New Castle: On the Cusp of a Comeback?

NEW CASTLE, Pa. – As Jeff Feola walks past the empty storefronts in Cascade Galleria Mall in downtown New Castle, Pa., he sees plenty of opportunity.

“I am inspired by the blank spaces,” says Feola, the entertainment entrepreneur and board member of Citywide Development Corp. revitalization agency.

Feola envisions the nearly abandoned mall as a place for local makers to sell products that are unique to the area, including homemade ethnic foods.

To that end, he has enlisted more than 50 artisans to take over several storefronts in the mall for a holiday marketplace Dec. 10 through 12.

Feola explains his strategy to re-energize a hard-luck downtown full of empty buildings in varying states of decay. It calls for playing off the strengths of the city and minimizing its weaknesses.

And to that end, Cascade Galleria is ground zero.

The block-long structure was built in the 1970s, when malls were at their peak in popularity. It bears the unmistakably dated architecture of that decade.

It remains in solid physical shape but is eerily empty except for a pizza shop, post office and the Lawrence County Assistance Office.

It has some 25 storefronts. A Family Dollar, call center, medical office and beer store are also on the property but not connected to the mall corridor. While the mall remains open, the only two people inside one recent day were senior-citizen mall walkers.

Mall owner Mark Hutton of Cincinnati says he continues to seek non-retail tenants but is open to any use, including charitable.

“It’s hard to replace the retail, but perhaps an antiques shop or a bakery,” he says. “Things that can’t be replaced by [an online retailer].”

Moving Forward

Over the past decade, Angie Urban has heard many proposals for downtown New Castle that never got past the talking stage. But things are different this time, says the executive director of New Visions for Lawrence County, a revitalization agency.

“We are nearing a tipping point,” she says.

Urban points to the efforts of Forward Lawrence (See story page 38) and the city Blueprint Communities team. “They dovetail – and our intention is to implement them in the next five years,” she says. “We have a history of having plans but not a whole lot of implementation. We’re finally at the point where we have the right stakeholders to collectively implement downtown improvements.”

The Citywide Development Corp. of New Castle recently hired Exurban Planning to execute the plans.

“One of the elements is rehabilitation and reuse of buildings,” Urban says.

“We would like to fill storefronts with small-scale manufacturing, which is anybody who produces a product they can sell out the front door and ship out the back door. We’re identifying local entrepreneurs who have been working out of their home or a shared space. We could cluster them with other entrepreneurs,” she says.

The CDC effort also involves acquiring buildings and restoring them to move-in ready status.

“We’re also looking at restoring public spaces … that give people a reason to come downtown,” Urban says.

The Cascade Galleria mall is the building closest to being move-in ready and perhaps most desirable. “It’s very close to our main street. There is lots of free parking and we have a building owner who is willing to be creative to get folks in there,” she

Like Feola, Urban says that a grassroots approach to revitalization is most realistic and likely to succeed.

“I’m a firm believer that it takes a lot of small build-ups to add up to something big,” she says. “I’m not one to wait on Superman or the government. We have a lot of local assets and great local people and talent. It’s just a matter of finding them and harnessing their energy and lifting them up to be successful in their business to reshape the downtown.”

Comparing Cities

Downtown New Castle today is roughly where downtown Youngstown was a few decades ago.

Youngstown has dramatically improved its fortunes with a variety of new features that attract people: Covelli Centre, Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre, the Phelps Street walkway, the Doubletree Hotel, Oh Wow! Children’s Science Center, Eastern Gateway Community College, and many restaurants and bars. Festivals and events also attract foot traffic.

New Castle is taking steps in that direction.

“My organization has run a grassroots-style effort that started with planting flowers downtown,” Urban says, that moved on to weekly outdoor concerts. She has met with several Youngstown agencies to find ways to employ their strategies.

Just a couple of decades ago, downtown Youngstown was blighted, empty and perceived as dangerous. Today, it is a regional mecca for entertainment and nightlife.

Its urban atmosphere became a draw and not a detriment.

Feola wants to replicate that role reversal in downtown New Castle. He took over the city’s outdoor concert series last summer and made the lineup more enticing, booking bands such as Youngstown’s The Labra Brothers.

Attendance jumped to more than 1,000 for the concerts that take place in the square next to The Confluence. The street in front of the popular coffee shop and entertainment venue was blocked off and food trucks were brought in to create a festival atmosphere.

Feola’s own company, Feola Entertainment, handles all entertainment bookings at The Confluence. He also hosts a weekly karaoke night there.

He would like to see more gathering spots with local flavor downtown.

Gerald Kern is the president of The Warner Cascade Theatre Musuem.

One underused attraction right around the corner from The Confluence is The Warner Cascade Theatre Museum.

A replica of the famed Warner Bros. first movie theater, which once graced the site, the museum has rooms full of memorabilia and two screening rooms. It is restored in the colors and fabric of the original theater and makes for an informative trip for bus tours, organizations and anyone interested in the film business or the history of the city.

Gerald Kern, president of the museum, is usually on hand to lead tours and share stories of the Warner brothers, who grew up in Youngstown.

Kern says he starts the tour by screening a 12-minute silent film – the same one that played the theater on the day it opened in 1906.

Just a few blocks north of downtown is the Scottish Rite Cathedral, the grand but underused concert hall that Feola would like to see become a bigger draw for the city by hosting more music acts.

Branding Campaign

Another effort to nudge New Castle forward is the “Home Is Here” rebranding campaign, which begins this month.

The marketing effort will include a series of videos in which residents explain why they chose to make the city their home.

A blog will soon be launched to keep the discussion going online, says Kim Koller-Jones, who is spearheading the project. Koller-Jones is secretary of the New Castle Blueprint Communities Council and executive director of Arts and Education at The Hoyt.

Accompanying the slogan is a logo that depicts a location marker symbol and its shadow that together form a heart.

“We’ve begun introducing the new logo with some T-shirts, baseball caps, and other items that will be available over the holidays,” Koller-Jones says.

The city’s annual holiday parade Nov. 20 will be the first major use of the “Home Is Here” theme. The campaign will fully ramp up in 2022, Koller-Jones says.

The effort is aimed at attracting new people to the city and also changing the perception of it among current residents.

“If you ever dived into a self-help article on happiness, it would tell you the journey to happiness starts from within,” Koller-Jones says. “It is a choice in recognizing all the positive things in one’s life or community, despite the negatives that surround it. It’s important that our residents recognize the positive things in their community and celebrate them with each other.”

Doing so, she says, will not only lift their spirits, but attract newcomers by showing them the good life that is available in New Castle.

The goal of the “Home Is Here” campaign is to change the narrative of New Castle, she says.

“There’s such a negative perception of New Castle, internally and externally,” Koller-Jones says. “People think nothing of flooding social media with their grievances. We need to change that and flood the media with positives instead.

“… Yes, there are things in our community that need to improve, but it’s the happy, hopeful folks that will work together to do it, not the naysayers.”

Becoming a ‘Zoomtown’

Another boost to the efforts of the city to draw new residents came in December, when The New York Times highlighted New Castle in an article about what it calls “Zoomtowns.” These are cities with a low cost of living that are not far from amenities of a big city. They are attractive for those who began working from home during the pandemic – in other words, those who communicate over the internet by Zoom teleconference.

The number of remote workers across the country rose exponentially during the pandemic, as did those seeking to buy a house.

With its surplus supply of well-made houses and low prices, the New Castle area saw its fair share of activity.

A look at the statistics bears out the growth, says Sam Angelucci, regional vice president for northwestern Pennsylvania for Howard Hanna Real Estate.

Downtown New Castle, Pa., today is roughly in the same shape that downtown Youngstown was a few decades ago.

In 2018, there were 838 house sales in the county with an average price of $109,500. The following year, it jumped to 846 sales at an average price of $121,300.

In 2020, the year the pandemic began, the average price rose to $130,700 on 841 sales.

As of Nov. 9 of this year, there have been 868 sales with an average price of $146,000.

The rise in price and number of sales is taking place amid a continuous decline in population. Lawrence County now has about 86,000 people, the city of New Castle about 22,000.

“We’re not seeing so much of an influx of newcomers as we are people coming back,” Angelucci says. “Growing up here, we couldn’t wait to get out of this town. Now, I’m seeing people who left and are coming back, or purchasing their parents’ homes, or selling their parents’ home and buying them a smaller one, or one with an in-law suite.”

For remote workers, the low prices in New Castle are very attractive; a similar house in a trendy Pittsburgh neighborhood can be more than twice the price, Angelucci says.

“We don’t have wildfires, floods or earthquakes,” he says. “People are tired of the ‘anyplace is better than here’ attitude. Why not here? It’s still a good place to raise a family.”

New Castle lacks chain restaurants and big-box stores, but makes up for it with local businesses and restaurants. It’s also a short drive to Boardman, Ohio, as well as to Pittsburgh.

Angelucci says that in the entire Western Pennsylvania Multi-List area, Lawrence County has the lowest average-sales price.

“We’re flying under the radar here,” he says.

Returning Home

Feola is among those who have left New Castle to find success in the big city, only to return home and bring back what he’s learned.

He didn’t plan on playing a role in the redevelopment of downtown New Castle. But he now finds himself among other professionals who returned home during the pandemic and found a reason to stay.

Feola says many of the ideas he picked up in New York City and elsewhere can be applied to improving his hometown.

The 2002 graduate of New Castle Area High School was the manager of a touring production of the Broadway hit musical “Hamilton” when the pandemic shut it down.

He returned to his hometown to wait it out and quickly fell back into the entertainment business with his shows at The Confluence. Now he’s enjoying the opportunity to re-energize his hometown.

“It’s evolved into me seeing the blank canvases of New Castle,” he says. “It’s a passion I didn’t know I had. We have the ability to rewrite the story of our town.”

After graduating from Slippery Rock University in 2008 with a degree in theater and a heavy measure of business courses. Feola moved to New York to try his luck on Broadway.

He quickly moved into the business end of theater and excelled at it.

“So much of what I had been doing boiled down to logistics,” he says.

He has experience in creating and adhering to multimillion-dollar budgets, coordinating travel and contracts for dozens of actors, grant writing and every ancillary task.

“When you work on a Broadway show as the manager, you are making sure that all of the parts are moving,” Feola says.

When the pandemic hit, “all roads, and all of that experience, led home,” he says. “It feels like that was the training and now is the test. It’s time to implement all that I’ve learned.”

Pictured at top: Jeff Feola has enlisted vendors to fill the Cascade Galleria Mall Dec. 10-12.