Boardman Is Confident of Its Direction

BOARDMAN, Ohio – You can see contractors at work throughout Boardman Township.

Near its center, a new GetGo Café + Market is under construction. At both ends of U.S. Route 224 – the retail corridor that has long defined Boardman – strip plazas have undergone or are getting updates. These include CTW Development’s redevelopment of 1301 Tiffany Plaza near the Interstate 680 interchange.

This year alone, commercial projects valued at $18.3 million have active construction permits and another $13.2 million in projects were permitted and completed.

“You’re seeing people invest in Boardman. That’s the best sign that you could see,” Boardman Township Trustee Larry Moliterno says.

“We’re seeing a pretty steady deal flow,” a mix of new construction and redevelopment of existing properties, affirms Krista Beniston, township director of zoning and development. “From our perspective, it’s definitely great to see re-investment – businesses that are staying here and putting their money back into the community.”

In addition to the GetGo fuel station at U.S. Route 224, Southern Boulevard and California Avenue – which Jannah Jablonowski, spokeswoman for GetGo’s parent, Giant Eagle Inc., confirms is on track for a spring 2018 opening – the Shell station at South Avenue and Route 224 is undergoing an expansion. It’s expanding onto land that had been occupied by a Valvoline oil change center, which has since relocated to the opposite corner of the intersection, Beniston notes.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” reflects township Administrator Jason Loree, who came to Boardman in 2006. He’s seen an upswing in investment in the township, particularly in the medical sector, spurred by the construction and opening of St. Elizabeth Boardman Hospital. The Boardman campus, which opened in 2007, has since expanded.

“It was a big thing for the area. It kicked off this push for new medical industry and the sector blossomed,” Loree says. Another health-care player expanding its presence in recent years is the growing Southwoods Health complex. The medical sector has helped anchor businesses and attract more people to the community.

Still, the retail and restaurant sectors are nearly synonymous with the township. In addition to plaza redevelopment along 224, the Southern Park Mall undertook several improvements, including a new roof, upgraded parking and lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning updates, Loree says. Some of the upgrades were accomplished through an energy improvement district established with the support of the Western Reserve Port Authority.

Also in the mall footprint, Tinseltown USA, which opened 20 years ago, is upgrading its theater, installing reclining seats with tabletops and adding light meals and selected alcoholic beverages as options.

Nevertheless, the township retail space has to cope with a changed industry as online sales encroach on bricks-and-mortar stores. The HHGregg and Staples chains have vacated their big-box spaces in the township. That creates a competitive market, which is good for businesses looking for space to occupy, Loree says. He expects to hear announcements soon on some of the vacant storefronts, he reports.

Property managers need to develop spaces that offer their customers “experiences” rather than just a big-box site with no character, he observes. “People want to go out. They want to go to a restaurant. They want to relax. They want to browse and maybe purchase. That’s the model people are looking at,” he continues.

Given how much of the township land is dedicated to commercial uses, finding additional property for development is a challenge of its own, one reason Boardman hired Beniston, says Moliterno, a township trustee since 2007.

He credits the township director of zoning and development with a “more futuristic” and “more proactive” approach that includes demolishing existing structures to create new development opportunities.

“For example, you see what’s happening with the Kmart building being demolished and now you’re going to see a lot of opportunities,” the trustee says. “There’s a lot of people interested in that site.”

Demolition of the Kmart building – vacated when the store closed in 2016 – provides “a clean slate” for whatever project replaces it, Beniston says.

“It’s a great opportunity to redevelop that area on a very prominent corridor, especially with so many other projects right around that area,” she says.

In addition to the redevelopment to the Tiffany Square strip plaza, McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A have built new restaurants on the site. Panera Bread plans to build a new bakery-café there as well.

Pictured: CTW’s 1301 Tiffany Plaza project takes shape near the Interstate 680 interchange.

“What I’m witnessing is that people still see our community as a great place to reinvest,” Moliterno says. “Because they’re doing it all the time.

“The thing that’s hard for the average resident to see, because we like to see things happen quickly, is sometimes unfortunately those kinds of projects take quite a while,” he adds.

Construction of a fire station at Market Street and Stadium Drive, a site the township acquired through a land swap with the Boardman Local School District, took five years of discussions, Moliterno says.

Relocating the main fire station from its site on Route 224 opens that property for commercial development along the heavily traveled corridor. “We have a lot of people who are interested in that space right now,” Moliterno says.

At the same time, Boardman is confronted with concerns that include an aging population, the encroachment of poverty to the north and other economic challenges, and a drug epidemic afflicting the township no less severe than any other area in the state or nation.

“We’re facing the same situations as any other mature community,” Moliterno says. “There’s nothing that we’re dealing with that’s unusual. But what I feel very positive about is that we are addressing all of those issues in a very proactive way.”

For example, to address the growing elderly population, the township implemented a Care Call program that automatically telephones enrolled seniors to check up on them. To tackle the drug problem, township police have “aggressively gone out” and rounded up dealers, Moliterno says.

The number of township residents who live in poverty is rising, he acknowledges, but that is more a reflection of what is happening nationwide. “I don’t think it affects how we run our government,” he says. “Our job is to keep people safe and to provide opportunities for people with families to thrive in our community. And we continue to do that.”

Growing poverty in the township is an issue that the Boardman Local School District has to face as well. The percentage of students getting free or reduced lunches is 37%, reports Superintendent Tim Saxton. That’s below the 43% statewide average, but before 2000 it was probably below 20%.

“It would be rare to find [a district] that hasn’t seen an increase in that,” Saxton says.

The district picks up about $7 million annually in federal funding to help address educating that segment of the student population. That comes on top of the district’s $43 million budget, 75% of which comes from local taxes, the remainder from state funding.

Educating “kids of poverty” presents challenges, but one of the district’s goals this year is to make sure all students have access to its programs, regardless of any “financial barriers” that might exist, Saxton says. “We’ve challenged all educators and administrators to make sure that’s not happening,” he says.

One of the district’s initiatives is a common curriculum in kindergarten through fourth grade for the mathematics and reading-writing programs in each of the four elementary schools. “We want all our kids to be serviced the same,” he says.

Upon graduating from high school, the vast majority of the district’s students – 89% – enroll in four-year colleges, reports district spokeswoman Amy Radinovic. Another 3% go on to two-year institutions while the remaining 8% enlist in the military, attend a technical institution or enter the workforce.

The district’s goal is to provide students with the “basic skill set” they need, and ensure they can work with others and think creatively and critically so they adapt to “the jobs of the future,” Saxton says.

“We don’t even know what they [these jobs] are, so it’s very difficult to give them [students] specific skills,” the superintendent says.

Saxton points with pride to the district’s arts programs, such as its music programs. He touts them as among the best in Mahoning County if not the state of Ohio. Where most districts facing financial challenges cut funding to such programs, Boardman makes them a priority.

That focus isn’t a luxury, he declares.

“If you look at how the mind develops, one of the greatest levels of learning is being creative and being able to evaluate,” he says. “And that’s what kids do with music and arts. They’re creating and evaluating.”

And township leaders don’t just look at what they do in terms of roads, police and fire, Moliterno says.

“We think it’s just as important to work very closely with our school system to make sure we have the best school system,” he says.

“We work very hard to make sure that our park is maintained and that people are able to enjoy it. We also try to make sure that for retail and other commercial investment in our community that it’s a good place to do business. We really look at what we’re trying to do in the township in its entirety. And that’s why we’ve been successful.”

Pictured at top: The GetGoCafe + Market under construction at U.S. Route 224, Southern Boulevard and California Avenue is set to open in the spring.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.