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Lorain, Ohio Mayor Jack Bradley describes how he worked to keep momentum going during the past two years with a downtown “renaissance.”
The Covid-19 pandemic caused many city centers around the country to struggle. But Lorain, Ohio persisted through the challenges to advance downtown revitalization efforts it had in the works before the virus struck. The Cleveland suburb of about 64,000 residents, located on Lake Erie, has been hit hard over the years by industrial job losses, including in the steel industry. The focus on reviving the city’s downtown predates Mayor Jack Bradley, but he was key to keeping the momentum up during the past two years. Now, Bradley says, downtown Lorain is entering a "renaissance" with multiple small-businesses occupying once-abandoned properties, and the city making a variety of street upgrades.
Route Fifty recently talked with Bradley to find out more about how Lorain has made progress improving its downtown.
Route Fifty: While the Covid-19 pandemic was shutting companies down around the country, your city was revitalizing old buildings and creating spaces for new businesses downtown. Why did you believe investing in Lorain’s downtown was the best course of action for the city?
Jack Bradley: I knew that our city was experiencing a renaissance, a rebirth, and I knew that slowing down would slow down that progress in that renaissance. So, I tried to reach out to small businesses and provide them with some limited aid under the CARES Act.
We also used some of those funds to reward our first responders, police officers and firefighters, people who could not take advantage of work-from-home opportunities. So, we gave them hazard pay so that they knew that we appreciated them keeping our city open and keeping our city safe.
Q: Once you had a plan, what action did you take to obtain the funds for the entire revitalization?
A: We were given a grant through the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency to do streetscape in downtown Lorain. The grant provided us funds for widening the sidewalks, changing the pattern of traffic and putting up some signage to announce our downtown area.
As a result, several entrepreneurs decided that it was the right time to open businesses in downtown Lorain; the streetscape acted as a catalyst to help small businesses. Our Lorain Port and Finance Authority also worked with the owners of the Aerial Hotel to get them tax credits so that they could reopen the historic hotel in our downtown area. All these factors work together in helping us revitalize our downtown area.
Q: One of the largest revitalization projects downtown is the Ariel Broadway Hotel, which opened in 2019, right before the pandemic hit. How did the city get Ariel Ventures interested in investing in the building, which was vacant for 15 years? How has the reopening of the hotel contributed to the growth of downtown?
A: Our [executive] director of our Port Authority, Tom Brown, knew that there was a hotel in Cleveland that had been opened by a small group of female investors who were experts in finance. With this knowledge, Brown engaged them in a conversation and said we have this hotel in Lorain that might be perfect for your type of investment.
The investors then met with Brown, and they were able to put a deal together to secure that hotel, saving it from demolition.
Unfortunately, their grand opening happened just a few days before the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown, so they struggled. However, they were one of the businesses that I gave CARES Act money to, to help them pay their mortgage during the pandemic.
Q: The Ariel Broadway Hotel plans were in the works since 2017, around the same time U.S. Steel Corp. shut down a large portion of its plant in Lorain. Was the hotel project a way to create jobs and sustainable tax revenues for the city?
A: Well, I wouldn't say that it created that many jobs, but I think it is a place where future employers would feel comfortable having their advisers, engineers and people coming to the city of Lorain. They have a nice place to stay downtown when they're looking at projects for our city, some good restaurants, and a rooftop that overlooks the Black River and Lake Erie.
Q: Has the city used any American Rescue Plan Act dollars or any other pandemic relief funds for the downtown revitalization?
A: Lorain received a little over $32 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. Originally, we received $16 million; however, we expect to be receiving another $16 million this month. In fact, I just received a notice from the federal government yesterday as to the procedure to secure those funds.
Q: Is restoring Lorain’s downtown helping revitalize the rest of the city?
A: We knew that Covid-19 caused crime to go up everywhere in the U.S., and that it was affecting our youth, schools and communities. When I became the mayor, we had approximately 90 police officers. Today, thanks to the ARPA funds, we're now up to 112 police officers. We have an increased police presence, and they are addressing gun violence street crime, and have been very successful thus far.
In addition, we have invested in our first responders and firefighters who could not take advantage of home-work opportunities. We have provided them with hazard pay to show our appreciation for keeping our city open and safe. We also entered into what was called a "shared work program" where our workers were able to be on layoff one day per week, get their unemployment, receive the bonus money from the federal government and continue to work and receive basically four days of work each week, one day of unemployment, plus the $600 extra bonus each week.
Q: Now that new businesses are starting to open on Broadway, what are the next steps you’ve planned to keep the momentum and growth going?
A: I talk to small-business owners all the time, and one example is Lorenzo's Pizza in Oberlin, Ohio. Lorenzo has a portable oven that he brings to our Rockin' on the River event, where he makes pizzas from this oven in the back of a pickup truck. After seeing how successful it was, I continued talking to him about possibly opening a shop in our downtown. In fact, he recently purchased a building in Lorain to expand his business. So those are the kind of things that we like to see happen.
These types of things are really helping us continue to grow. We also have a great Palace Theater in our downtown, one of the finest in the state of Ohio. They have been bringing in amazing acts that are attracting large crowds, and when you bring in large crowds for events, it helps the restaurants and the other small businesses.
Q: What advice can you share with your fellow mayors and local elected officials around the country about how to bring struggling downtowns back to life?
A: I think that it takes a positive attitude. Unfortunately, many times people will keep looking back to the past, and I like to say that the past may define us, but the future's what is going to make us move forward. So, if we keep a positive attitude, if we know that we're making progress, good things will happen for the city.
Andre Claudio is an assistant editor at Route Fifty.
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