Salem Business Group Forms after Building Falls

SALEM, Ohio – Months before Ben Ratner opened his business in downtown Salem, he watched as a building across the street from his store, Libs Market, was torn down after years of neglect. Then, just weeks later, he saw two more buildings condemned.

When he opened his store Aug. 3, almost four months to the day after demolition began at 363. E. State St., Ratner knew the future of downtown lies with the people responsible for the buildings.

So, with the help of the Sustainable Opportunity Development Center and other stakeholders, Ratner went to work creating a downtown business association. The group held its first meeting Oct. 28.

“Trying to get people to take pride in downtown and the history that’s there has been my main focus outside of my own business since we started,” Ratner says. “I want people to appreciate that their business can do well if others do well. That’s how we can make this sustainable and profitable.”

On the agenda of the first meeting is establishing the organization’s goals and determining what the members want it to be.

“The purpose is so that when there are issues – like what happened with the TanFastic building – they can all have a unified voice at the City Council meetings,” Ratner says.

In late March winds from a strong storm ruined part of the Tan-Fantastic building, 363 E. State St. After it was demolished, the buildings on either side of the now-empty space were condemned and the owners were given 30 days to repair the damages caused by the demolition and a decade of leaning against a deteriorating building.

One issue that’s expected to come up at the business group’s first meeting is the city building code. The Sustainable Opportunity Development Center is working with Town Center Associates in Beaver, Pa., to create a new code to present to the city, says executive director Mike Mancuso.

“They’re working on that groundwork now to get, in two or three years, a resource that’s specific for Salem. Not every city in the state has buildings like Salem does,” Ratner says. “Some do, but we need something that’s for us specifically.”

Salem uses the state building code. Mancuso says the development center is looking at the International Property Maintenance Code from the International Code Council as a basis for the updated regulations.

“Most historic downtowns need a core business group to drive it. That’s one of the missing pieces that we need here,” Mancuso says. “The bulk of our businesses and building stock downtown are in great shape. We have two that are being rehabbed as we speak. One is getting a new roof and the other is redoing the façade.”

That work, Ratner surmises, resulted from the condemnation and demolition of other buildings downtown.

“For downtown in general, that felt like a big wake-up call for how things had been done,” he observes. “We also had issues with buildings where people shouldn’t have been in there. All those things made the city wake up and realize the path we were on wasn’t sustainable for the economic development of Salem.”

Although Ratner’s building, 474 E. State St., has been occupied almost continuously since it was constructed in 1858, he wanted it inspected because of what he saw happen around him.

“From that [TanFastic event], I knew I wanted to have the whole building inspected,” he says.
“I also had some surveyors look at the foundation and make sure the building wasn’t encroaching others.”

Mayor John Berlin says his administration has done what it can to help downtown and continues its efforts to effect improvements.

“We all have the best hopes for downtown. We try to maintain a low tax rate and services with what’s available. I do what’s possible. I believe we have to focus on our biggest district,” Berlin says. “We’re trying to maintain that positive income tax incentive for hiring and tax abatements for improving buildings. The city government has done everything we can to keep prices low.”

As for businesses looking to move into downtown storefronts, Berlin relates, nothing “stands in the way of opening a business except for things like wanting a bigger space.”

Since Libs Market opened in early August, Ratner says that he’s happy to occupy such an old building.

“The building itself was built in 1858 and has
this charm that you can’t really recreate if you start from scratch in modern times. It has brick walls that we’ve uncovered, teller windows and bars from the original bank and the original safe. There are a lot of pieces of history like that throughout Salem,” he says.

If the buildings aren’t maintained, he continues, it’s not hard to imagine more issues arising such as what happened in late March and early April, when yellow tape blocked off sidewalks and roads were closed to allow room for demolition.

“New businesses and getting buildings occupied are key, along with the upkeep,” Ratner says. “By not having people in buildings, as we saw with TanFastic, it is really detrimental to downtown.”

Pictured: Ben Ratner opened Libs Market Aug. 3 in one of downtown Salem’s older buildings.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.