Our Towns

Live Music and Craft Beer Revitalize Downtown Youngstown Culture

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — It’s been 36 years since The Youngstown Agora closed its doors. But Sue Adams fondly remembers the concerts she and her friends heard and watched there, including Alice Cooper, Pat Benatar, Boston and Left End.

“The Left End was something to talk about. They were a local band, but I was their No. 1 fan,” says Adams, a lifelong resident of Niles. “I saw the band Boston at the Agora before they were even known.”

Only the facade remains of the former State Theater where the Agora operated from 1979 until 1982, and before that The Tomorrow Club from 1973 to 1978. Today Adams still supports the downtown music scene, whether to hear a Dean Martin tribute concert at the DeYor Performing Arts Center or to watch her son, Tyler, and his band, East 9th, perform.

“It’s important,” she begins, “and that’s what keeps the town going. It’s a chance for everyone to get together and just have fun.”

East 9th was one of three bands to perform at Suzie’s Dogs and Drafts the evening of Saturday, Jan. 20. The headliner, Model Rockets, was releasing its new album, Daybreak, which it began recording a year ago after changing its name from Colorblind.

“It’s been a long time coming for us,” says Fletcher Dunham, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Model Rockets. “We played a lot in the area and kind of rebranded.”

Dunham, a recent graduate of Kent State University, credits the popularity of the Youngstown music scene to its diversity. Andrew Cappuzzello, Model Rockets’ drummer, agrees and says the fan base is also very diverse.

“The scene’s kind of a hodgepodge,” Cappuzzello says. “What’s fun about Youngstown is you get people of all ages out. As long as you play good music, it really doesn’t matter what genre or style.”

From Thursday through Sunday, the evening crowds range from young adults catching live bands to all age groups taking in shows at the DeYor or Stambaugh Auditorium. Live sports, music – even monster trucks and rodeos – draw families to the Covelli Centre and, before and after the shows, to downtown restaurants.

Support from local business is the strength of this revitalized Youngstown culture, Cappuzello says. Venues such as Suzie’s, the reopened Lemon Grove on the second floor of the Knox Building and the B&O Station Banquet Hall book shows and festivals year-round.

“It’s really cool to see some of the businesses opening up to music and realizing that we bring a lot of people into the place,” Cappuzzello says. “It’s great for local business because [fans are] going to drink, they’re going to eat food and it’s a great time.”

Two years ago, Tom Humphries, former president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, estimated that $138 million in investments over 17 years had spurred downtown’s revitalization. New construction laid the foundation for growth: the Nathaniel R. Jones Federal Building, the Williamson College of Business Administration at Youngstown State University and the Covelli Centre, along with the redevelopment of existing properties owned by Ohio One Corp. and NYO Property Group.

NYO’s development of Erie Terminal Place, the Federal Building, Realty Tower and Wick Tower increased downtown residential space for professionals and college students. This immediately created a customer base for businesses. Restaurants such as Roberto’s Italian Ristorante, V2 Wine Bar Trattoria and Avalon Downtown Pizzeria opened their doors and drew downtown residents as well as from neighborhoods nearby.

Christian Rinehart, owner and operator of Suzie’s and O’Donald’s Irish Pub & Grill, says live music and special events pack the house on weekends. He also sees increased foot traffic during events at the Covelli Centre and from families who spend an afternoon at Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology.

christian rinehart suzie's dogs and drafts youngstown cultureChristian Rinehart says young adults don’t drink as much as their parents once did.

Compared to the Suzie’s in Boardman, which typically sees more cover bands, downtown customers want more of an experience, Rinehart observes. Art and live, original music drive the downtown culture.

“The more unique event you can do, the more often you can see a guest,” he says. “They’re not going to come every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for the same thing. You have to recreate yourself all the time.”

YSU students, especially those who live on or near campus, make up much of Suzie’s business, Rinehart says. While his customers are a mix of demographics, he says business typically increases by 36% when YSU has classes and drops when school is out.

The Soap Gallery, 117 S. Champion St., typically serves the 30-and-older crowd, says co-owner Stephen Poullas. Since opening in October 2015, the art gallery has hosted nearly 30 shows with work from local, national and international artists, held poetry readings and live music.

Concerts with genres from folk and jazz to rock and heavy metal are held once or twice a month. During last summer’s outdoor concert series, JD Eicher drew more than 300 to Soap’s loading dock area. First Friday art shows that run from 6 to 9 p.m. feature new displays, are open to the public and attract up to 75 people, he says.

“Art is part of the key to revitalization,” Poullas says. “It provides more unique nightlife. So you’re having something that’s different every time you come in.”

Some of the artwork on the walls of Christopher’s at the End of the Tunnel came from Soap and other local artists. Since taking over its operation five years ago, co-owners Christopher and Shawna Bonacci have created a customer base of YSU and Eastern Gateway Community College students and business professionals. They also cater events at Soap.

“We have a nice melting pot of people and customers,” Shawna Bonacci says. “About 60% of our business are regulars.”

Christopher’s offers its strong lunch crowd a limited menu that includes fully loaded baked potatoes, she says. Toppings include anything from buffalo chicken to vegetarian chili. With a nonalcoholic drink, she says a customer can spend $6 to $8 for a meal.

This year, the couple looks to renovate their kitchen, which would help them expand their menu to include pasta, hamburgers, steak and seafood, Christopher Bonacci says.

“A student from YSU can come down and have dinner,” he says. “And they can say they had a gourmet dinner for a reasonable price.”

The expansion would also allow Christopher’s to host more events, says Shawna Bonacci. A wine tasting on Jan. 26 drew more than 50. The couple has held about six tastings and developed a following, she says.

christopher's at the end of the tunnel youngstown culture
Mathew and Alicia Frampton from Columbiana County and Martha and Dan Cuckovich from Lordstown attend a wine tasting at Christopher’s at the End of the Tunnel.

“It’s always a hit and people love it,” she says. “It’s one of the best events that we do.”

Alcohol is a part of downtown nightlife. Community entertainment districts – downtown Youngstown enjoys such status – can be issued up to 15 Class D alcohol permits, known as D5J permits. The permit fee is $2,344 and allows for sale of “spirituous liquor for on-premises consumption only, beer, wine and mixed beverages or off-premises in original sealed containers, until 2:30 a.m.,” according to the Ohio Department of Commerce.

The younger crowds don’t drink as much or the same beverages their parents and grandparents consumed, says Suzie’s Rinehart. Young adults drink craft beer rather than domestic light beer and they drink “one [beer] instead of five,” he says.

“When we were growing up, we knew there was a dollar beer every day of the week and where to go,” Rinehart says. “This generation isn’t driven by price. They tend to drink less, but better things.”

Young adults present some challenges, he notes. Employees are harder to recruit than in recent years because “it’s difficult to get them to understand the human part of service,” he adds, a result of their use of cellphones and texts to communicate.

“They’re not good at interaction with people,” he says. “That’s going to be our biggest challenge moving forward as an employer.”

Still, turnover isn’t as high as it used to be, Rinehart says. Foot traffic remains steady and he says the project on North Phelps Street from West Federal to West Commerce streets shouldn’t affect business. He’s eager for new businesses to open in the downtown.

“Every 18 months, you need a new opening or a new something to draw everybody back in,” he says.

New venues Whistle and Keg and Noble Creature Cask House have helped, Rinehart says, and the amphitheater planned for the northern bank of the Mahoning River will keep the beer flowing. But as new businesses open, parking will become more of a problem.

“It’s the No. 1 issue I hear,” he says. “As it gets busier, if they don’t fix parking soon, it’s going to kill itself.”

At a City Council meeting Jan. 25, Julius Oliver, 1st ward councilman, raised safety concerns.

To maintain an atmosphere where customers feel safe, he suggested an increased police presence. “We need our police department during certain hours doing constant patrols in high-crime areas,” he said.

Chief of Police Robin Lees says overall crime last year was down about 4% below 2016.

Problems downtown are “limited and infrequent, and the kind of thing that nobody is able to predict,” Lees says, such as fights.

The police chief recommends venue owners take proper precautions and refuse entry to people who have created problems in the past, ensure parking lots, entrances and exits are well lit, and install a video security system.

Pictured at top: The Model Rockets perform on stage.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.