Mayor, Businesses Work to Revitalize Girard

GIRARD, Ohio – Mayor James Melfi’s roots in Girard run deep. He graduated from St. Rose School in 1972 and Girard High School in 1976. Joseph Melfi, his uncle, served as mayor during the 1980s. Now Melfi is working to guide the renewal of the city he loves.

In 2012, Girard emerged from 11 years of state-designated fiscal emergency. The opening of Vallourec Star’s $1 billion seamless pipe plant that same year allowed the city to pay down debt and improve services, Melfi says. But the depressed price of oil and gas subsequently caused a slowdown in Vallourec’s business, which has hurt the city’s treasury.

“The bottom fell out on the energy side,” Melfi says. “We learned right away what our parents and grandparents knew all along, and that’s the cyclical nature of the steel industry, in this particular case, energy.”

Still, city and business leaders agree that Girard remains an attractive place for investment.

Despite the vacancies downtown, Ahmet Olgun has continued to invest in his restaurant. He’s maintained the same storefront for 21 years. Olgun has witnessed much change during his 31 years of business on West Liberty Street.

A Turkish immigrant with a background in the restaurant industry, he bought the Diamond’s Restaurant in 1986 and transformed it into Olgun’s Café.

Pictured: Ahmet Olgun, owner of Olgun’s Café.

A decade after opening, he moved the café next door to 11. W. Liberty St., where he remains.

Olgun can quickly recall all of the businesses that once crowded the downtown. “There was a little lottery over there on the corner, and across the street was a shoe store. Next door was a five-and-dime,” he says. Nevertheless, he remains an optimist.

“We have a good turnout, especially on Wednesdays and Thursdays,” he says.

Olgun’s menu reflects the choices one might expect to find at a restaurant in a bigger city. Numerous vegetarian selections, including a veggie omelete and sandwich, are complemented by Mediterranean cuisine, including Greek, Turkish and Italian dishes.

He describes the café as a hang- out that attracts regulars from Girard, Boardman, Warren and Niles. “They come to have a little breakfast, a little conversation,” he says.

Olgun’s is open seven days a week. Families come downtown to eat on the weekends, he says, but he’s currently serving only breakfast and lunch. “It did work well,” Olgun says of the dinner trade, “but it just didn’t work well for me because I totally burned out.”

Through good times and bad, his faith in Girard remains steadfast. “I love this city,” he says. “This city, it could come back.”

Melanie Ritchie is celebrating only one year in business, but she echoes Olgun in her enthusiasm for Girard.

In May 2016, Ritchie realized her dream when she opened Karma Korn Poppery downtown. She became interested in opening a shop of her own when she discovered the popularity of gourmet popcorn while traveling with her family through the region.

Pictured: Melanie Ritchie, owner of Karma Korn Poppery.

“We’d go into the bigger cities – Pittsburgh, Cleveland – they all would have popcorn shops,” she says. “We didn’t have anything like that locally.”

Ritchie lives in Niles but chose Girard to open her business. “We wanted that small-town effect where you have that general-store-type look.”

Karma Korn offers 40 flavors of gourmet popcorn, and Ritchie pops up to 100 gallons a day.

Each bag costs $5. “I wanted it to be reasonable,” she says, “so that a family could bring their kids in and everybody could purchase a bag of popcorn and not have to share.”

Customers in Girard welcomed her immediately, Ritchie says. She quickly developed nicknames for her regulars, many of whom were concerned when Karma Korn moved from its original location on West Liberty Street to 300 S. State St.

“When they heard I was moving, they were scared I was moving out of Girard,” she says. But she remains loyal to the city and her customers. “We’re almost like family now,” she says.

Improving Girard’s commercial infrastructure is a key part of attracting new businesses like Karma Korn Poppery, the mayor says. That’s why last year the Girard Downtown Revitalization Program began offering funds from Community Development Block grants to businesses looking to make renovations.

“You’re trying to mix 2016 and 2017 businesses in buildings that were built in 1945,” Melfi says. “It’s difficult.”

Trumbull County commissioners received $500,000 from the Ohio Development Service Agency for the program, which requires businesses to match funding dollar-for-dollar. The capital funding could be used for heating and cooling improvements or to renovate façades.

“It shows our business community that this city is aggressive in trying to help them,” Melfi says.

Saundra Farr owns one of the businesses that benefited from the program, Stephanie Leigh Bridal. Renovations begin this month. “We’re having our whole storefront all changed,” Farr says. “We were able to take advantage of that – which was really a nice offer – and I know several businesses that have taken advantage of it.”

Pictured: Saundra Farr, owner of Stephanie Leigh Bridal.

Farr, a Girard native, plans to have a large window in her storefront, which will allow her to display full wedding gowns. “A lot of people say, ‘I go by here every day and don’t notice you,’ ” she says.

Farr has outfitted friends and neighbors for their big day. Her business has expanded steadily, she relates, and she draws customers from across northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. “We probably have one of the largest selections of head pieces and veils in the tri-county area,” she says.

Stephanie Leigh Bridal offers nearly everything: wedding gowns, bridesmaid dresses and women’s shoes and jewelry. “We have just about everything except the tuxedos,” Farr says.

Road construction and the recent closing of several businesses, including Santisi’s IGA, Daffin’s Candies and Fire Grill BBQ have hurt businesses, Farr says, but Stephanie Leigh Bridal hasn’t been affected much.

“If customers want to come here,” she says, “they’re going to come here.”

Few businesses in Girard have been around for as long as Wm. Price Heating & Cooling, 330 Trumbull Ave. Price, established in 1937, serves the Mahoning Valley and western Pennsylvania. “We’re a fourth-generation company and we’re serving fourth-generation customers,” says owner-partner Chris McKernan.

McKernan’s grandfather, once the city’s mayor, grew up on Howard Street. “You left your doors open,” he recalls. “It was a great neighborhood to grow up in, great town to grow up in.”

Pictured: Chris McKernan, owner-partner of Wm. Price Heating & Cooling.

The Great Recession hurt Price’s residential construction business, so the company turned its focus on service and replacement. “We were always positioned well and were able to shift focus,” McKernan says.

This year Price was awarded the better Business Bureau Torch Award for ethics and the President’s Award from the Carrier Corp.

The company is based just outside the target area for the revitalization program but remains committed to the area, McKernan says.

“We would have jumped on it,” he says of the program.

Despite the challenges Girard faces, owner Linda McKernan sees good things happening in the city.

“It’s always been a family-oriented town,” she says. “There’s a closeness about it.”

Chris McKernan concurs. “That’s driven us to be the way we are: We’re a family-oriented business.”

John Simeone, president of the Western Reserve Realty Group Inc., has spent 46 years in residential real estate, developing properties in Poland, Canfield, North Lima and Naples, Florida. He remains bullish on Girard.

One project he’s most proud of is Seneca Woods of Girard, a residential development near the new Girard High School and David Tod Memorial Park. With an estimated value of $25 million to $28 million, Simeone calls it a great sign for the real estate market within the city.

Pictured: John Simeone, president of the Western Reserve Realty Group Inc. and Gina Howley, company coordinator. 

“We have homes anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000,” he says.

With quick access to U.S. Route 422, state Route 304 and Interstate 80, Girard is positioned well for growth, Simeone posits.

“When you go south or when you go north, Girard is right in the center,” he says. “That’s why they call it Girard: the heart of the Valley.”

Simeone has been involved in a variety of community-oriented projects in the city, including Girard Little Indians football and the homecoming parade. His daughter owns Margherita’s Grille on State Street. When Simeone realized that his city lacked a memorial for soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, he helped build a memorial in front of his office on State Street.

He’s currently involved with marketing a property near I-80 and U.S. Route 422. “We’ve been talking to Taco Bell. We’re talking to Dunkin’ Donuts for that location,” he says.

There’s also the possibility of a Starbucks going there too, he says. Because of easy access to the interstate from the site, Simeone sees many opportunities: “That’s the part of town that I think has the opportunities for investors.”

Simeone has no plans to slow down and he remains committed to aiding development in Girard.

Sooner or later, he says, the city will enjoy a renaissance because, he says, “We’re the best kept secret in the Valley.”

Pictured at top: Girard Mayor James Melfi.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.