YOUNGSTOWN — Christine Mechling recently arrived at work and discovered something disturbing and unexpected waiting for her on a counter.
“I called him and said, ‘Do you know anything about this?’ and he said, ‘What are you talking about?’ recalls Mechling, manager of the Capitol Grill in downtown Youngstown.
Mechling informed the restaurant’s owner, Hashem Jaafar, of a 60-day eviction notice that had been left to inform them both that they had to vacate the premises by September 1.
Mechling and Jaafar were among the tenants of 20 Federal Place who received eviction notices, and they shared their stories during a 90-minute town hall meeting Monday night at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 323 Wick Ave.
The sponsor of the session was the organization Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods (ACTION).
Mechling noted that she and Jaafar spent time daily looking for an alternate location for the restaurant, which had been at 20 Federal Place for about 14 years. One possible site they are considering is the former Hub restaurant that was in the Legal Arts Building, which has been vacant since 2005 due to a fire.
Still, a lot of work needs to be done in the Hub space, and such a move would be costly, Mechling said, adding that she also needed to figure out how and where to move three Capitol Grill equipment rooms. Additionally, neither she nor Jaafar received any financial compensation from the city, Mechling continued.
“It’s just heartbreaking. Every day we searched,” Mechling said, adding that the company was rebuilding its customer base due to the COVID-19 pandemic when the notice arrived.
Tenants are being evicted from the 332,000 square foot city-owned structure that is the site of the former Strouss Department Store and Phar-Mor Center due to an extensive remediation and demolition project, which will include the asbestos removal and is estimated to take until the end of June 2023. In early December, the city’s three-member board of control signed a 60-day memorandum of understanding with Pittsburgh-based Desmone Architects to manage the project.
The city has also entered into a contract with St. Louis-based Steadfast City Economic and Community Partners, which has scheduled one-on-one meetings with tenants beginning today. Steadfast provides consultancy services for the works.
Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said he realizes the disruption to tenants caused by the work. To that end, the city is moving forward to offer specialized assistance to those affected, he added.
Another tenant who plans to meet with Steadfast officials was Kim Mitchell of New Castle, Pa., owner of Two Guys Clothing, a business that sells tuxedos, suits, shoes and other men’s clothing and is in the building for about 17 years.
“I’m shocked. I’m very sick inside,” Mitchell told the several dozen community activists, concerned citizens and others in attendance at the meeting. “I get phone calls every day saying, ‘ Kim, don’t shut up.'”
The landlady said she received her 30-day eviction notice on July 7 and would likely find the move difficult and tiring, in part because she received orders for upcoming weddings and other special events. She and Mechling, however, both said they intended to stay in downtown Youngstown primarily because of their established and loyal customers.
Vershanda Black, who runs Top Notch Meals, a make-to-order business, said she had been at 20 Federal Place for more than a year and learned of its eviction from another tenant.
“I was shocked, devastated, confused,” Black added.
She started the business from her home, which allowed the entrepreneur to build a clientele before moving downtown. Black’s next step is to store her gear and focus on launching a mobile food trailer, she continued.
No one from the municipal administration attended the meeting.
Councilman Julius Oliver, D-1st Ward, said he supports the arrival of additional businesses downtown and that emptying the building was essential for the works. Nonetheless, Oliver was upset by what he said was the short notice the city gave to those affected by the project. Oliver was also upset because discussions about the project began in November, which gave the city plenty of time to educate and prepare tenants for the changes, he said.
Losing tenants in this way will likely negatively impact the city by providing the public with fewer food options. It could also cause other businesses that were considering moving downtown to question that option, he said.
Oliver added that he was unhappy with what he sees as poor communication between city officials and tenants. The city needs to have “much better small business acumen when it comes to small business,” he said.
He encouraged the population to reach out to tenants by calling the town hall, for example. The councilman added that he does not know who will own 20 Federal Place once the project is complete.
Derrick McDowell, a small business owner who runs The Flea, has offered to provide temporary, free storage for tenants’ equipment in the building he owns at 365 E. Boardman St., for which he has approximately 18,000 square feet of unused space.
It is vital that despite the difficult situation faced by tenants who will soon be displaced, their contributions to building the fabric of the city are not lost or forgotten, he said. He also urged business owners at Monday’s meeting to make their voices and stories heard, including during Steadfast sessions this week.
“I’m here to say I’m here to help,” McDowell added.