NILES, Ohio – Niles Mayor Steven Mientkiewicz has watched as 80% of his McKinley High School football teammates left the city since graduating more than 20 years ago.
The population of Niles is 18,279, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, declining by nearly 800 between 2010 and 2020 and by more than 4,600 since its high mark noted in the 1980 census.
Mientkiewicz talks a lot about the vision needed to turn things around. Niles recently created an administrative position dedicated to both planning and writing grant proposals for funding to carry those plans forward.
The city has also hired M.S. Consultants to update its community plan.
Infrastructure projects this year and in 2023 include valve replacements, improvements to nine neglected sanitary sewer pump stations, fire hydrant replacements, waterline replacement project on Maple Avenue, sanitary upgrades on Dragon Drive and $1.4 million in street resurfacing.
Jason Altobelli, a real estate investor and chairman of the newly reinstated Niles Community Improvement Corp., says he sees good things happening downtown and throughout the city.
The city allocates the CIC at least $50,000 annually to sustain and promote economic development primarily in the downtown area.
Comprised of elected officials and business owners, the CIC has identified downtown assets such as National McKinley Birthplace Memorial Museum, existing businesses, the bike trail and river, and sought to incentivize property owners to make improvements.
Through income tax reductions, property abatements, and a four-prong approach focused on façades, sidewalks, art scape and signage, the CIC is hoping businesses and entrepreneurs will invest in improvements.
One of the local businesses that recently took advantage of the CIC programs was the newly opened Cadence Coffeehouse and Creperie.
“As far as the vision goes, it’s an evolution of sorts, a constant conversation of trying to find opportunities to leverage [grant] dollars … and attract people downtown, to just try to keep the downtown relevant and full of life,” says Altobelli.
Dunkin Donuts will raze three vacant structures downtown next to Select Sports and construct a drive-thru and dine-in facility, according to Mientkiewicz. The Sparkle Market has new ownership following the death of its long-time owner, Eric Gelsomino, whom the mayor said would be missed for his dedication to the city. Mientkiewicz says the new ownership plans to make changes but keep the grocery store downtown.
Mientkiewicz calls the StoneYard Grill and Tavern a gem in downtown Niles, lauding owners Rich Hale and Denny Ross for taking a chance on the downtown roughly 10 years ago. Dustin Durst, new owner of the restaurant, plans to continue the business.
“If anything, I think we’ve gotten better through the years, the StoneYard Restaurant, the coffee shop, Dunkin Donuts getting ready to break ground,” Altobelli says. “In the last five years, it’s probably the most activity I’ve seen.”
A former bank building, which was a priority of the CIC when the pandemic hit, has found new life with an affiliate of LG Chem testing a battery component there. The company is considering creating living quarters for employees. The offices of attorney Robert Shaker remain on the top floor.
Some downtown improvements are addition by subtraction. A building that housed the Niles Daily Times until 1993, followed by the Niles water department until 2018, is now a parking lot.
Altobelli considers the former Reisman Furniture Store and Robins Theater properties as the only vacant buildings downtown and says they may soon be gone. Through a public-private partnership and state grants, the city plans to take ownership and demolish the buildings.
Mientkiewicz envisions downtown as an entertainment district for community events, small music acts, farmers markets, craft shows and food trucks.
Downtown to Eastwood
Mientkiewicz and Altobelli commend the Eastwood Mall complex for what it has brought to the city of Niles.
“We know we’re never going to compete with Eastwood Mall,” Mientkiewicz says. “We focus on the niche-type businesses, crafty businesses.”
Altobelli says the downtown needs to complement the mall area, possibly as a place where a small business starts out and later takes advantage of the great opportunities at and around the mall.
“[The Eastwood Mall is] not only the economic hub of Niles, but also the economic hub of Trumbull County,” Mientkiewicz says. “It brings people into the city.”
With grant funding, the city is studying the state Route 422 corridor, looking at upgrading infrastructure, making the area more biker and walker friendly.
Several industries are going strong, according to Mientkiewicz, including Dinesol Plastics Inc., JA McMahon Inc. and Phillips Manufacturing.
The site of the former GE plant in downtown soon will be available for a new business or industry. The city received an Ohio brownfield grant for $2.2 million for site remediation, which will leave a 16-acre clean slate for development.
The city continues to look for ways to improve the quality of life for residents and those who want to move to the community, including efforts to annex contiguous properties.
Housing development is underway at Carnegie Heights and Park Place Villa is in its third phase, adding 64 condos over the last few years.
“There are some really good things that have gone on in the last five to 10 years that most people would probably take for granted.” Altobelli says.
Niles recently was awarded a $2.2 million federal grant, which will be used to upgrade the signalization and infrastructure in the downtown area between State Street and North Road.
A federal funding source will provide $2.5 million in upgrades to Waddell Park. The park recently demolished its swimming pool, which has been closed since 2014. The city plans to install a splash pad, adaptive playground, enhanced restroom facilities, a new road and sanitary infrastructure, and make fencing and concrete repairs.
Mientkiewicz believes the city needs to look for programs, grants and partnerships with community groups in order to revitalize and thrive.
“We have the time. We have the energy. We have the right group of people. Whether they be elected officials, city staff, community members or local nonprofit groups, those are the groups we are working with to continue to drive this ship in the right direction,” Mientkiewicz says.
Pictured at top: The Avenue on Main committee hung the baskets and banners that honor veterans from Niles.