened in downtown Salem in 2021 and 2022:
• Nature + Nurture, 515 E. State St.: Books, art and other items that cultivate a culture of curiosity, creativity and calm.
• Kast Iron Soda Works, 420 E. State St.: Fountain and bottled specialty soda in a coffee-shop setting.
• State Street Records, 417 E. State St.: New and used records.
• Killy’s Kauldron, 645 E. State St.: Handcrafted candles and wax melts.
• Gotham Knight Comics, 127 Penn Ave.: Comic books and related merchandise.
• Bella C’s Creations, 645 E. State St.: Apparel and craft décor.
• RedneckSide Motorcycle Whips, 145 S. Lundy Ave.: Motorcycle whips and other accessories.
• Totally Nostalgic Toycade, 645 E. State St.: Throwback and vintage toys.
• Creations by Sheena Marie, 645 E. State St.: Art, jewelry, accessories
• Salem Rocketeria, 386 E. State St.: Coffee, sandwiches, pastries, video games.
• Wild City Feed and Seed, 119 S. Broadway Ave.: Bird and squirrel seed, bird baths, lawn décor.
• Bob’s Bookstore, 645 E. State St.: Books.
• Nerdy Necessities, 508 E. State St.: Board games and gaming space.
Pictured at top: The former Key Bank building at State Street and Broadway will be a centerpiece of downtown’s renaissance. Ground will be broken on the project before the end of the year. When finished, it will include a tap room, a restaurant and other retail space in the existing buildings and another one that will be constructed in the empty lot next to it.