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By Dan Shingler at Crain’s Cleveland Business
Downtown Canton isn’t quite bustling, but there’s a definite air of optimism, with people moving into new luxury apartments, a major new hotel and events center slated for next year, and potentially more residential development to follow in the years ahead.
It’s an overnight success that’s been two decades in the making.
"Downtown Canton prior to 2000, frankly, was just a humbling place. The public infrastructure was horrible and people just didn’t come down to this area," said Mike Gill, vice president of economic development for the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce and president of the Downtown Canton Land Bank.
Since then, however, Gill said he’s been tracking a wave of investment in the city’s core."From the year 2000 until this year, we are now at $189 million of (primarily private) investment in our downtown. … For a city our size, I think that’s very significant, and it’s led us into new directions with a new atmosphere. Now it’s, ’People are investing in downtown Canton and I want to be part of that,’ " Gill said.
Much of the new money has gone toward residential development that Gill and others hope will continue and help repopulate the city center. The near-term success of recent projects and others about to be unveiled may determine the city’s future.
"It’s all about downtown housing," developer Steve Coon said. "It’s not restaurants or office space. It’s people living downtown. That’s what brings downtowns back. … After that, the offices and the restaurants will come, but first it’s all about people living downtown."
Perhaps more than anyone else, Coon has been bringing people to live in downtown Canton in recent years by building new residences.
"He goes in, he sees the potential and he just does it," said Dan Spring, president of NAI Spring real estate in Canton. "He doesn’t care what other people tell him. He says, ’I’m going to turn this building into high-end apartments.’ Then he does it — and fills it up."
The native of nearby Louisville, along with his 160 employees at Coon Restoration there, has renovated a string of downtown Canton buildings that now house new residents and businesses.New places to live
Coon said he’s been buying and renovating buildings in downtown Canton since 1998.
"It all started when I did the Northmark Building, where Carpe Diem Coffee Shop is. … Then, I just started buying buildings downtown. People joked, ’You’re buying buildings downtown and everybody’s leaving. You keep buying buildings that should be torn down.’ Now, 20 years later, I look like the smartest guy in the room," Coon said with a chuckle
With renovation projects such as Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, the residential conversion of the former Cleveland Athletic Club and historic preservations in many other places under his belt, Coon isn’t shy about taking on major projects. He is a major contractor on Akron’s Bowery Project.
He also has partners who are willing to consider new investment opportunities, he said, including Canton developer Bob Timken and Akron entrepreneur and developer Randy Theken.
Coon’s two recent residential projects are his most talked about efforts: the conversion of the Bliss and Onesto buildings — major office and hotel buildings, respectively — into luxury apartments.
They sit next to each other on Second Street Northwest, in the heart of downtown’s Innovation District, which is aimed at fostering tech startups. Both buildings were in need of a lot of love, especially the Onesto, which had been vacant and neglected for years.
"It took me about five years to get the asbestos out of there," Coon recalled.
But he did it, and the Onesto Lofts opened in 2015, along with an events center. Bliss Lofts opened in 2017. The buildings share a parking deck that fits more than 400 cars.
Coon spent $32 million converting the buildings into 50 apartments apiece, he said, and today they’re listed at rents ranging from $1,100 to $2,100 per unit. Don’t bother inquiring, though: Nothing’s available.
Coon said only a few units are left, too, at Phase I of the Hercules Engine plant conversion on Market Avenue South, which opened in May 2018 as Hercules Apartments with 90 luxury units. Rents for the swankiest units there top $3,500 a month.
Coon also participated as a partner and contractor in the Hercules project, led by Bob Timken’s Cormony Development. Phase I takes up 4 acres of a hulking, 26-acre old industrial site that Coon said will take four more phases to build out.
The three projects prove to Coon there is strong demand for housing downtown.
"All the (residential) buildings downtown are full. … The Onesto started it, and that’s full with a waiting list to get in," he said. "Bliss tower right next to it is full, and Hercules is within one or two units of being full. … Now, people are calling and saying, ’What else have you got?’ "
The more people who come downtown, the better it gets, say residents and small business owners like Cathy Wyatt, owner of the Carpe Diem Coffee Shop.
"When we first moved in, we were like the first ones to come into a renovated building. It was definitely unknown territory," Wyatt said. "Now, businesses are coming back. It used to be everyone wanted to be out by Belden Village. Now, the tide has turned and everyone wants to be downtown."
There’s now a restaurant next door, Angry Avocado, and the new Kendall & Blue Boutique dress shop around the corner, Wyatt said. She likes the new arrivals because they increase foot traffic for her business, and because she and her husband are downtown residents, living in the nearby Bliss Lofts. Wyatt said she’s become a city gal.
"I pride myself in that I only have to get into my car about twice a week. In fact, we’re thinking of getting rid of one car," she noted.
You can even take walking food tours of downtown Canton, said Barb Abbott, owner of Canton Food Tours. She’s done tours in various parts of town since she began her business 12 years ago, but now many companies hire her to show prospective employees and clients the city. And she sticks to downtown.
"In eight years, I’ve tried a lot of things, but right now I’m back to the basics: downtown Canton. … It’s not quite (East) Fourth Street in Cleveland yet, but we’re making it fun and sexy to come downtown," she said of the new eateries popping up and the energy they create. "When I started doing this, some people were like, ’Don’t go downtown,’ " Abbott recalled.
Like Cleveland and Akron, Canton credits the arts for helping to spur its downtown’s revival.
"The Arts in Stark really got the ball rolling," said Linda Hale, community manager for the Innovation District, inside the Canton Arts District. "They started building out space and saw that we could do some engagement in town. I always give them credit, because without them we’d have none of this other stuff."
The Arts in Stark nonprofit is countywide in its efforts, but it’s located and has the most concentrated impact in downtown Canton. That’s where it has spurred the creation of the Arts District that Mayor Thomas Bernabei credits with fostering roughly 30 studios, installations, galleries and related shops downtown.
Meanwhile, the city launched its 12-block, downtown Innovation District in February. The district offers new businesses free wireless internet set up by Canton’s Agile Networks and works with partners such as JumpStart Inc. to help companies grow.
The district also includes a small, 3,000-square-foot incubator and works with companies to find affordable space in its part of downtown, Hale said. When Crain’s visited her, she was working with the software firm Three30 Group to find new space as it graduated from the incubator in November.
"That’s fine, though. That’s what’s supposed to happen: They leave the nest," Hale said.
For manufacturers, there’s also help available from the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, which pushed to get the district formed, and Magnet, the manufacturing advocacy and consulting agency based in Cleveland.
Chamber president and CEO Dennis Saunier said his organization has teamed up with Magnet to open an Innovation Center showroom at the chamber’s headquarters in the Innovation District. The center shows off local manufacturing technology in big window displays.
Now that there are visitors and residents to see such displays, the chamber hopes to convince some of them to consider jobs in local industry.
"We’re trying to have young adults look at careers in manufacturing, and it’s a good way to get the message out as to what manufacturing really means today in terms of science and innovation," Saunier said.
On top of what’s already been built, a couple of big developments are slated to open next year that downtown backers say will juice up activity.
Those are the development of Centennial Plaza in the Innovation District and the redevelopment of the McKinley Grand Hotel at 320 Market Ave. South.
They not only represent more than $30 million in new investment, but are a vital new connection between downtown and the $900 million development of the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village near the Pro Football Hall of Fame to the north.
The Hall of Fame Village purchased the hotel in October for $3.8 million and has said it will spend more than $21 million renovating the property and then use it for its guests.
The Hall of Fame is taking on the management of Centennial Plaza, the former site of Market Square Park, which had largely fallen into disuse. The hall promises to turn the site, which the city is developing for an expected cost of just under $13 million, into a prime event space downtown, and then use it for its own events and to book others.
Bernabei is promising the new plaza will be downtown’s "Central Park," with it and the new hotel expected to increase foot traffic. The hotel and plaza need to be finished before Canton and the Hall of Fame host the NFL’s 100th anniversary celebrations in September 2020, officials said.
"We’re going to have a lot more visitors downtown, beginning next year," Gill predicted.
If those visitors materialize and current developments continue to do well, downtown Canton may see still more projects, especially apartments and other residential development, which the city now abates in an effort to increase its housing stock and population.
"There are plenty of opportunities with available buildings. It all depends on demand," said John Dodovich, Canton’s chief building official and a local architect.
Coon, who said he will bid for upcoming work on the Hall of Fame Village’s downtown hotel project, said he has eight to 10 properties he’s been holding that he may soon develop.
But if you ask most people, including Coon, what is likely the next big project, they’ll point to the Renkert Building. Ten stories tall and with a narrow front, the Renkert stands across the street from and facing the new plaza, which essentially will be the building’s new front yard. The Renkert is flanked by parking lots, and no other tall buildings obstruct its views of the plaza and much of the rest of downtown.
The Downtown Canton Land Bank purchased the building at the end of 2017, and Gill has high hopes for it.
"When we’re talking about the development of Centennial Plaza, that certainly puts the Renkert Building into play," he said. "We hope to hear something very soon in terms of some development prospects there. If that whole block gets redone, it’s really going to be a game-changer for downtown."
Coon predicted the Hercules project also will take on another phase of its development and that more apartments may be carved out of other downtown buildings in the next year or two.
"I think Canton’s probably got an opportunity for three or four hundred more residences downtown," said Coon. "And I think myself and others will fill that void over the next three to five years."