YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For years, Bill West has wanted to build a small business of his own – and do so in an innovative and creative way.
He first envisioned a coffee shop on a small patch of land along U.S. Route 422 as you enter Campbell. West scrapped those plans, however, after a new Dunkin’ quickly sprang up just east of his desired location.
West then pivoted to a new project that he believes will help to revive this commercial section of the thoroughfare – a chili dog drive-thru made of repurposed shipping containers.
“I’ve been toying with the idea for about 10 years,” he says. Last year, West acquired land on the northern side of 422 across the street in Youngstown as the preferred site to build his new business, Heck Ya Chili Dogs and Fries, a name he’s trademarked.
It’s one of hundreds of diverse businesses across the long length of U.S. 422 in Mahoning and Trumbull counties. The corridor is home to retail, medical and professional offices, restaurants, service stations, small strip plazas, large commercial developments, heavy industry and even parcels of bucolic countryside.
Already, Heck Ya is a roadside attraction because the structure is painted in an eye-catching red wine and gold checkered pattern. On a warm afternoon in September, West was busy operating a backhoe and performing some additional site preparation where concrete will be placed.
“I’m hoping to be up and running in a couple weeks,” he says.
This section of U.S. 422 has seen better days. But West believes it holds tremendous potential. So much so that he has pumped a major investment into engineering and finishing a unique commercial design in the Mahoning Valley. “I had to pay engineers a lot of money to produce the specs on this building,” he says.
West is hoping that his project will help to spur further development along the 422 inner-city corridor.
“This area was developed at one time,” he says. “But developers abandoned a lot of their properties. This could help rejuvenate this part of 422.”
A HISTORIC TRAIL
West is among thousands in the Mahoning Valley who have set up shop along the storied 422 corridor. The 271-mile-long route is divided into two segments. The western portion – first declared a U.S. Route in 1926 – extends from Cleveland through Warren and Youngstown. It ends near Kittanning, Pa., where the Appalachian mountain range interrupts it. The eastern leg begins in Hershey, Pa., and continues to just outside Philadelphia.
In the Mahoning Valley, U.S. 422 follows the general path of a former Native American trading route that hugs the northern side of the Mahoning River until it reaches Youngstown and Warren. The trail then angles southwesterly through Portage and Stark counties, according to the 1914 Archeological Atlas of Ohio by William C. Mills.
Later maps show a more comprehensive picture of the evolution of U.S. 422. According to an 1814 map – the Carey Map – a hairline road extends northwesterly from Kittanning through Butler and New Castle in western Pennsylvania. From there, that road threads into Ohio and joins with another trail that follows the Mahoning past Warren before it moves northwesterly toward Cleveland. It’s the same trajectory that blazed the way for U.S. 422 centuries later.
The same map depicts the road joining another at the Ohio line that extends directly westward through Poland, Canfield and Deerfield – an early marker of what is today U.S. Route 224, the busiest commercial thoroughfare in Mahoning County.
422’s EAST SIDE COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL
U.S. Route 422 in Mahoning and Trumbull counties represents a long stretch of mixed uses. As you enter Ohio from Pennsylvania, the landscape is decidedly rural and residential with a few major commercial interests. That begins to change as motorists head west and the corridor becomes more populated with small businesses, chain restaurants and strip plazas.
At this juncture, U.S. 422 serves as the border between Youngstown to the north and Campbell to the south. Over the past several years, new fast-food restaurants, pharmacies and office buildings have sprung up along the Campbell side, while destination spots such as the Four Seasons Flea Market in Youngstown do a robust business on the weekends.
The Lincoln Knolls Plaza – at one time it included a Hills Department store, a bowling alley and a movie theater – today has a clothing store and Save a Lot grocery store, among other tenants.
A declining population and the shift to the suburbs has taken its toll on this part of the corridor. Yet there are signs of new investment here.
“We’ve been here 52 years,” says Lady Melfi, whose son, Sal, owns Nicky’s Pizzeria at 1916 McCartney Road (U.S. 422) on Youngstown’s East Side. “I’ve seen three generations of customers come through here.”
Nevertheless, the pizza parlor has stuck it out. The small plaza where the shop is located recently was sold, she notes, and the new owners have pledged to make major renovations. The neighborhood is safe, Melfi says, and customers of the business have remained loyal. “It’s all about how you treat people,” she says. “We have no plans of leaving here.”
Fifty years ago, Melfi recalls, this section of 422 was home to retailers such as Payless Shoes and other small businesses. “Many of these have moved out,” she says.
Business owner Jose Hernandez, proprietor of The Original Polished Gents Barber Shop at 196 McCartney Road in Campbell, says his location at the 422 Plaza has proven ideal.
“It’ll be three years in business in November,” Hernandez says. “It’s been great. We’ve been really blessed.”
Hernandez spent most of his working life as a commercial roofer until his deteriorating health ended that career. So, at age 39, he decided to enroll in barber college. “I started by myself. Now, I have seven full-time barbers and am open seven days a week,” he says.
CORRIDOR BOOMS IN TRUMBULL
As 422 wends its way through Youngstown and is named Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, it runs along the Mahoning River, passing the heavy industrial sites of the city’s steel past and present, now dominated by Vallourec, a steel tube manufacturer operating where the Brier Hill works of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. once stood.
The thoroughfare emerges as State Street in Girard as it crosses into Trumbull County, where the corridor is lined with restaurants, storefronts, banks, and banquet halls.
However, it’s been commercial development in nearby Howland and Niles that has proven the biggest lure to this part of 422.
Anchored by the Eastwood Mall and its extended shopping and entertainment complex in Niles, this section of U.S. 422 has emerged as the hub of retail and commercial activity in Trumbull County.
“There’s a lot going on,” says Bill Kutlick of Platz Realty Group, which has several properties listed along this section of 422. He says a former Farmers Bank building that Platz has listed has a letter of intent to develop a new restaurant at the site. Also nearby, is the 10,500-square-foot Summit Plaza undergoing renovations to accommodate a single tenant to occupy the entire site.
“It’s very active in Niles,” Kutlick says. “Restaurants, car washes – there’s quite a bit of activity.”
Longtime businesses along this section of 422 have also enjoyed the benefits of increasing retail and service action in Niles.
“They’ve done a great job at the mall, and we’ve reaped a ton of benefit from it,” says Gary Hoff, who along with his brother Tom and sister-in-law Sheryl, own the Ski Chalet at 1041 Youngstown-Warren Road. “We think this is a great spot. I believe it’s one of the three top traffic areas,” he says.
According to the most recent traffic counts from Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, 17,910 vehicles pass east of the intersection of U.S. 422 and state Route 46 each day.
Yet this stretch of 422 consists of wider lanes and is largely free of bottleneck traffic, Hoff says, making the business easily accessible. The Hoffs also own the plaza where the business is located.
“I’ve always said this area is perfect,” Hoff says, noting that the corridor receives traffic from nearby state Route 11 as it feeds into Howland off state Route 82.
“We get a ton of business from Erie, Meadville, Ashtabula, Pittsburgh,” he says.
The Hoffs have owned the Ski Chalet for 40 years, but the ski and apparel business has been in that location for approximately 56 years.
“Our plaza is fully occupied here,” Tom Hoff says. “All of our tenants have been here at least 10 years.”
The company sells snow skis, snowboards, outerwear and accessories. A sister business – Treasure Cove – sells Scuba gear.
The business at one time operated a second location in Boardman, but the Niles store continued to command 70% of the business. Walk-in traffic and sales exceed the company’s online sales, he says.
“A lot of our customers go online before they come in the store,” says Sheryl Hoff, who manages Ski Chalet’s outerwear sales and inventory.
Gary Hoff says the location along 422 has served the business well for nearly 60 years, and it plans to stay.
“If you were to ask us whether we’d like to move, the answer is no,” Gary Hoff says. “This is really a family business. It’s all us.”
Pictured at top: Bill West is building his hot dog shop on U.S. 422 in Youngstown out of repurposed shipping containers.