Economic Development

Rebuilding Sharon, Block by Block

SHARON, Pa. – Jim Landino has a confession: the polka dots were his idea.

The polka dots are painted on a 1,200-pound coffee cup atop Lulu Beans Café & Coffee House, housed in one of the buildings Landino owns in downtown Sharon.

His reasoning is simple. He wants children to urge their parents to bring them downtown so they can see “the giant coffee cup on the roof with the polka dots,” he says.

Getting people to want to visit Sharon and make their homes here is a large driver of Landino’s efforts and other initiatives in the Shenango Valley’s largest city. Community planners are also preparing a one-day event to inventory every structure in the city.

“We have to bring people in town that are actually seeing Sharon and the surrounding area as a destination,” says Landino, owner of JCL Development.

Landino, who sold Sunbelt Transformer Inc. in 2015, estimates he has invested $5 million to date in purchasing and rehabilitating buildings, including the former Petrini Insurance building, which is now home to Lulu Beans. He and his fiancée, Jen Krezeczowski, operate the coffee shop.

The investment “may be larger,” he allows. “It’s something in that range.”

Other properties he has purchased and renovated – or is in the process of renovating – include the former Sunshine Home building, where Sunbelt is now located, and the Buhl Armory, which he is repurposing for office and event space.

In 2012, he bought his first building, the former Independent Order of Odd Fellows lodge, built in 1922 and attached by a catwalk to the former Sunshine Home.

“I was actually looking for a cool place to live,” he recalls. “My idea was to find this really cool, old brick building that literally the bushes would move away from, my car would drive in and I would be like Batman.”

Not surprisingly, he nicknames his home “the Batcave.”

Landino acquired other properties as he became more interested in the history of the downtown structures. “We walk into these buildings and somehow try to find a way to fall in love with them,” he says.

Lulu Beans came about when Landino and Krezeczowski exchanged ideas back and forth for what to do with the building, a property he considered as a “second choice” for a residence.

“I was semi-opposed [to the café] and then gave in to the whole concept,” he says. “We realized that the town wasn’t going to move forward if we didn’t put something really cool, hip and funky in it to draw people, including the coffee cup on the roof. Then things just kind of took on a life of its own.”

JCL is completing an outdoor seating area that Landino hopes to see used eight months of the year.

Work is about halfway complete on another of the structures Landino is rehabilitating, the Applegate Building. The building already has a tenant on the upper level and the developer is preparing its lower-level space for a brick-oven pizza shop, a barber and a home décor boutique operated by Krezeczowski – an interior designer by trade and a graphic artist. It will feature products built in a woodworking shop Landino operates.

“The city of Sharon is known for being a place that you work and then leave,” Landino says. While efforts have focused on job creation, the city and surrounding communities need to put a greater focus on quality of life, he asserts.

The Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce looks at economic development similarly, says Executive Director Sherris Moreira. By enhancing the quality of life to attract people, the city can attract more business.

“It used to be you would attract business to an area, but you need to attract skilled workers to an area,” Moreira says. Amenities such as recreational opportunities, a “great restaurant scene” and affordable, quality housing can help attract the young professionals that technology-related businesses want to hire.

The mapping initiative to identify every building in the city – commercial, residential and institutional – is scheduled for Sept. 15. Training sessions are set for Sept. 4, 10 and 13.

The goal is to assemble 200 volunteers who will use their smartphones to take photos of and compile information about every building in the city. They will use a free mapping tool provided by Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office.

The initiative is driven in part because of issues the city encountered when trying to demolish blighted houses in a neighborhood just north of downtown. Using federal demolition funds requires working with the state historic preservation office to determine if any of the houses might have historic value.

While none of the targeted properties did, Sharon’s community development director, Melissa Holmes, discovered “a very curious thing” on the state Geographic Information Mapping system: an area marked as the East Sharon Historic District. Properties within the district, which overlays about three-quarters of the city, are flagged by the state historic preservation office as potentially historic.

“It was created in the ‘90s by people who thought they were doing a good thing,” Holmes says. Instead, the map has created “a lot of headaches” because of the extra work required to show a property isn’t historically significant before anything is done with it. “This district is always going to be there until we have the data to get rid of it,” she says.

The data will also help neighborhood revitalization efforts, says Bill Dodd, owner of Mudhut Studios and head of the Sharon Neighborhood Revitalization Committee, which formed 18 months ago. Since the committee’s founding, members discovered the city had no plans for reinvigorating neighborhoods, he says.

“We needed to prioritize some things that were required here in the city, and one of those things was plans,” Dodd says. “We realized we had no [hard] data at all.”

While the data being gathered is important, Dodd says the most important aspect of the initiative will be the “community building” that will emerge from the effort.

“We’re fairly optimistic that we’re going to top 200 at this point, so we now have a ready-made group of potential volunteers for other types of citizen-based and municipal-based plans,” he says.

Landino agrees. “Just the idea of 200 foot soldiers on the streets of Sharon doing volunteer work is in itself fantastic,” he says.

Once the East Sharon district designation is removed, housing, demolition and rehabilitation projects should be more streamlined, Holmes says. “The other thing is we can become more strategic on our neighborhood revitalization strategies,” she says.

Landino has adopted a strategy of assembling properties block by block to maximize the impact of renovations, and now has five such block-centered projects under way. The tactic reflects advice he heard at a meeting with an urban renewal specialist in Pittsburgh, who commented that demolishing one structure surrounded by other blighted or dilapidated properties accomplishes little.

“We really haven’t acquired a building recently that we haven’t acquired a minimum of two or maybe three other properties in that block,” Landino says.

The approach unintentionally echoes a plan crafted 15 years ago by architect Ross Bianco, who shared the proposal with Landino during a meeting. The plan, commissioned by the late entrepreneur James E. Winner Jr., outlines specific districts in Sharon that would help spur revitalization.

“It was intriguing because what he had drawn wasn’t outrageously different than what we had started, but they weren’t in the same blocks,” Landino says.

The Winner plan is described as looking at how various uses – recreation, industrial and educational space, for example – are best served by the assets in geographic areas, according to Winner’s daughter, Karen Winner Sed, CEO of Winner International and the Winner Companies.

Landino has “a very similar approach in that he considers how to address all the components that need served, and is taking those needs all into account as he geographically addresses the area,” Winner Sed says.

His method is to look at blocks rather than individual properties and do what he can to make not just physical and aesthetic improvements but also to address what happens in the buildings to support the designated uses.

“In other words, what will the purpose of this building or this block be, and what will it do to support the business retail component, the education component, the tourism component, the industrial component?” Winner Sed says.

Within the next six months, Landino expects to spend another $2 million on buildings. The most significant investment is in the Jolley Industrial Supply property adjacent to Penn State Shenango, where he plans to develop apartments.

“We’ll hopefully have 30 beds available for Penn State by August of ‘19,” he says. After that, the plan is to add a second floor for another 30 beds.

Winner Sed “could not be any happier” with Landino’s plans and efforts, she says. She also praises him for his unselfish approach to development and his willingness to support others’ efforts and ideas.

“Truth be told, Jim could have chosen anywhere to live and any downtown to redevelop. That he chose to stay in Sharon is something the entire region, not just our town, should be thrilled with,” she says. “He’s making a difference, and quickly, in the area by the investment he is making into properties – again with the thought of supporting the different components that make up the area.”

Pictured: Jim Landino estimates he’s invested $5 million in Sharon since he bought his first building, the former Odd Fellows building, in 2012.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.