YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Western Reserve Port Authority is buying properties “that only government could love,” says its executive director, Anthony Trevena. And in so doing, it’s positioning them for productive use where more than likely local governments would not.
Case in point: The port authority is finalizing the language of land purchase agreements with Steward Health, but it already has a potential project for one of the 26 properties included in the $300,000 deal.
That building, 1915 Belmont Ave. in Youngstown, has housed a movie theater, a grocery store and a medical supply company. Trevena says the port authority has a project in mind for the property, which most recently was used for storage, and is in the early stages of due diligence.
“We’re having conversations with a group that’s interested in the property,” Trevena says. “We’re very, very optimistic that’s going to work out.”
Trevena, who has been with the port authority since 2015 and became executive director last year, has no illusions about many of the sites WRPA has taken on since it began repurposing properties and working with developers to bring them back into productive use.
They include decaying commercial and residential properties – some of which can be rehabilitated while others need to be razed – as well as vacant lots and large tracts of brownfields.
“I guess you could say we’re buying those projects or properties that really only government can love,” Trevena says. “The things we get are the things that the private market is not going after, generally speaking, and then we try to put it in the right hands.”
That effort in recent years has led to the revival of hundreds of thousands of square feet of space in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
One Warren building was repurposed as a wine bar, and another provided an expansion opportunity for the Trumbull County Historical Society.
In Youngstown, a handful of buildings along Mahoning Avenue are undergoing renovations, including two to accommodate a local coffee company’s expansion and one with upper level apartments and a lower level that is being brought back to a vanilla-box state for a future end-user.
At the same time, brownfield sites in both Mahoning and Trumbull counties – including one of the largest in Ohio – are being readied for future development.
These initiatives grew out of the establishment of the port authority’s economic development division, launched in 2009 to capitalize on the various financing and other capabilities port authorities have in Ohio. Among those is the ability, under the Ohio Revised Code, to directly negotiate with and sell property to individuals without being required to follow the public bid process.
WRPA staff looked at what other port authorities do in the economic development arena, says Sarah Lown, public finance manager. Depressed property values in the Mahoning Valley caught their attention and inspired a focus on the real estate market.
“We wanted to make sure we positioned ourselves to complement the other economic development agencies and the work they’re doing,” she says.
The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber was focused on jobs and business attraction and retention and Eastgate Regional Council of Governments was addressing infrastructure, but no one in the local economic development community was focusing on bringing up property values, Lown says.
One of the port authority’s early deals, in 2018, involved partnering with Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., which was looking to acquire a building at 2246 Glenwood Ave. that the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley had put on the market.
YNDC was partnering with the city to apply for a federal grant to fund the project but wasn’t “in an immediate position to buy it,” says Ian Beniston, YNDC executive director.
Beniston discussed the situation with Trevena, and the port authority was able to buy the property and hold it until YNDC could purchase it. YNDC did so later the same year with the $150,000 grant it was awarded.
Today, one of the tenants is Beyond Expectations Barber College, which has a 36-chair facility and classrooms. Beniston says the school will add a beauty college later this year.
Assistance from the port authority “gave us the flexibility to get everything we needed together so that we were able to acquire it and have a plan when we acquired it,” he says.
The scenario is “a great example” of the impetus behind the strategy to lock up properties and get them into the hands of those who can put them back into use, which spurs further development, Trevena says. He has nothing against properties being used for applications such as warehousing or car lots. “But we’ve had a lot of buildings that could be in productive use” and serve as job creators or economic drivers, he says.
In Warren, the port authority twice partnered with Mark Marvin, president of Downtown Development Group. The first time was in 2018, when it acquired the former Warren Scope Senior Center, which Marvin redeveloped as a winery on the banks of the Mahoning River.
Marvin looked at San Antonio’s Riverwalk and other communities that capitalized on waterways in crafting a vision for the property.
“It’s a great property along the river but it’s never been taken advantage of,” he says. He envisioned making the space “a destination” for people to sit along the river and enjoy a glass of wine or a beer.
Marvin later partnered with the port authority to acquire the former Mickey’s Army-Navy plaza at 231 S. Main Ave. SW.
WRPA convinced the real estate investment trust that owned the property to donate it to the port authority, which sold the building to Marvin for $350,000, with the provision that 90% of that would be forgiven if Marvin invested that amount into upgrading the property, including a complete roof replacement.
That investment target was exceeded, and the ground floor has been occupied since the third month of ownership, Marvin says. Tenants include Dub City, the Flying High Professional Development Center and Subway.
“By July 1 of this year, the basement will also be 100% occupied,” Marvin says.
The port authority also worked with the city of Warren to transfer the former public defender’s office at 328 Mahoning Ave. NW to the Trumbull County Historical Society. This property now houses the Morgan History Center, which opened in 2021. Now the society is preparing to add a 2,000-square-foot addition.
WRPA has a property transfer agreement with Warren that allows it to accept properties from the city and work directly with potential developers.
“The port authority was very supportive throughout the process,” says Meghan Reed, the history society’s executive director, says. “They were with us every step of the way.”
In Mahoning County, projects have included acquiring the former Youngstown Developmental Center and repurposing it as the Mahoning Valley Campus of Care and obtaining the former Chemical Bank building at Market Street and Midlothian Boulevard in Boardman and redeveloping the site, which the port authority recently sold.
The port authority also acquired the former Harshman Building in downtown Youngstown with the intention of locating its offices there and leasing the remaining space. Eastern Gateway Community College eventually took over the entire building.
Also in Youngstown, the port authority is focused on the Mahoning Avenue corridor, where two members of city council have allocated $500,000 of their ward’s American Rescue Plan funds to assist redevelopment. A couple of years ago, WRPA acquired two buildings at 1586 and 1588 Mahoning Ave., stabilized the properties and sold them to Voyager Specialty Coffee and Teas, which is repurposing one for use as a manufacturing and distribution center and the other as a coffee house.
“We’re onto the finishing stages of construction and hoping for a midsummer opening,” says the owner of the coffee company, Levi Smith.
Elsewhere on the Mahoning Avenue corridor, the port authority is rehabilitating the former Clark Bar, which by summer should have two apartments ready to rent on the upper levels.
The lower level is being put in a vanilla-box state that could be adapted to a variety of uses.
“It’s kind of a blank template,” says Nick Chretien, planning and regional development manager for the port authority.
Potential tenants that have expressed interest in the space range from an art gallery to a makerspace and restaurant.
More recently, the port authority is focusing on vacant land. Earlier this year it sold an 86-acre site in Warren it assembled to Sapientia Ventures LLC, which plans to build a $9 million spec building for manufacturing and distribution on the property.
And WRPA now controls the 1,000-acre former BDM Steel property in Trumbull County, one of the only so-called mega sites in northeastern Ohio.
“We have definitely had conversations with companies looking for large tracts of land like this,” Trevena says.
Last year, the port authority purchased the former McGuffey Plaza on Youngstown’s East Side. Last month, 2nd Ward Councilman Jimmy Hughes pledged to allocate at least $250,000 from his ward’s ARP allocation for remediation of the 22-acre site.
Manufacturing and distribution are the primary uses that Trevena envisions for the former retail property, citing its proximity to highway access.
The goal with all the properties is to get them into the hands of developers who will provide the kind of catalytic development that Trevena talks about and that stems the spread of blight.
“Whenever you see something significantly blighted, basically that ripple starts going further out. …It grows and becomes a stronger influence,” he says. “When you find a catalytic project, and you improve [the property], the same ripple happens. We’re looking for those catalytic opportunities.”
Pictured at top: Anthony Trevena stands across from a long-vacant building that is drawing interest from a developer.