Downtown resurgence


Landlords, building owners and the city are looking to capitalize on increased activity around Courthouse Square.

Paul Clouser, who owns National Fire & Water Repair, 143 W. Market St., said he and members of Main Street Warren are trying to convince other building owners to renovate their second floors into apartments to create more downtown living.

“I am surprised at the sense of community,” Clouser said. “I’ve lived in Warren all of my life and I’ve never had more of a sense of living in a neighborhood as I have since moving here.”

Clouser has three apartments in his building, including the one in which he and his wife, Holly, live.

“I know just about everyone who lives around here,” he said. “I know if I need something, I can call one of my neighbors because we help each other out all of the time in plowing, raking and cleaning up the streets. There is a sense of pride in the neighborhood.”

Clouser said he had people asking to rent his two apartments before they were completed.

“I know there is interest,” said Councilman Greg Bartholomew, who has lived for nine years in a second-floor downtown apartment in the building he owns.

“Since moving here, I probably invested $100,000 into getting the apartments the way I wanted them to be,” Bartholomew said.

The councilman estimates that rent averages between $450 to $500 for downtown apartments, with some of the higher-end apartment renting for more.

Businessman Jim Cicchillo, who has owned several downtown buildings since the mid-1980s, has two second-floor apartments filled in one of his buildings. He recently purchased a building at 179 W. Market, but said he has not decided what he will do with it.

“At one point, I had five filled apartments downtown at one time,” Cicchillo said. “It always has worked out for me. I never had an empty apartment for more than two months.”

“Building owners over the years have gotten a bad rap,” he said. “The problem with converting second floors has been it was cost prohibitive. Most could not get enough in rent to pay for their investments.”

Using the work that Clouser has done with his building as an example, Cicchillo said property owners now may be able to attract those willing to pay a higher rent.

“When we purchased this building, it was three months away from being demolished,” Clouser said. “We put about $650,000 work in renovating the entire building.”

  • Build it …

Part of what is driving this interest is the recent uptick in downtown business.

In addition to mainstays such as Gene’s Jewelers, Thom Duma’s Fine Jewelers, All American Cards & Comics and Howard’s Clothing are newer businesses.

The Raymond John Wean Foundation moved its headquarters from an upper floor of the Huntington Bank Building on the southwest side of Courthouse Square to 147 W. Market. The renovation of its new headquarters cost approximately $2.5 million.

A few doors east, Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center, 125 W. Market, is in the process of remodeling the building to create an incubator for technological businesses. The renovation of its new headquarters is estimated to be $3.1 million.

Tim Drummond, owner of Artistics Silk Screen & Design, 169 W. Market St., said that in the last year there seems to have been an increased effort by local business owners to work together to get things done.

When he opened his doors about three years ago, Drummond said there did not seem to be much cooperation among the business owners.

“Now I’m seeing more younger people coming downtown,” he said. “The businesses are meeting and actually getting things done. We are supporting one another.”

Two new family-owned restaurants recently opened within a block of one another on the square. Both are catering to the same audience – those living and doing business downtown during breakfast and lunch hours.

Lynne Lucik Villers and Monte Villers took over the Courthouse Grille, 176 N. Park Ave., in November from Cicchillo, who had hired Lynne to run the restaurant a few months earlier.

Across the way is Cindi and Steve Horkey’s Courtyard Cafe, 187 W. Market, which has been open for two weeks.

The families will have to try to do what many owners of restaurants in each of those locations have not been able to do in the past – survive.

In the last 25 years, the building in which the Courthouse Grille is located has at least seven different restaurants and owners trying to find a way to make it. There have been at least five different restaurants where the Courtyard Cafe is located.

Cicchillo, who has owned several restaurants and bars in Warren, believes restaurants and other retail businesses on the square have trouble surviving in part because parking downtown is difficult.

“Restaurants like the Mocha House, The Hot Dog Shoppe and Saratoga have survived, in part, because they have parking right outside their doors,” Cicchillo said. “People don’t want to search for parking.”

  • Foot traffic

In an effort to make it easier for people to live, work and shop downtown, Clouser is working with the city on the possibility of building a ground-floor walkway from the Franklin Street parking deck to West Market Street.

Downtown merchants are hoping the walkway project would increase the use of the nearly 18-year-old, $2.6 million parking deck by moving more vehicles from the center of Courthouse Square, and getting more people looking at the downtown area as a place to shop and to live.

Clouser plans to build the walkway under his apartment complex next to National Fire & Water Repair.

As planned, the walkway would be 8 feet wide, brightly lit, and decorated with photos and renderings of important figures in the city’s history. On one side, there would be space for two retail shops.

Clouser has asked the city to provide nearly half of the $160,000 cost of putting in the walkway through the building. For its contributions, Clouser would provide a 50-year easement and access from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week. He also would provide maintenance and upkeep of the space and provide insurance.

City Auditor David Griffing said negotiations with Clouser are in the early stages and there has been no firm amount the city may contribute to the project.

Mayor Doug Franklin said the idea about a walkway has been percolating for many years.

“We are further along the way with this owner,” Franklin said.

If an agreement is reached, the city’s portion of the project would be paid for through a downtown redevelopment fund, which is financed through rent from a building that the city owns. Clouser said it would take about three months to build the walkway.

Bartholomew said the city’s parking deck is being used more now than it has in years and that adding the walkway would only increase its use.

“In recent years, we’ve had more people using the deck during festivals and summer events,” Bartholomew said. “There are more people and companies leasing space in the deck.”

Safety-Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa said the city will be restripping the decks to allow more room from people parking in it and it will be resealing the top floor of the deck to stop water from leaking onto the two lower floors of the three-story building.