Lisbon Eyes Revitalization with Sale of 7 Buildings

LISBON, Ohio – Empty lots don’t create jobs, Lisbon Mayor Peter Wilson says, and the recent sale of several historic buildings in the village will spur growth of not only business and jobs but also population and tourism.

After Village Council passed two new ordinances addressing commercial buildings, one of which requires the owners to either rent or lease space or pay a monitoring fee, historic structures began to sell like proverbial hot cakes.

“We had a stack of buildings not being used. The owners were using them as, basically, tax write-offs and were letting them deteriorate. Many of the owners don’t live in Lisbon and couldn’t care less,” Wilson says. “We started enforcing the ordinances, spurring people to invest in the village or sell their buildings to someone who will.”

Six of the buildings have sold since mid-February, and Wilson reports the sale of a seventh this week, which is still pending, according to the buyer. 

This towering building at 126 W. Lincoln Way in Lisbon now houses the offices of Rosewood Realty Group, the dreamchild of village native Shannon Clark.

“We want them to stay, but we want them to obey the law,” Wilson says of building owners. “If we have empty buildings, they’re not generating jobs, they’re not generating foot traffic. If a building looks occupied, you’re creating jobs and momentum.”

Although some would encourage razing the old to make way for new construction, Wilson asks, “Who’s going to invest in creating a new building in a downtown surrounded by parking lots? I prefer to save old buildings.”

Wilson agrees that renovating historic buildings “is not for the faint of heart,” but says, “I don’t like to raze buildings. Empty lots don’t bring jobs.”

He points to two recently completed renovation projects transforming downtown historic buildings, one into an art gallery and the other into an upscale restaurant, although admitting not everyone has the financial resources for such extreme projects.

“We have a pragmatic approach. We’re pragmatic preservationists. They did a fantastic job with The Phoenix and The Courthouse Inn but not everyone has those resources,” the mayor says. “However, certain fixes aren’t that costly. We have to strike a good balance. I think that’s what we’re doing in Lisbon.”

The Lisbon Landmark Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to downtown preservation, the village’s architecture review board and the chamber of commerce work well together, and the village has a pro-business attitude.

“The idea is to save the historic character but also attract new business and people. We’re competing against a lot of other communities for investors,” Wilson says.

Lisbon Mayor Peter Wilson

Founded in 1803, Lisbon is the county seat, featuring nearly 60 structures on the Ohio Historic Registry, as well as being on the Greenway Trail, part of the North Country National Scenic Trail and pretty much dead center in the county’s many tourism attractions. Those amenities, Wilson says, have lead to new investors seeing the potential in Lisbon as a tourism center.

“We have so much within a 10-mile radius. My goal is to make Lisbon a destination for tourism,” he says.

Residents also seem to be buying into the village’s potential and the new move toward renovation of the existing buildings, with Wilson giving a nod to the strictly volunteer downtown beautification committee which has taken an active role in keeping the downtown spruced up with flowers and other amenities, all with donations and no tax dollars spent.

“If you show investors, ‘Look, we’re making an effort and keeping the downtown in good shape,’ that attracts people downtown. It looks like a Hallmark card sometimes,” Wilson says with a smile.

One of the buildings had been vacant for 20 years, while three of them have sat vacant for six years. The new owners are already formulating plans for their new purchases. They still must present plans to the architecture review board which is already in the works for some of the projects.

Francesco DeFrancesco and his father Joseph DeFrancesco are Pittsburgh developers who purchased three adjacent buildings at 1, 2 and 3 South Park.

One of the three storefronts is already occupied by Almost Perfect, a nonprofit thrift store, which the younger DeFrancesco says will remain, but plans call for other retail business in the storefronts, including a restaurant in the end building where the Appleseed Restaurant once operated and relocating a wood shop the family owns in Pittsburgh in the other. The upper floors will be renovated into an apartment for the family as well as office space.

A father and son duo from Pittsburgh purchased these adjacent buildings on South Park with plans of opening a restaurant, retail, office and living space.

A new roof and facade resurfacing must be completed first, according to DeFrancesco, who says he hopes to get started this summer, depending upon the approval of plans by the board. 

The developers initially became acquainted with the area after purchasing 10 acres outside town.

“My dad fell in love with the town and we found that building. It’s like going back in time. We want to help fix Lisbon up and get it back to what it once was,” DeFrancesco says.

Shannon Clark, broker and owner of Rosewood Realty, purchased the building at 126 W. Lincoln Way and the adjacent parking lot in April and has now realized her goal of having a business in her hometown after operating out of her home and leasing space in Poland.

“The opportunity came up in Lisbon and my business plan for Rosewood was always to have an office [there]. This kind of accelerated that plan. I think I can keep my finger on the pulse in Lisbon since I’m from here,” Clark says. “To be part of the small town fabric, I couldn’t be happier.”

Hoping to restore the building she purchased at 202 W. Lincoln Way to its original 1885 beauty is part of Cynthia Koonce’s plan, but tearing down the dilapidated structure next door and cleaning out what used to be operated as Pilmer Auto Parts must come first. 

“It’s a mess right now. The biggest problem is getting the site cleaned up. It won’t be the most expensive part, but it will be the most daunting,” she admits, saying the former owner had been ill for a couple years and then the business was closed. 

A dress shop operated in the building in the 1880s, but Koonce is not sure if that was its first use. Afterward, it served as a grocery store, and the Pilmer family purchased the structure in 1945 but was not the owner from whom Koonce purchased it.

Her plans call for using the retail portion as an agricultural co-op store, selling local products such as vegetables, foods for pick up with a coffee shop. The upper floors are being looked at for some type of transient use, such as an Airbnb, although those plans are not yet formulated.

She and her husband own a farm just outside the village in the Guilford Lake area, where they raise lambs, which their daughter is in the process of taking over. 

“From my point of view, we want to do anything we can to help improve Lisbon. What has been done has been done well. I hope we can do as well,” she says.

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Gallery includes photos of The Phoenix, the renovated former Morgan’s Drug Store; the former Pilmer Auto Parts store; a former restaurant at 126 E. Lincoln Way; and a “Sold” sign in the window of a building in Lisbon’s historic district.

A building at 126 E. Lincoln Way, the former site of Carol’s Restaurant, was purchased by Wilson’s brothers, who plan to move back to Lisbon. 

“We all have a sentimental feeling about Lisbon,” Mike Wilson says. “Our great-great-grandfather shows up [in Lisbon records] in early 1800.”

The mayor “is a good cheerleader” for his village, as well, Mike Wilson says of his brother.

“The owner finally put it up for sale because the village government is putting on pressure to sell or fix up,” he says. “It’s a good thing Lisbon is finally beginning to push owners so these buildings don’t fall apart.”

Their plans are to try and again open a restaurant in the ground floor, with one of the brothers interested in having living space on the third floor with perhaps an Airbnb on the second floor, aimed at the bicycling trade visiting Lisbon for the Greenway Trail. 

Currently, the Wilsons are seeking prices on roofing and windows before any work begins. Plans for the building on West Market Street which is still in negotiation will be divulged once the sale is final.  

The Lisbon Area Chamber of Commerce is supportive of the moves being made in the village, according to President La Dawn Whitman. 

“It’s great to see all the growth. When a business comes in, other businesses thrive. The more business you can bring in, the better it is for all. It creates new foot traffic,” Whitman says. “People are seeing how the village, the chamber and businesses are investing and they want to be part of that growth. The Beautification Committee is making it so inviting.”

Mayor Wilson says his vision is not just one of saving old buildings, per se.

“[We’re] trying to create an environment where people want to live, invest and start their businesses, that’s why saving an old building is important and why enforcing the vacant building ordinance is important,” he says, “because if we don’t, these buildings will just deteriorate and fall apart and won’t help us a bit.”

Pictured at top: Among the seven buildings recently sold in downtown Lisbon is 126 E. Lincoln Way, the former Pilmer Auto Parts. New owner Cynthia Kootnz plans to restore the building, which was built in 1885.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.