Small-Town Grit Perseveres in Columbiana

COLUMBIANA, Ohio – Lisa Schwartz says it didn’t take long for offers to come pouring in once word got out that her business, Generations Café in Columbiana, was up for sale.

One of the offers originated from a coffeehouse chain based in Pittsburgh, she says. “They wanted to write a check within 24 hours,” Schwartz recalls. Another potential buyer – a restaurant operator from a big city – inquired about the small shop and her price.

Schwartz told the second party that a local couple was interested and was lining up financing to buy the café. “He hung up on me,” she says with a laugh. “My husband and I knew we weren’t going to sell to big-city people.”

Schwartz and her husband, Bob, bought the café at 31 S. Main St. from their son Christian and his wife in January 2018. The challenges of the pandemic, plus the couple’s busy schedules with other commitments, made them reconsider operating a downtown business.

Both agreed that they didn’t want to see the café lose its local appeal, a driving character of what Schwartz says makes downtown Columbiana so inviting. “We wanted to sell it to someone with a local presence,” she says.

The buyers are Jen Balint Thompson and her fiance, Jere Lefever. At press time, the sale was expected to close by Oct. 1.

Keeping a small business such as Generations Café in local hands helps to promote the atmosphere of quaintness in downtown Columbiana, Schwartz says – dominated by a handful of antique shops, offices, restaurants and specialty retailers. Attention to downtown, plus a growing housing and retail market on the east side of the city, present the perfect opportunity for new investment in Columbiana, she says.

“This is a great move for them,” she says of the new owners of Generations. “With all the growth happening along state Route 7 and 14, the houses being built – it’s starting to pick up.”

Recently, Columbiana Nutrition, a café that specializes in health shakes and teas, opened across the street. There is talk of a sports bar moving into downtown, Schwartz says.

While the pandemic has had an impact – Generations was forced to close for three months during the spring – Schwartz says that business is beginning to return. Still, patrons are apprehensive about coming into close contact with one another. And most of the business is on a to-go basis, she says. “We see an increase in traffic. But things have changed.”

Among the most ambitious projects in Columbiana over the last several years is the Town Center at Firestone Farms at the junction of state routes 14 and 7. The development is a multipurpose complex that incorporates dining, entertainment, retail and professional businesses.  

“It’s exciting to see the potential,” says Dave Yost, owner of Yost Insurance, which has leased office space at Town Center since 2017. The company is expanding and building a 4,000-square-foot office complex just north of Town Center along Route 7.  

Yost Insurance will relocate to this 4,000-square-foot building that’s under construction just north of the Town Center at Firestone Farms in Columbiana. 

Today, the development is home to satellite offices of Salem Regional Medical Center, Sundown Cellars (a local winery), Homestead Kitchen & Cocktails, an amphitheater and other assorted retail and professional offices.

“A couple of years have gone by and to see restaurants, entertainment and businesses move in – that’s been really cool,” Yost says. He envisions in 10 years increased vehicular traffic in this portion of Columbiana County to the point where Route 7 would be widened to attract additional development.

Columbiana still maintains an old-fashioned small-town spirit, Yost says. “This was all once farm country and it still feels like a mom-and-pop area,” he says. “You’ve got a lot of third-generation farmers who have planted their roots here.”

Yost’s insurance business specializes in Medicare. It has also expanded into home and auto insurance, he says. And, the company’s role as a Medicare managing general agent – that is, training other agents how to sell insurance in the Medicare market – has fueled the business’ expansion.  

“Location still matters,” he says. “There’s a lot of traffic here and it’s a growing area.”

Downtown Salem has also witnessed increased activity this year despite the pandemic, says Julie Needs, executive director of the Salem Area Sustainable Opportunity Development Center.

“Downtown has been extremely busy,” she says. Over the last year, Needs estimates, about $1 million in new investment has poured into Salem’s central business district, most of it small establishments that fill up storefronts.

Among them are the G.C. Murphy Bicycle Co., the Salem Music Center and Lawson’s Once Loved Furniture – all of which occupy the former G.C. Murphy building at the corner of East Street and North Lundy Avenue.  

Overall, Needs says, these businesses and others have created between 20 and 25 jobs. “That’s significant in a town of 12,000,” she says.

By early next year, another small business – Kast Iron Soda Works – should be added to the downtown merchant district, Needs says. “We’ve reduced the number of vacancies by quite a bit.”

Empty storefronts remain downtown – some are not ready for the market, Needs says – but three of them are available for lease. Meanwhile, investments in two of the town’s larger buildings are expected this year, while another large-scale project for downtown is in its preliminary stages, she says, declining to be more specific.

“Once we know more particulars about what we’re looking to attract, we could be ready to share it,” Needs says. “It will be exciting for Salem.”

Meanwhile, small businesses have appeared to weather the economic downturn in stride, Needs says. “It’s been a tough year for everyone. But the resilience has shined through,” she says.

Needs believes it is an ideal time to make improvements and investments into downtown space so these small establishments are prepared when the economy does rebound. “Inquiries are on the increase,” she says. “We’re setting up to having a busy 2021.”

Manufacturers are also showing signs of improvement, Needs says. One local company recently asked about training needs that the SOD Center could arrange. “They needed employees,” she says. “That’s a good problem to have at this stage.”

Pictured above: Lisa Schwartz, co-owner of Generations Café, says she and her husband “knew we weren’t going to sell to big-city people.”