EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio — While the COVID pandemic has played havoc on commercial operations throughout the nation, many local businesses in East Liverpool managed to stay afloat and, in some cases, even expand or begin new construction.
Steven Murphy had spent about two years renovating the Wetzel Building on Fifth Street and finally was able to open Steelnative Coffee, the downtown’s only coffee shop, on Oct. 19 of last year.
In what is touted as the oldest building in East Liverpool, Steelnative is named after one of the horses Murphy once raced at nearby Mountaineer Park, according to his daughter, Erica Urich.
After ending his horseracing career, Murphy went into construction, which prepared him to do all the work on his new coffee shop.
By watching videos, Murphy taught himself how to make the homemade dough and other foods sold in the shop, Urich says.
During the first weeks after opening, he saw a “big rush of people” after which business stayed consistently busy. So Murphy expanded his menu to include French toast, Belgian waffles, and his signature cinnamon rolls.
Then, the COVID pandemic hit, closing down the East Liverpool campus of Kent State University just blocks away and the New Castle School of Trades across the street – two major sources of customers.
Says Urich, “It was at its peak when COVID hit. We had to shrink our menu rather than waste the homemade breads.” Popular grab-and-go sandwiches had to be limited because of the short shelf life of the homemade bread her father uses.
“My dad is not one to keep things until the next day,” she says.
With the recent relaxation of COVID restrictions and the reopening of the trades school and KSU, Steelnative is seeing an upswing in customers, Urich says. Her father has added pies to the menu along with a popular breakfast pizza.
It is “still a guessing game,” she says. “We’re still waiting for the consistency we had [before the peak of the pandemic].”
At the same time, Urich and her father are excited about the new tap room and restaurant opening across the street.
The owner of that new enterprise is based in Pittsburgh. Urich says, “He’ll spread the word [there] and we will be able to stay open later once it opens and brings in people from other areas.
“There should always be a spot in town to get a good cup of coffee and look out and enjoy the city. I feel we have that here.”
In the works for about a year, Renovatio’s Taproom & Restaurant was originally slated to open in July. Because of delays resulting from the pandemic, the owners anticipate opening in mid-October, according to Randy Schneider, a local partner in the project with Pittsburgh developer Craig Cozza.
“Absolutely no one in Columbus is working in their offices,” Schneider says, adding this often caused delays in obtaining permits and other paperwork.
The name of the business is Latin for “rebirth,” and Schneider says he and Cozza hope Renovatio’s will be the beginning of a rebirth for East Liverpool, which he describes as once the “powerhouse of pottery.”
The building on Fifth Street that will house Renovatio’s originally housed the headquarters of Potters Bank & Trust Co. Schneider says it is among several PNC bank branches Cozza bought throughout the region.
“I had asked him his intentions [for the former branch] and he wasn’t sure. But he was mesmerized by the architectural beauty of the structure,” Schneider remembers.
So he broached the idea to Cozza of transforming the structure into a tap room and restaurant, using his own experience as marketing director for the Numbers brewery in Lisbon to give the developer some ideas. The project became a go.
Several local contractors and suppliers have been hired for the work, Schneider says with emphasis, noting the original historical details of the building have been kept while giving a nod to the Pittsburgh steel industry with steel railings on the bar that has a poured concrete surface. Railings surround the rooftop deck and fencing.
The history of East Liverpool as pottery capital of the world will be highlighted with the use of local pottery in the restaurant.
Craft beers, locally made beers on tap, a lunch through supper menu and a Sunday brunch to specifically accommodate churchgoers will be among the amenities, as well as a fire pit on the outdoor patio.
Cozza also bought a vacant building next door that, on the upper floor, will house a banquet hall to accompany the restaurant, while the storefront may be used for a bicycle shop, much like the Pro Bikes shops that Cozza owns in the Pittsburgh area, according to Schneider.
Plans are to try to secure grant funding to build a bike trail through the city that will extend to the bike trail in the northern portion of the county, he notes.
The pandemic also failed to halt another project planned more than a year ago, with ground broken Sept. 1 for construction of a 7,300-square-foot post office on Walnut Street, which will replace the building on Dresden Avenue that needed work.
The U.S. Postal Service does not own its buildings. It leases them and this new post office is being built by Shoup Properties, a 31-year partnership among Dale Shoup, Brandon Shoup and Barry Weaver.
Although the project “keeps getting hit by curveballs,” Weaver says they are not COVID-related but rather result from a challenging 12-foot grade that has caused unanticipated construction issues on what initially appeared to be a flat parking lot.
Weaver says Shoup’s portion of the project is expected to be completed within 90 days, with the Postal Service then expected to finish the parking lot and other work within 60 days.
“We have had excellent success working with the city: decent, prompt, receptive. Working with the city has been a delight,” Weaver says.
Although a call to FRX Health CEO Rebecca Myers was not returned, city officials say work has resumed on the former Ferro Corp. building, which FRX plans to transform into a medical marijuana growing and processing plant. The company already operates a medical marijuana pharmacy on Dresden Avenue.
Also opened in the midst of the pandemic is The Vintage Nook on Fifth Street, which offers a selection of collectibles, furnishings and antiques.
Nana’s Primitives opened just before the pandemic hit but outgrew its Sixth Street location and relocated recently to a larger storefront on St. Clair Avenue, where it plans to add an ice cream shop to the craft and antique line it already offers.
Pictured above: The former Potters Savings & Loan Co. building was built in 1905. According to the National Registry, it features “a stone storefront, brick quoins, stone keystones and a cornice with modillion blocks and dentils.”