By Justin Wier
Downtown Youngstown has come a long way in the last decade, but there are some key pieces that are still lacking. Among those are a hotel, a grocery store and entertainment options that extend beyond bars, restaurants and theater.
With Youngstown sitting as a major rest stop for travelers journeying to cities such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia and the growth of entertainment options — from bars to the Covelli Center— in the downtown area, a hotel is arguably the most essential piece of the puzzle.
Phil Kidd, the owner of Defend Youngstown and a community leader and activist in the Youngstown area, said a hotel has been a long time coming.
“We needed a hotel arguably 10 years ago, certainly at least five years ago,” Kidd said.
Dominic J. Marchionda, CEO of NYO Property Group, said the city will have to wait another two years, but it’s coming.
A “well-respected” name in the industry plans to operate a 110-room hotel in the Stambaugh Building. NYO Property Group intends to begin work on the project early next summer and anticipates it taking 12 to 18 months to complete.
NYO Property Group secured $9 million in a combination of state and federal tax credits to fund the project, which Marchionda estimates will cost between $25 million and $30 million. This includes $5 million in historic tax credits, the most money Youngstown has received from the program.
The lack of a hotel downtown has limited the number of people who attend events in the city.
“When I was the events director for the City of Youngstown back in 2008, that was one of the number one questions I got asked,” Kidd said. “I had to tell them they were going to have to drive 8-10 minutes away in either Liberty or Boardman, and they couldn’t even understand that.”
He said people who want to travel in for downtown festivals plan on enjoying themselves, and they aren’t always eager to get into a car and drive several miles to reach their hotel, especially when they hope to have a few drinks before the night’s end.
In addition, people who have work at the federal courthouse or attend meetings at Youngstown Business Incubator would benefit from a downtown hotel. When lecturers, parents and visiting sports teams visit Youngstown State University, they can’t stay in town.
“I think that’s a landmark, bellwether type of project. When that is established, you know downtown is really on its way,” Kidd said.
With an increasing number of people living downtown, a grocery store is another bellwether project that, at this point, is a necessity.
“We’re getting enough people who are living downtown or even working downtown that would want to be able to get their groceries. It’s one less stop they have to make on their way home or during the week,” Kidd said.
Marchionda said NYO Property Group came close to finalizing a downtown grocery store, but the deal fell apart when they were unable to obtain the necessary tax credits to see the project through.
“The building that we’re looking to put a grocer in needs an extensive amount of work on it, so getting the [tax credits] would be an integral part of that coming together,” Marchionda said.
They have not given up on the project.
“We’re still actively seeking a grocery store operator to entertain coming downtown to service the YSU campus and the immediate area,” Marchionda said. “It’s going to take a local grocer that is committed to the redevelopment of our city to take the chance.”
He said market studies confirmed that a grocery store would be supported downtown.
“I think if they do something a little bit different, a little bit outside the box, there’s no question, no doubt in my mind, that they’ll find it to be a success,” Marchionda said. “There is a captive audience in the student population and in the downtown business center.”
Less vital than a hotel or grocery store, but perhaps more exciting, particularly to students at YSU, is a movie theater.
There are a lot of multiplexes in the suburbs, but if someone wants to see independent films they have to travel to Cleveland or Pittsburgh. Austintown Cinemas filled this need for people in the Mahoning Valley, but it closed its doors in 2006.
“It would be great if we could see independent movies brought here because we don’t currently have that option in the Mahoning Valley,” Kidd said. “We have to capitalize on those niche things. Restaurants downtown have to be niche. They have to be something you can’t get anywhere else, and I think so does the entertainment.”
Marchionda sees the appeal a movie theater would have for younger people.
“A bowling alley or a movie theater, those types of things to make the downtown community more attractive to the YSU students, would be a huge step in the right direction to continue with the renaissance — but you need people to do it, you need people to step up and take some of the risk that goes with it,” Marchionda said.
Dominic Gatta, another downtown developer, said though he has been focused on renovating the Gallagher Building, he is confident these types of attractions will appear eventually.
“Once we get more residential, those other things will come,” Gatta said.
With more going on downtown, a lot of people are concerned about a lack of parking.
Kidd acknowledges the need for more parking, but says that people need to change the way they think about parking in Youngstown.
“This is becoming an actual urban center, an actual downtown, and if you were to go to downtown Cleveland or Pittsburgh or even Akron, you’re going to have to park somewhere and walk a little bit,” Kidd said. “In a place like the Mahoning Valley, we still have a suburban mindset because that’s the way the majority of people live. They’re used to parking right where they want to go, but that’s not how downtowns work.”
Cities often strive to maximize existing space, like by building upward, before turning otherwise developable land into surface lots.
“I think there’s plenty of room for improvement with the space we have,” Kidd said. “There’s plenty of valuable space that we could develop for parking without having to rip more buildings down or anything like that.”
For example, Kidd pointed to Commerce Street, which is much wider than it needs to be given its current levels of traffic. It could be altered to enable metered parking from Wick Avenue to Fifth Avenue, similar to what exists on West Federal Street.
However, this is only a short-term solution.
“In the longer term, what’s going to end up happening is we’re going to need another parking deck at some point,” Kidd said. “The only problem with parking decks is they’re extremely expensive and they usually require some type of subsidy because they are so expensive.”
This is why the city has pursued surface lots, but they are counterproductive to the idea of a downtown.
“The thing that makes a downtown attractive is its density, the fact that there are multiple things closely grouped together that are accessible by foot, and if we continue to keep peppering it all with surface parking lots, it dilutes what a downtown is and what creates the attraction for it,” Kidd said.