Best Hometowns 2013
Every year, Ohio Magazine honors five communities across the state for their livability, as measured by education, parks and recreation, arts and entertainment offerings, services and, most important, citizen involvement. The 2013 Best Hometowns meet and surpass these criteria. In the following pages, you'll get a glimpse of Findlay, Gallipolis, Greenville, Grove City and Peninsula — and some of their proud residents.
Year founded: 1812
Location: Hancock County, 40 miles south of Toledo
Size: 17.3 square miles
Type of government: Mayor and 10-member council
After a devastating 2007 flood submerged portions of the city, Findlay had a choice: Sink or swim. Hundreds of buildings, including homes, businesses and schools, were damaged when heavy rain caused the Blanchard River to rise. Downtown saw more boats on its roads than cars. The governor declared a state of emergency for the area, which made the national news. The clean-up wasn’t easy, nor was it quick, but by banding together residents and business owners got the town back into shape. And then some.
Five years later, the city, located about an hour south of Toledo, shows little sign of the disaster. Downtown is booming, thanks in part to an influx of artists and new boutiques and eateries that are popping up to serve them and the professionals who work at the Hancock County Courthouse. Run-down buildings were razed and public patios and mini-parks have replaced them. Parking is a hot commodity during dinnertime, when people flock downtown to dine in the city’s array of restaurants. Just outside of downtown, the city’s stock of vintage Victorian homes (one of the largest in the state) is meticulously maintained.
Founded during the War of 1812, Findlay has its origins as a fort. But it wasn’t until the 1880s that a short-lived gas and oil boom caused the population to soar. Even after the gas supply dwindled, the city continued to grow, with an economy based on industry and agriculture. Today, it’s home to the world headquarters of Fortune 500 companies Marathon Petroleum Corp., and Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. Other significant employers are Whirlpool Corp., Cardinal Health and the University of Findlay, a private institution with an enrollment of 3,700.
A sense of perseverance and a strong business climate are not the only reasons Flag City U.S.A., as Findlay is known, is a great place to live. Families find an outstanding quality of life here. Findlay public schools are rated “Excellent” by the Ohio Department of Education and three new school buildings are under construction.
Young athletes have top-notch facilities at the Flag City Sports Complex, a sprawling park with baseball diamonds, soccer fields and ice-skating. Canoeing and tennis are available at Riverside Park, a lovely green expanse resting above the winding and normally tranquil Blanchard River.
Young and old alike find their schedules packed with activities. The Fort Findlay Playhouse offers local theater, and a few miles away, touring bands play at Huntington Bank Arena. Events like the Flag City Hot Air Balloon Festival and the Downtown Winter Blues Festival keep things lively year-round. It’s no wonder the city has been named one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People by America’s Promise Alliance, a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of youth.
But it’s engaged, community-minded people who make a place great, and Findlay has that in abundance. The way the community came together in 2007 to clean up after the flood is typical of the city, which boasts a surprising number of third- and fourth-generation residents.
“I love the people here,” says Main Street Deli proprietor and Findlay resident Elaine Bruggeman. Residents, she notes, are “extremely community oriented.”
Even downtown restaurants work together rather than competing for business, explains Bruggeman. For example, leftover bread from her deli is given to a nearby restaurant to make croutons for their own menu. That sort of thing, which might be unthinkable in another community, is par for the course here.
Given the choice, it’s clear after five years that Findlay decided to swim.
Location: Darke County, 35 miles northwest of Dayton
Size: 6.03 square miles
Type of government: Mayor and seven-member council
Greenville has an uncanny ability to attract both new and former residents. Among those who returned home was Phoebe Ann Moses, also known as Annie Oakley, the famous sharpshooter and entertainer. Oakley was born in Darke County, just north of town, in 1860, traveled nationally and internationally as “Little Sure Shot” and moved back in the 1920s.
More recently, other residents, like Oakley, have moved away and returned, drawn by Greenville’s small-town charm, community spirit, education and business climate.
Greenville bustles with both local and corporate enterprises. Places like The Coffee Pot, owned by Robert and Amber Garrett — two residents who grew up in Greenville, moved as young adults and later returned — buzzes with regulars. A decidedly calmer atmosphere pervades Third Street Market/elementsLife yoga studio and organic community market, run by C.J. and Emily Jasenski, who, like the Garretts, left for a few years before returning to raise their family and start a business in Greenville.
“I think the older you get, the more you appreciate the town and what it really does have to offer,” says Robert Garrett.
As a business owner on the square, Garrett recognizes the value of organizations such as Main Street Greenville, a nonprofit that sponsors and hosts numerous community events designed to bring people downtown. These include the farmers market, selling fresh local produce, handmade items and baked goods; First Fridays, offering outdoor movies and live entertainment in warmer weather; and year-round family-friendly seasonal activities such as the Memorial Day Parade, Days of Harvest and Hometown Holiday Horse Parade.
Emily Jasenski agrees with Garrett’s assessment. “It takes some getting used to, living back in a small town, but there are so many great aspects,” she says.
Such charms include the quaint neighborhoods with sprawling yards and nearby parks, a school system ranked “Excellent” by the Ohio Department of Education and major companies that provide jobs for area residents. The Whirlpool Corporation employs about 1,000 people and produces between 13,000 and 15,000 KitchenAid stand mixers and other countertop appliances per day. Greenville Technology Inc. supplies automotive parts and has nearly 600 full-time employees, while Ramco Electric Motors provides components for industrial, military and aerospace equipment and employs about 100. About 300 FRAM employees produce car products, and the new Continental Carbonic dry ice facility recently added more than 70 jobs to the area.
Greenville maintains strong ties to the past, even as it moves toward the future. Offering residents and visitors a chance to glimpse Greenville’s history and explore its roots is the Garst Museum, which houses an Annie Oakley Center, regional Native American artifacts and the Lowell Thomas Wing, honoring the Darke County-born journalist with artifacts from his extensive travels. The museum also includes an extensive military collection and agricultural artifacts.
Bear’s Mill, one of the last operating water-powered gristmills in Ohio, sells its cornmeal and flours, as well as a variety of other merchandise, at an on-site market. The mill also houses an art gallery, which schedules curated art shows featuring two artists each month, March through December.
Describing the town’s unique character, Tim Swensen, a Greenville transplant, says, “I just kind of like how it all kind of comes together and mixes. It’s been a terrific place to raise my family.”
Year founded: 1852
Location: Franklin County, eight miles southwest of Columbus
Size: 16.62 square miles
Type of government: Mayor and six-member council
Hot-air balloons look spectacular at night. When yellow flames light the inside of billowing fabric envelopes, grounded balloons dot the landscape like giant glowing lanterns. Their brightness and magic rival the moon and stars.
Nighttime balloon “glows,” along with daytime balloon ascensions and tethered rides, are part of Balloons & Tunes, the annual late-summer hot-air balloon festival in Grove City.
But balloons aren’t the only things in Grove City that rise. Consider population. For the sixth year in a row, the city ranks first among Columbus suburbs for new single-family housing starts. According to the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, Grove City will be the largest central Ohio community outside Columbus by 2030.
The city’s location is a huge plus for families who want to live near Ohio’s capital. It is only a 10-minute commute to downtown Columbus. Also, this summer the I-71/St. Rte. 665 interchange opened with a five-lane bridge that benefits commuters and local businesses.
But there has to be more than just proximity to a major city and good access to make families want to move to a community. A city must also be a memorable hometown to both longtime residents and newcomers. Grove City rises to the challenge.
According to Mayor Richard L. “Ike” Stage, the catalyst for Grove City’s spirit is the way the city is managed and perceived by residents. The community “is one big neighborhood,” not just a “city” by definition. The downtown area is “our living room, the signature place to assemble,” says Stage, who also acknowledges Grove City’s solid foundation.
“Our roots go back to being a conservative, German farming town. That’s not all we are today, but the qualities associated with hard-working families remain,” agrees real estate agent Greg Skinner of ERA Real Solutions, who grew up in Grove City. “We still have all the good, solid brick ranch houses built in the 1950s. But now we are seeing new upper middle- and upper-income housing that attracts hard-working professionals.”
Pinnacle is an upscale golf course community developed by M/I Homes that includes a large community center and Cimi’s Bistro, open to the public. The community surrounds the Pinnacle private golf course.
“There is a new energy in Grove City,” says Brian Younkin, managing partner of Pinnacle Golf Club, who bought a home in the community this year. “Everyone in Grove City rallies around local involvement.”
Civic pride is particularly notable in Grove City’s exceptional park system. When the city realized children had nowhere to go sledding in its flat parkland carved from cornfields, it built a giant hill at the 110-acre Fryer Park. In the summer, the hill is also the site of the popular Fryer Flicks, where families gather to see outdoor movies. Fryer Park also boasts of an innovative space-themed play area for children of all abilities, a stocked lake and Century Village, a collection of authentic mid-1800s buildings.
At the Gardens at Gantz Farm, 10 herb gardens, a meditation labyrinth, hiking trails and outdoor sculpture make the park a welcome sanctuary from daily stress. And nothing says “hometown” more than 60-year-old Windsor Park, one of the first civic fields in Ohio to feature Little League Baseball teams.
Available land and a city with a rising future have attracted large companies, including FedEx Ground, Pier 1 Imports, T. Marzetti and Walmart Distribution. The city estimates its businesses provide more than 20,000 jobs.
Grove City is part of the South-Western School District, sixth largest in the state. The Ohio Department of Education gives the district an “Excellent” designation. According to Superintendent William Wise, an emphasis is placed on staff training. The district’s in-progress $260 million building project also ensures new and renovated schools.
Grove City prides itself on its number of free family-friendly events all year long, from arts shows to fireworks, concerts, car shows and wine festivals. The Winter Lights Holiday Celebration and Community Parade on Dec. 1 serves as the official opening of the holiday season with music, tree lighting and ice carving.
When local resident Kelli Milligan Stammen moved to Grove City from Cincinnati in 2002, it was by default. She and her husband picked out Grove City on a map because it “was a southwest suburb of Columbus and closer to home,” reasoned a then-homesick Stammen. But now her family is happily involved in the city’s recreational opportunities, community events and organizations.
“I would miss Grove City if I ever had to move,” Stammen says.
Year founded: 1790
Location: Gallia County, 50 miles southwest of Marietta
Size: 3.8 square miles
Type of government: City manager and five-member city commission
Bob Hood knows how to knock a visitor’s socks off.
He points his Jeep up the nearly vertical driveway to Fortification Hill and on toward the sky. It’s where Union artillery once kept watch over the Ohio River Valley, and where the Gallia County Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director likes to begin every tour of his hometown, Gallipolis.
The hilltop picnic area and adjoining Mound Hill Cemetery offer breathtaking, bird’s-eye views of the Ohio River — with downtown Gallipolis on one side and pastoral West Virginia farmland on the other. Massive barges look like bathtub toys as they float gracefully through the bends in the big river.
“I think it’s the prettiest view in all of Southeast Ohio,” Hood says.
If you’re looking for a laid-back, down-home vibe, you’ll find it in Gallipolis — but don’t let its clever disguise as a sleepy river town fool you. Its frontier heritage, culture and entrepreneurial spirit make The Old French City a rewarding place to live — or to tie up your raft at the downtown dock for a visit.
Founded by French immigrants in 1790, Gallipolis is the second-oldest settlement in the Northwest Territory. The French aristocrat and Revolutionary War hero Gen. Marquis de Lafayette himself visited in 1825 — and, luckily for us, forgot his jacket. Today it’s on display at the Our House museum along with many fine pieces of early Americana.
The heart of Gallipolis is its sycamore-filled public square, City Park. Framed on three sides by stately brick homes and storefronts, its remaining side offers a clear view of the Ohio River. Public access for boaters is just down the bank from the square. Anglers can find a fishing tournament there just about every summer weekend.
City Park hosts everything from car shows to the annual River Recreation Festival, a four-day Fourth of July celebration. This year, the Gallipolis-based Ohio Valley Symphony — Southeast Ohio’s only professional orchestra — accompanied the fireworks.
Gallipolis is also the town where an entrepreneurial young farmer named Bob Evans bought a 12-stool diner in 1948. When customers began asking for 10-pound tubs of his freshly made sausage to take home, Evans knew he was on to something. He went whole-hog into the sausage business on his farm in Rio Grande, just eight miles west of Gallipolis. Today, Bob Evans is an iconic Ohio business with more than 600 restaurants in 18 states.
Overlooking the farm is the University of Rio Grande, which offers a liberal arts education on a 160-acre, 2,400-student campus. Among its strengths are the Holzer School of Nursing and a national-powerhouse men’s soccer program.
Support for education is strong here. Gallia County Local Schools and Gallipolis City Schools each are engaged in major building and renovation programs — made possible by the approval of recent bond issues by local voters.
Gallipolis Career College is an independent two-year college that partners with businesses to provide job and career skills. Local employers include Holzer Medical Center, American Electric Power and Ohio Valley Electric.
For seven years, Gallipolis has participated in America in Bloom — a national community-beautification project. Visiting judges score municipalities in six areas, including floral displays, heritage preservation and overall impression. In 2011, Gallipolis won first place in the nation in its population division.
If all this makes Ohio’s Old French City sound like a place where people, ideas and streetscapes blossom, you’re right.
Year founded: 1818
Location: Summit County, 9 miles north of Akron, 23 miles south of Cleveland
Size: 4.7 square miles
Type of government: Mayor and six-member council
No matter where Charlie Moyer and his wife Marianne may roam — from California to Massachusetts — the two always sigh with contented bliss when they enter the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. For it’s a sure sign they’re returning to the little village that’s closest to their heart: Peninsula, Ohio.
“We love being far away from traffic congestion and big-box stores,” explains the woodcrafter. “When I see green, I know I’m home.”
“Peninsula is,” adds Marianne, a graphic designer, “our piece of paradise.”
The Moyers, who have resided in the northeast Ohio town for 42 years, echo the sentiments of their neighbors. Founded in 1818, the village was a key stop along the Ohio & Erie Canal — once filled with mills, stone quarries, boat yards, taverns and churches. But as river traffic dwindled in the early part of the last century, Peninsula’s picturesque location became a best-kept secret. It remained that way until 1962, when interior designer Robert Hunker relocated his firm from Akron to Peninsula.
“Bob saw the hidden value of the old structures, and wanted to restore them for future generations,” says Lawrence Sulzer, president of the Peninsula Valley Historic Preservation Foundation Inc., the nonprofit organization Hunker started to safeguard the notable landmarks that dot the village landscape. Although the designer died in 2009, his legacy lives on in the buildings residents preserve with pride — including the nondenominational Bronson Memorial Church, which was built in 1839 by village forefather Herman Bronson, and the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) Hall, a former meeting place for Civil War veterans that now sets the stage every third Thursday for open-mic nights with area musicians.
The village’s steadfast commitment to the arts has made it a haven for talent and appreciative tourists alike. Debra Heller Bures and her husband, Stephen Bures, who fell in love with Peninsula 23 years ago, didn’t think twice about opening their gallery on West Mill Street.
“We didn’t know much about this place, but we did know it felt right,” says Debra, recalling the couple’s first visit. Their pottery studio, Elements Gallery, also showcases photography, glass, jewelry and mixed media created by a host of fine contemporary American artisans.
Perched on a cliff overlooking the Cuyahoga River, The Log Cabin Gallery has seasonal exhibits by regional artists, ranging from those versed in fiber arts to stained glass and decorative gourds. Antiques lovers will enjoy strolling the aisles of the Downtown Emporium, which features old-fashioned postcards, Royal Doulton and political buttons from campaigns gone by.
When it’s time for lunch, head to the Winking Lizard Tavern, the flagship of the popular line of restaurants. Located on the former spot of the Peninsula Nite Club — a hotspot for hootch during Prohibition — the restaurant retains its art-deco ambiance, right down to the original sign at the front door.
Fast forward into the ’50s at Fisher’s Café & Pub, a family-owned eatery, known for its burgers and hot fudge sundaes for five decades.
Top off your meal by partaking of nature’s magnificence in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park surrounding Peninsula, where hiking, biking and walking trails abound. Or take the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for sightseeing excursions aboard vintage train cars.
“We have the best of everything here,” reflects Lois Unger, a photographer who moved to Peninsula with her husband, Doug, a Kent State University professor emeritus of art, in 1976.
“And,” adds Doug, an artist known for his pastels and the mandolins and banjos he builds out of hardwoods, mother of pearl and ebony, “we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”