NEWS9 Special Assignment: Bringing business back

“Love where you live.”

“Love where you live.”

It's been the mantra of a handful of downtown business owners in Steubenville. But without any major sole industry anchoring downtown, their success -- or struggles -- have largely been of their own making. So the question is, what's it going to take to give Steubenville once again a vibrant downtown?

"I think one of the issues that we have in our community here in Steubenville (is) you end up with an inventory of used and empty buildings, and it's a community problem of how do you reuse these structures?" said Mark Nelson of Leo's Coffee Shop.

“A lot of people have given up on downtown. I have not. I've been down there since 1998. I have an awesome business. I still believe in downtown,” said Michael “Smitty” Smith, who owns Smitty’s Floors.

Smith and Nelson started their businesses young. They have since grabbed up some of Steubenville's historic buildings.

"I think that's one of the advantages of using an older building in that you don't have nearly the cost involved,” Nelson said. “I think the rebuild value on that (Lincoln Fine Arts & Crafts) building is $2.5 million to build something like that today."

The latest venture for Nelson is a coffee shop.

"We ended up desirous of what a coffee shop can create as far as a community gathering place where young and old alike can gather over a warm cup of coffee," Nelson said.

Several business owners have said Steubenville could be making it easier to revitalize downtown. Some have left. Cas Frosty, a heating, cooling and rental company, moved to Mingo Junction, but the owner still has seven buildings in Steubenville.

He's been fined $400 every year for each building left vacant. Zoning restrictions require buildings to be occupied downtown. But some say it's a catch-22 citation that makes renovating and renting the spaces more difficult.

"Some people, they get a chance to buy these buildings very inexpensive and then they don't do anything. Once you take possession of that building, you're responsible for it now, and it has to meet the current codes," Steubenville City Manager Jim Mavromatis said.

Most of the vacant buildings are being used for storage.

"He could possibly apply for a zoning review to see if he can a variance (waiver) to that. It's there for a reason why we don't have storage buildings in town," Mavromatis said.

City records show the building department cited 12 properties for vacancy violations in 2017. Fifteen were cited for maintenance violations and for code violations. Only one business was cited this year -- the newest store on 4th street, Appliance Depot.

"And there was some misunderstandings with him there, too. And he ended up not in big trouble but small amount of trouble with permits, and it was corrected," 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna said.

That issue was installing new plumbing without a permit. Villamagna helped the operators of Appliance Depot move into the former space of Ft. Steuben Appliance, as well as the former Frank and Jerry's Furniture Store.

"It all started because of me camping. I met this guy camping, brought him to Steubenville, he saw the building, he wanted it," Villamagna said.

Villamagna was at the store's grand opening in October, cheering on new business. But he's been critical of old business. Villamagna had been using Smitty's Sportatorium as an example of buildings he says should come down if not brought up to safety standards.

"If I as a businessman (were to) put $300,000 to $400,000 into a building that I don't even know if I can rent or use myself," Villamagna said.

But Smitty isn't giving up.

"We just put a new roof on it, (the Community Center Sportatorium). We're spending lots of money -- almost $150,000 in the past 6 months,” Smitty said. “There's nobody else spending money like that in downtown Steubenville."

After Villamagna's criticism was aired before council, Smitty met with city administrators and learned how to move forward.

"Don't change your usage. You would think it's easy, white it out. Don't change your usage," he said.

"When you repurpose a building, I believe it's called adaptive reuse of a structure,” Nelson said. “Any time you go through that process, there's roadblocks and hiccups and working with architects. Safety is paramount."

Growing pains? More like opening pains. Owners have sometimes felt stuck trying to negotiate when it comes to architectural plans.

"When revisions come back, normally it's because the plans haven't met code," Mavromatis said.

"Working with an architect or a design firm that is willing to fight for you, basically. They almost act like your attorneys, in that they're going to argue for you," Nelson said.

Downtown's multi-story structures offer thousands of square feet of cheap floor space. But the cost might be cutting literal corners.

"Hypothetically if I didn't want to have events upstairs, and I wanted to change the gym into a storage area upstairs, just keep pallets up there or carpet, I'd be changing the usage from a gym to a warehouse," Smitty said.

The compromise worked out with the city in lieu of a new sprinkler system would be a new fire escape. The wrestler and coach has been grappling with what to do next.

"I hope and I think the catholic community center gymnasium one day will be able to be rented out for events, receptions,” he said. “We're going to have wrestling tournaments there, maybe some basketball there. It's got to be used. There's so much history there in that building."

Steubenville is seeing incremental growth in 2017. According to city data, 22 new businesses have announced opening plans, and more than 2,200 jobs have been added since 2013. Business owners are hoping others see their success as an invitation downtown.

"What types of experiences can we help create?” Nelson asked. “I think a bike shop would be awesome to complement the trails -- something along the river. A fly fishing store would be awesome. A small hunting store would be awesome. A tea shop would be awesome. There's lot of opportunities. When you go to other communities what is it that you enjoy? Let's bring it here."

As a core block of new and novel shops open downtown, business owners say there's a sense of hope that the tide is turning, that lessons have been learned, and that their stores could serve as anchors to attract other businesses to set up shop downtown.

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