EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio — The story of East Liverpool is a familiar one in this region: A once-prosperous riverfront city falls on hard times when its factories shut down.
But what sets East Liverpool apart is a group of young professionals who have returned to their hometown after finding success elsewhere. They have united to form ELCPR – East Liverpool Community Partnership in Revitalization.
The group’s efforts to restore the impoverished city are an uphill battle but it has logged some victories. And it has caught the attention of Western Reserve Public Media, which spotlights it in a documentary titled “East Liverpool, Ohio: My Town,” which premieres at 10 p.m. May 1 on WNEO.
Kelly Woodward, a show producer for Western Reserve Public Media, wrote and directed the 30-minute film. “Everyone knows what happened in East Liverpool,” Woodward says. “That’s not new. What was new is the talent and determination of these people to revitalize the city. Their dedication kind of blew us away. They have a devotion to their hometown and want to change things.”
The film begins with a recap of the once-mighty pottery industry, with which East Liverpool was synonymous. The city remains a place where – as the film notes – residents routinely flip dinner plates over to see where they were made.
It also touches on the role of high school football and its favorite son, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, as well as its festivals that draw thousands of former and current residents.
But the main thrust is the ELCPR’s effort to bring back the city, especially the downtown.
It’s not a success story yet. There is a long way to go. East Liverpool’s poverty rate of 27.9% dwarfs the national average of 11.8%. Many parts of the city are run down with pothole-pocked streets.
Still, Woodward says, residents are excited to see the film. Some are starting to feel optimism, not just nostalgia, when it comes to their hometown.
“They are so used to hearing bad stories,” Woodward says. “There is always a lot of focus on the negative. People who moved away are hungry for something that shows hope and positivity.”
Regis Philbin, the long-time TV personality, hosts the documentary.Philbin is a native New Yorker but a big fan of Notre Dame football and has been to East Liverpool several times for events at the Lou Holtz Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame.
“He emceed a couple of events there,” Woodward says. She contacted him about lending his voice to the film and was pleasantly surprised when he said yes. “He voiced it from his home in Los Angeles,” Woodward said.
The film’s title takes its name from the popular song by Cleveland rocker Michael Stanley, who also has a strong connection to East Liverpool. “I had just seen him in concert and was thinking about his song ‘My Town,’ ” Woodward says. “With some random [internet searching], I found out that his mother is from East Liverpool. I reached out to him and he praised the fact that we were doing the film. He remembers how the city used to be. He visited it a few years ago and was sad to see the deterioration.”
Stanley offered Woodward a slower, acoustic version of the song, and she hired another musician to provide additional background music.
Lisa Blasdel, executive director of the Southern Columbiana County Regional Chamber of Commerce, says the documentary is “one more positive component in the vision we have.”
The biggest victory to date for the ELCPR was luring New Castle School of Trades to the city. The school opened a site in 2016 in a 50,000-square-foot downtown building that once housed Ogilvie’s Department Store and a Woolworth’s. The $7.9-million project required the complete renovation of the dilapidated building.
The NCST campus has become an anchor and is beginning to pay dividends in terms of attracting other development. The Market Street Lofts, an upscale apartment building, opened in 2017, and retail storefronts are being reclaimed.
“In the past two years, within a block of the Lofts and the school of trades, we have seen a catering business, a pizza shop and coffee shops come in to buildings that had been sitting vacant,” Blasdel said.
Next up will be Renovatio, a restaurant and craft beer pub, scheduled to open this summer in the Potters Bank building, a grand stone edifice in the heart of downtown. The developers are Randy Schneider and Craig Cozza.
Several small antique and home décor shops have also opened downtown in the past 18 months, Blasdel said.
While the focus seems to be on bringing back downtown, Blasdel said ELCPR and the EL Community Improvement Corp. have plans to develop other areas.
“Downtown is ground zero,” Blasdel said. “We’re starting there to get people to come back to the city.”
Drew Cooper, president of ELCPR, said half of the battle is psychological – getting people to stop thinking negatively about the city. “We see entrepreneurship, local small business, as the key,” he said.
Cooper is vice president for operations of True North, a consulting, bookkeeping and technology services firm. He returned to his hometown a few years ago from Annapolis, Maryland.
He says small towns like East Liverpool have a sense of community and history among residents that doesn’t exist in large cities. It all begins with downtown. “We’re rebuilding it the way it was built in the beginning.”
ELCPR is working with Cleveland developer Tom Chema, who is a native of East Liverpool, on development of bike trail extensions in the city, and a pathway that would take cyclists to the downtown.
The proposed Ohio Greenway River Trail will run through the city’s riverfront, and a proposed extension of the Great Ohio Lake to River Trail will provide the missing link between Lisbon and East Liverpool.
Pictured at top: Some key members of the East Liverpool Community Partnership in Revitalization group are Kathy Hyatt Smith, Scott Shepherd, Drew Cooper, John Mercer and Lisa Blasdel. (Photo courtesy of Western Reserve PBS)