ASHTABULA — Ashtabula City Manager Tony Cantagallo gets angry when he walks down Main Avenue.
“They say we can’t get tenants,” Cantagallo says, pausing at an empty store front with yellowed paper peeling away from the window. “Drive by this place. Would you want to be a tenant?”
Cantagallo points out the eyesores, as if they are not painfully obvious, as he walks the street: a facade painted with colors reminiscent of a 1968 VW painted by hippies on a bad trip; dirty windows with rotting carpet, falling plaster and decaying backdrops; rooms filled with the dirty remnants of a long-gone retail attempt.
“Wash the windows, put some paper in there,” Cantagallo says. “This is (expletive) appalling.”
Cantagallo says the curb appeal of the city’s downtown section is an economic issue that is costing tenants and revenue. He tells of a banker who was looking to locate a new branch in the city, but after taking a hard look at how existing property owners cared for their Main Avenue holdings, the banker concluded he couldn’t justify locating a branch on Main.
That loss angers Cantagallo, who recently met with the Ashtabula Downtown Development Association to find out what they are doing to improve the appearance of what was once the heart commerce in the city.
It turns out that the same things that bother Cantagallo about absentee and apathetic owners also bother Dr. Cara Ogren, president of the ADDA and a downtown business owner (Synergy Physical Therapy and Wellness).
“Curb appeal is what the city manager is concerned with, and I think we are addressing that. We’re just getting started,” Ogren says.
She says the association has created four committees to study and act upon specific issues related to downtown Ashtabula. One of them is design.
“They’re looking at how to improve the appearance of the downtown corridor,” Ogren says of the committee, which is chaired by Ralph Bacon, a local graphic artist.
“The idea is to make downtown Ashtabula look better,” Bacon says.
The committee faces formidable challenges. The owner of one of the biggest eyesores, the former Carlisle’s store, is in prison. There are other “absentee” landlords, as well, whose out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to ownership thwarts the committee’s plans for a downtown revival.
“That’s a problem that I don’t know we have a solution for,” Bacon says. “Our committee, the city and the (Ashtabula Area) Chamber of Commerce are going to be teaming up to resolve that.”
While Cantagallo would like to see these property owners publicly humiliated by being exposed in print, Ogren feels offering incentives is a better approach.
“I feel like the ADDA’s mission is to facilitate good relations,” she says. “If you look at the history, using penalties has been less successful than incentives. In the end, we can only force their hand so much.”
That’s not to say the ADDA is not working to track down owners and communicate the ADDA’s goals to them. Working with Alicia McFarland of the Ashtabula Port Authority, the ADDA is compiling a database of all property owners in the downtown section. Ogren says they want to open conversations with the handful of absentee owners who don’t seem to care.
“It’s just a handful of them,” Ogren says. “We need a paradigm shift downtown, to really take ownership of what we have here.”
Kim Jepson, an optician and owner of Glasses to You at the north end of Main, is both a member of the ADDA’s Design Committee and part of the solution. Jepson says she chose Main Avenue for her business out of a sense of nostalgia: She recalls shopping downtown as a girl and the excitement that came with visiting the district..
“It was a vision; I wanted to participate in bringing back the downtown,” she says.
Jepson says it was a smart move, too. Clients embraced the idea of returning to Main Avenue to do business. She said many elderly customers don’t like the long walks involved in visiting a mall or big-box store; the on-street parking suits them fine.
“It’s flourished,” says Jepson, who outgrew her first storefront in a year, purchased the building in her second year of business and relocated to its larger area in her third. She recently rented the vacated storefront to Bob and Cindy Winik, who own All 4 Seasons LLC.
Their pool and spa chemicals business, which opened in late summer, is the most recent retailer to locate on Main Avenue. Cindy Winik says the location offered good traffic flow and rent that is much less than comparable space on Route 20.
The Winiks take pride in the appearance of their storefront and last week set up a model railroad display just in time for the ADDA’s Christmas Parade. Many other Main Avenue retailers and offices also decorate their windows in seasonal and holiday themes, but a few don’t or have faded, tired displays.
“Can’t you put stuff in the windows and make it clean and neat?” Cantagallo asks as he walks by one of those neglected storefronts.
While Jepson is committed to making her storefront look fresh and appealing, she recently discovered that property owners face an obstacle from a distant, unexpected authority. Jepson says she purchased siding to match a section already on her building. She spent hours painting it and hired a contractor to install it, an investment of $3,000.
But when Jepson went to get a permit for the improvement, she discovered it was the county, not the city, she had to deal with. The county shot down her application because the metal she was using was just a hair too thin -- 29 gauge rather than 28 -- to pass muster. Now she has $1,500 worth of painted siding stashed her basement, siding she can’t use because it might come off in an 80-mile-per hour wind.
“Who is going to be out on Main Avenue in 80-mile-per-hour wind? I’ve never seen a hurricane come flying through Ashtabula, and if a tornado came down, the building would be gone,” she says.
Undaunted, Jepson agreed to dress up the windows on the second floor of her building with curtains and welcoming candles. Her building is used by the ADDA as an example of how these small investments can make a property look more inviting and organic.
Her neighbors, Bill and Joyce Lawrence, take that one step further — they live on the second floor of their business, Main Avenue Music.
A retired vocational teacher from Mentor, Lawrence was 72 when he started his music business on Main Avenue. It was a big risk, he’d never owned a store before, but he loved music and wanted to surround himself with teachers and musicians who shared his passion. He looked for a building, decided Main Avenue was where he wanted to be and purchased a place that could also be his residence. Lawrence, who did the remodeling work himself, says having living space above his store is convenient and economical, an ideal situation for a retired couple.
He opened his store in February 2007. Eight months later, he was signing a lease on the building next door because he needed more space. Now Lawrence is expanding his business into the basement, where he recently built a recording studio in partnership with Jon Baldridge.
Lawrence, with the blessing of the city, spruced up the front of his building with a minimal investment of paint, materials and signage. He worked with neighbors to put in a new sidewalk, as well. He feels the improvements are necessary to attract customers to the avenue and his door.
“It’s a nice little town,” he says. “It’s never going to be the way it used to be, but it could end up being even better.”
At the other end of the street, a facade improvement project at 4640 and 4648 Main Ave., just south of the Senior Center, is generating a lot of buzz on the street. An empty storefront that just two weeks earlier Cantagallo had stopped at and criticized, the property is undergoing a serious facelift as broken glass and tiles are being removed and new columns and recessed panels built.
The property is owned by Ron Kister Jr., who said he did not have time to talk about the project or his plans. A worker on the project said the building doesn’t have a tenant as of yet, but the facade is going to be really sharp once it’s painted.
Neither the ADDA nor Cantagallo is suggesting property owners spend thousands of dollars to make their storefronts more attractive. Ogren says it can be a simple as pulling the weeds and washing the windows. Cantagallo says if property owners are going to put paper in the windows, they ought to at least replace it when it becomes yellowed, torn or stained.
One of the ideas being floated by the ADDA is to enlist high school art students in a project of painting murals on the windows of those vacant storefronts. The paint would add color and culture to the downtown while hiding some of the ugliness lurking behind the glass.
Ogren says the group is also looking at ways to better utilize the second and third floors of the downtown’s old buildings. These units once housed the offices of lawyers, dentists, tailors and other professionals. She feels transforming them into dormitory rooms for Kent State University-Ashtabula students would bring a new level of life and vitality to the downtown. Unfortunately, the downtown is a “9-to-5 culture,” and shoppers today demand more flexibility from vendors.
“There’s a vibrancy that comes with college students. They have the enthusiasm to stay up after 10 p.m.,” she says.
In addition to thinking outside the box, the ADDA is also working to promote what is already in the downtown. Earlier this year, it put out a directory to all the businesses and events in the district. “What an enormous response we had to that,” says Ogren, who couldn’t produce an example of the booklet because they are all gone. “It was a big success.”
The group has also created a Web site, downtownashtabula.com, which provides a guide to businesses and opportunities, and obtained a non-profit status to help secure grants. But Jepson doubts if there will be much grant money available to fix up privately-owned properties.
“We’re all for-profit (entities) in the downtown,” she says.
Ogren says one of the successes of the ADDA in the past year was, by working with the city, to add more parking spaces to Main Avenue by tightening up existing spaces. “Every parking space represents $25,000 of retail revenue for a business,” she says. “The city is working with us to remove those dimples and improve the number of parking spots.”
She says the city and council have been very cooperative with the ADDA’s efforts to improve the downtown, but like the organization and many of the business owners, the municipality is short on capital. For all the big plans, downtown Ashtabula is still a business community trying to survive in a Wal-Mart economy and in a county where household income is far behind that of other Ohio counties to the west.
Ogren is undaunted, however, and believes if diversity, high-quality merchandise and services return to the downtown, so will shoppers, even those who have been going to Lake and Erie counties for their discretionary shopping. She says the ADDA also works hard to not only welcome new businesses to the street, but also promote and foster them so they will succeed and foster more growth.
“People love the idea of going downtown,” Jepson says. “If the businesses come, people will shop here.”
“People are fiercely loyal to Ashtabula,” Ogren says. “You just need to give them a place to go.”
A few do battle with absentee landlords
ASHTABULA — Ashtabula City Manager Tony Cantagallo gets angry when he walks down Main Avenue.
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