Trumbull’s Commercial Corridors Lead to Rural Crossroads

WARREN, Ohio – No matter where you go in Trumbull County, the entrepreneurial spirit flourishes. This is best demonstrated by the small businesses found along commercial thoroughfares as well as in the quiet, rural countryside.

As you travel north along state Route 193 in Trumbull County, the packed commercial corridor in Liberty Township eases into pockets of light industrial businesses in Vienna. Further north, that sector gives way to open pastoral countryside punctuated by small town centers in Fowler and Gustavus townships, which are lined by small buildings and houses that look as pristine as the day they were built nearly two centuries ago.

Much of the same experience awaits travelers as they hit the county line and turn east, skirting Ashtabula County for several miles until they reach state Route 7 and head south toward Youngstown.

In between are small businesses that range from sporting goods stores, graphic design and print studios, professional offices, specialty shops, carriage and horse rentals, landscape and garden centers, hair salons, diners that serve dishes based on homemade recipes, and thousands upon thousands of acres of family farms.

Wharmby Sporting Goods Equips Teams

For more than 20 years, Wharmby Sporting Goods Inc. has stuck it out in an area of Trumbull County where many small businesses gave up years ago.

Just north of Youngstown city limits, at 3173 Belmont Ave., the sporting goods store stocks sports equipment and apparel not readily available at some of the deep-discount big-box stores in the area.

“My dad started the business 41 years ago [in Farrell, Pa.],” says owner Ron Wharmby. “He was in charge of team sports for Morris Sports,” and struck out on his own in 1975.

Paul Morris Sports, a sporting goods store that opened in Boardman before moving to Youngstown on Market Street, was regarded during the 1970s as the go-to place for a variety of sporting gear, from scuba diving outfits to footballs. Morris Sports closed during the early 1980s.

Wharmby, who worked with his father at Morris Sports, says he’s seen considerable change in the sporting goods business as larger retailers such as Dick’s and other franchises have moved in. Both Walmart and Target also have sections devoted to athletics and sporting goods.

That meant Wharmby’s had to adjust to shifting tastes and markets. “Our focus is on the team side of the business,” says Wharmby as he pores over a products catalogue for a customer. “If we were to focus on just retail, we would have been out of business years ago.”

The company supplies teams in the region with jerseys, equipment and embroidery services as it houses footballs, nets, shoulder pads, baseball bats, baseball gloves and hundreds of other sports items.

“It seems like we’re busier this year,” observes co-owner Diana Hamm, noting an increase in demand for letter jackets and other team apparel. “We do a lot of Little League, embroidery and silk screening. Retail is moving along OK.”

Still, Wharmby says this stretch of Belmont Avenue has seen better days. It once was once a major retail corridor in Trumbull County. While the thoroughfare is still crowded, much of the business activity is dominated by fast-food restaurants and service-oriented firms. And, the population of the township has declined substantially since the shop relocated to Liberty more than 20 years ago.

“I graduated from Liberty High School in 1974 in a class of 264,” he says. “Now, I think the senior class is down to 105.”

Bockelman’s Garden Center Celebrates 30 Years

November begins the offseason for the home and garden industry as the last mums of autumn fade and die and the cold weather sets in.

Regardless, this several-month window gives Mark and Sheri Bockelman, owners of Bockelman’s Landscaping and Garden Center in Fowler Township, just enough time to catch up on some indoor projects and prepare for the next season.

“We’re in the middle of some renovations,” says Mark Bockelman, as he points to a portion of the showroom that’s been sectioned off by wooden two-by-fours that will frame his company’s new offices. “We’re moving our office to a new location and the customer desk to the front,” he says. Another modification toward the front of the shop is a large shelf near the entrance that will display his daughter’s Soap Box Derby racer.

“She placed fifth in the world one year, so we’ll display her car and trophies,” Bockelman says.

Sheri Bockelman says the renovations will allow more room to house gifts and other garden accessories. And, there is the potential to provide service for more customers because the number of garden centers in Trumbull County keeps falling.

“Other landscaping companies have gone out of business – some because of retirement – and we’re likely going to have to accommodate these new customers,” she says. “We’re even possibly looking at another greenhouse.”

Bockelman’s, in business 30 years, started in a “small shed on Laird Avenue in Warren,” he says. In 1995, the garden center moved to its location along state Route 193 two miles north of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.

Mark Bockelman says the business has witnessed its share of ups and downs over the years, but has successfully navigated the currents and tailored the company’s services to consumer tastes. “We’ve adapted to the needs of the community and clientele,” he says.

Bockelman’s draws its customers from a sizeable range in Trumbull County that encompasses Liberty, Warren, Howland, Cortland, Kinsman and Brookfield, he notes.

“Our season begins April first,” Bockelman says, noting that customers can expect new items such as raised planter boxes, which are especially helpful for elderly customers. “We should be all stocked up by then,” he says.

Rural Crossroads Works for Fowler Center Hair

The crossroads where state routes 305 and 193 intersect in Fowler Center hold a quaint appeal underscored by a Civil War-era building that has housed many tenants over the last century and a half.

Today, the brick structure, built in 1864, is home to only one business, Fowler Center Hair, while a new establishment is expected to move early next year into space that once was The General Store.

“I’ve been here 20 years,” says Debbie Hunt, owner of Fowler Center Hair, “and I’ve built a steady clientele over those years.”

Hunt says her location – fairly remote for a hair stylist – works well. “I’m originally from Gustavus,” she says. “So, I’m used to Small-Town U.S.A. and there’s still a lot of traffic coming up 193.”

The sole disadvantage to doing business so far out in the country is the lack of sanitary and water services in this section of Trumbull County. “It’s definitely a challenge,” she says.

At one point, Hunt considered moving to another building, but decided that Fowler Center provides the best opportunity to serve her clients. Fowler Center Hair is a full-service salon that also sells cosmetics and other beauty accessories.

Hunt employs one stylist who handles walk-in business and another part-time.

Since the landmark building is next to the post office, that helps bring in some walk-in traffic. And, when The General Store was in business, that foot traffic helped as well.

“That space has changed hands a few times since I’ve been here,” she says of the former General Store. The Fowler Grind – a coffee shop and café – is scheduled to open Jan. 2 and Hunt hopes that business will help create a draw.

“I’ve considered other locations but it’s worked out pretty good for me here,” she adds. “The mindset is different out here. The overhead is low and I’m usually very busy.”

Kinsman Farmers Come Home to Nancy’s Cozy Café

Every morning and every afternoon, farmers from across northern Trumbull County gather to drink a cup of steaming coffee or savor hot soup at what has become a staple in the Kinsman area.

For 30 years, Nancy’s Cozy Café has been serving soups and pies made from scratch, its homemade foods based on old recipes that attract a steady stream of loyal followers every day.

“Everything here is homemade,” says co-owner Chris Austin, whose mother and father-in-law, Bill and Nancy Austin, opened the restaurant in 1986. “We just serve breakfast and lunch. A lot of our customers are older, but we seem to get a steady crowd between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.”

Austin says farmers from throughout the area love to congregate at the cafe to discuss the world’s pressing issues over biscuits and gravy, a hamburger pie, pancakes – even an enchilada with a side of french fries. “We’re the second generation of owners, and our son has expressed interest in running the business,” she says.

About two years ago, the restaurant underwent some renovations that included a new countertop, paint and décor, Austin notes. “We’ve added on in the past as well.”

Austin has witnessed the region thin out as the number of farms around the area fell and the population in this part of Ohio fell as well. “It’s definitely slowed down over the years,” she says, noting that the rural areas are just as affected by industrial retrenchment as the cities. “Plus, a lot of the family farms are now gone.”

At one time, there were six restaurants near the town square in Kinsman. “Now, it’s just us and the soda fountain in the square,” Austin reflects.

Regardless, patrons continue to stream in from all over the region, she says, even if they’re just passing through. “We get a nice crowd from Pennsylvania,” she observes. “We get a lot of traffic because gas costs less in Ohio, I guess.”

Pictured: Nancy Austin opened Nancy’s Cozy Café. Her daughter-in-law, Chris Austin, runs it today.

Pictured at top: Ron Wharmby and Diana Hamm operate a sporting goods store in Liberty Township.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.