A Rich downtown

The newest version of downtown Youngstown we now see was in its beta stages in 2009.

On a wintry Saturday night around midnight, I was there for a journalism project with Youngstown State University. For real. About 10 Journalism students were reporting on the emerging downtown via the new night spots then: Rosetta Stone, The Lemon Grove and Love Lounge.

The snow was coming down hard – almost enough to cancel our visit.

In that mess of white, I stood with Lemon Grove owner Jacob Harver as a peculiar site came rumbling down West Federal Street.

It was a mini tractor plowing the sidewalks – at midnight on a Saturday. Times Square does not even have this service.

As the driver crossed Phelps Street and entered the sidewalk near Rosetta and Lemon, patrons got out of the way. They had no choice. The plow just kept coming and moving snow.

The driver was bundled head to toe – just a pair of eyes poking out. It looked like the Michelin Man in a parka. As the plow passed our feet, the spirited revelers cheered, as did Harver. The driver – not stopping – raised his coffee mug in a “cheers” back to the crowd. (OK, it might not have been a coffee mug.)

He was gone as quickly as he came. I asked Harver who that was.

That, he said, was Rich Mills, “owner of half of downtown.” And in that white cloud, I realized that the best downtown story that night was one we would not be getting.

Mills is quick to tell anyone that Ohio One is run with his sister and business partner, Kathy, and their team. The half of downtown they own is the east end, closer to Covelli Centre. It’s City Centre One, The Commerce Building, the IBM Building and Ohio One. The small team of nine manages those buildings as well as performing maintenance for six office buildings along West Federal Street. In those buildings are some of Youngstown’s most important tenants.

This Thursday, 200 friends will gather at the DoubleTree Hotel for the 2019 Youngstown CityScape Grass Roots Gala. The annual event celebrates people committed to making a better downtown. This year, the honorees will be the Mills siblings and their team. Finally.

It’s of no fault of the hosts, Youngstown CityScape, that it is just finally happening. It’s the first time they’ve been allowed.

Ohio One conducts business just as Mills entered that snowy scene above – often unannounced, intentionally unrecognizable, and not waiting around for any pomp and circumstance. They scamper off quickly along the concrete hedges of downtown that they’ve called home for 46 years. Mills literally lives downtown – four floors above it.

“They don’t want accolades,” said Sharon Letson, CityScape executive director. “Their standard is how they treat people, do things and take care of things. They leave things better and they treat people better. Don’t do something the wrong way. That’s not the standard they set.”

The footprint and the standards were started by their late father, Dick Mills. Rich Mills took over in 1990. The current team has more than 300 years of combined service to downtown.

“Rich is one of the reasons why downtown, and more specifically the City Centre One building, is the best place for PNC’s Mahoning Valley headquarters,” said Ted Schmidt, regional president of PNC Bank.

The Youngstown Foundation also calls City Centre home.

“The Ohio One team’s responsiveness and attentiveness is unparalleled,” said Executive Director Jan Strasfeld. “Rich’s dedication to the city of Youngstown should set an example for all of us.”

In contrast to the big titles and big spaces of those tenants is my hairstylist friend of 12 years – Lisa Realli. She has a tidy space in Commerce just bigger than a living room. It’s about the size of a tenant that can be easily lost amid renters such as banks, foundations, lawyers, restaurants, art centers, accountants and more. Yet, she counts in minutes and hours – not days or weeks – the time it takes the team to help her out with an issue. “Honorable” and “loyal” are her words for Mills and the Ohio One crew.

They are a “crew.”

As the new downtown emerges with fancy eateries, high-end signs and big SUVs, the Ohio One crew just rumbles about in what gets the job done. Mills is out front in Dickies workpants with a belt and suspenders holding down a flannel shirt. Kathy plugs away inside the offices.

On some days after some dusty projects, if you were to see some of the team on a downtown corner, you might pull a buck out of your pocket and give it to them. They’re grinders.

Their high standards do get them testy about some things that happen around them. But you’ll not see them run to social media to complain or grandstand at a public meeting. Disagreement, for them, is dignified and in private – like it used to be.

If there is flash in Ohio One, it’s in one very special item.

Ohio One’s John Lapin has been a partner to Letson in her CityScape downtown cleanup. Their annual one-day effort in June is 21 years old now and has more than 600 volunteers. The first year had 75.

There is mulching, primping and planting everywhere on that cleanup day. Rising out of the central landscapes downtown, like a Phoenix, are spectacular canna blooms stretching three or four feet above the city flower beds. In the Letson-Lapin downtown, they are everywhere.

Every June, they come out of winter storage and get replanted for the summer.

The tropical plants that require much maintenance in the off-season were first brought here in the 1970s to make downtown a little brighter.

They were brought by Dick Mills.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.