Niles Pursues Revitalization Strategy
NILES, Ohio – Mayor Steven Mientkiewicz has a vision for downtown Niles.
He sees small professional offices, coffee shops, craft bourbon and wine bars, craft breweries, restaurants and professionals filling vacant storefronts on South Main Street, joining the downtown business base that includes the operations center and a branch of Farmers National Bank, as well as the popular StoneYard Grill & Tavern.
“We’re trying to again spark new business in our city, new industry in our city, as well as stabilize what we already have,” Mientkiewicz says.
Mientkiewicz served as Second-Ward councilman before being appointed mayor last summer following the resignation of Tom Scarnecchia.
“We needed some active leadership, someone who was invested in the community,” he says. “I thought I had a good plan, some vision for the city.” He also wanted to provide both political and financial stability for the city, which exited state fiscal emergency in March.
In terms of economic development initiatives, his two focuses are the U.S. Route 422 corridor, which the mayor describes as “the economic epicenter of not only Niles but Trumbull County as a whole,” and the downtown.
“We see the shift in retail,” with big-box stores and other retailers having to cope with online shopping. “So we do want to work with the Cafaro Co. in stabilizing that Eastwood Mall complex,” he says. “We want to update the 422 corridor so it is more attractive to business.” he says.
“That’s a highly visible area with a lot of traffic,” Mientkiewicz says. “That area will always take care of itself. It’s just a matter of how we upgrade that area, how we upgrade our infrastructure to provide for these businesses.”
The mayor has “full confidence” that the Cafaro Co., headquartered in the mall complex, “will be creative in future investments and in trying to attract and retain business” there, and is confident that Niles will benefit if the company moves forward with its proposed Enterprise Park project on adjacent land in Howland.
“That’s going to bring hundreds of thousands of people per year into our backyard,” he says. “Those people are going to need a place to shop, to sleep, to go dine and to drink, and that’s all in the city of Niles.”
To encourage development, the city recently created an incentive program to reduce the income tax on new businesses based on the number of jobs created. Mientkiewicz wants to create a power reduction incentive – Niles operates its own power and water utilities – also based on job creation.
The city also offers property-tax abatements for businesses that move into the downtown, recently reestablished its community improvement corporation and is discussing a façade-improvement loan program.
“My vision for the downtown area is something that is going to be quaint, where small businesses can grow,” the mayor says.
Additionally, the city is exploring the possibility of running its own fiber lines to offer high-speed internet downtown and is working with the Trumbull County Planning commission on a grant for a feasibility study.
“We’re in the process of running a new fiber line from City Hall all the way up to our new $35 million water treatment plant,” he says.
Until recently, the city contracted with the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber for economic-development services. Among the tasks the chamber performed was assembling an available-properties registry and creating a 422 corridor package that contains proposals to make the route more pedestrian friendly, reports Sarah Boyarko, chief operating officer.
The chamber also worked with the city to develop its incentive package and to secure capital funding, and still is working on “a handful of opportunities” for development, she says.
Available downtown properties include the Niles Professional Building. An entrepreneur interested in launching a craft brewery in the space vacated by PNC Bank is among the parties that have looked at the building, Mientkiewicz says. Another entrepreneur approached him about opening a small coffee shop and lunch diner in one of the vacant buildings.
“When it comes to people investing in an older downtown, you need the right person with two things, and that’s money and vision,” he says.
The mayor praises the owners of StoneYard and Sons of Italy for “taking a shot in the downtown area” by purchasing vacant properties and turning them into successful enterprises. “We’re hoping we can find more of those people,” he says.
Among available properties downtown is the former General Electric plant at North Main and East Federal streets. The chamber brought in a few interested parties to tour the 69,430-square-foot building and 15.7-acre parcel.
“It’s going to be someone very specific,” he says, pointing out that the property has rail access and its own electricity substation. The issue is finding “the right fit” for this and other available downtown sites.
Amber Farris, museum director at the McKinley Birthplace Museum in Niles, would welcome the downtown shops Mientkiewicz envisions. The museum gets upward of 400 monthly visitors during peak months. Many of them are out-of-town visitors following the presidential trails in Ohio.
Although McDonald’s and Dairy Queen both operate downtown, visitors inquire about other places to eat nearby, she says.
“I’m telling anyone who will listen: I will buy coffee at your location every single day if you put it within a block of this museum,” Farris says. “I can make coffee, but I enjoy buying a cup of coffee that I didn’t make.”
Ruth Connelly, co-owner of Connelly’s Flowers, would also like to see more activity downtown. She and partner Rick Lara opened the shop across from the McKinley National Memorial nearly 17 years ago. They eventually purchased the building and expanded into one of its available spaces to open a Christmas room during the holidays.
“What the downtown really needs is something people have to come here to actually go into,” such as a medical clinic or license bureau that could then attract other businesses, she says.
“I don’t think we appreciate what we have in the library and the beauty of that building,” she adds.
The McKinley Memorial Library, on the McKinley Memorial grounds, is partnering with the city on various initiatives, including the relocation of the summer farmers market to the lawn in front of the memorial from the Niles Wellness Center. Holding these types of events at the library will bring more people downtown who hopefully will patronize existing downtown restaurants and encourage new ones to open.
Money from vendors displaying at the farmers market would go to support transportation costs for bringing school students to the library, says Michelle Alleman, director of the McKinley library.
The library and its affiliated McKinley Birthplace Home also draw people to the downtown. In May, the library had more than 7,200 visitors and the birthplace replica another 800, Alleman says. During busy months, they draw around 9,000 visitors combined.
The city and library also collaborated on a health and wellness fair at the Niles Wellness Center.
“We had an overwhelming response,” Alleman says. “I think we’re going to do that every spring.”
Mayor Mientkiewicz and Alleman have discussed holding a Food Truck Friday by the library that features music. Alleman notes that the library is a tenant of the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial Association. Such an event using the library grounds would require permission in advance from the association, but she says collaboration between the association and the library has been “pretty good” over the years.
Following one of the library Music on the Lawn concerts, held Thursday evenings, StoneYard was packed, Mientkiewicz notes. If the city can get another craft restaurant, coffee shop or other specialty venue such as a bourbon bar, “That’s what the younger generation wants to see. They want entertainment,” he says.
To combat blight, the city is becoming more aggressive in code enforcement. In addition to fining violators, the city is going to require them to submit plans to bring their properties up to code.
The city also is looking at moving utilities underground to reduce “pole clutter” and improve the appearance of downtown, Mientkiewicz says.
Mientkiewicz says he is sometimes criticized for comparing the potential of Niles to downtown communities in places such as Chagrin Falls and Garrettsville, but defends holding Niles to a higher standard.
“I don’t think it’s too far out of reach,” he says.
Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.