Ohio's Best Hometowns 2011

For Ohio Magazine’s fifth annual celebration of the state’s best hometowns, the editors researched a host of worthy nominees. On the following pages, you’ll learn more about the educational achievements, arts and culture, historic preservation, city services and business climate of this year’s honored communities: Medina, Urbana, Wapakoneta, Worthington and Zanesville.

The Olde Worthington shopping district

Thom Sivo

The Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center

Thom Sivo

The Orange Johnson House, one of the oldest residences in the state.

Thom Sivo

Downtown Urbana

Thom Sivo

The Simon Kenton Bicycle Trail

Thom Sivo

Cafe Paradiso, on Urbana's Monument Square

Thom Sivo

Zanesville's Y-Bridge spans the Licking and Muskingum rivers.

Dan Mosora

Downtown Zanesville

Dan Mosora

Zanesville's Vase in Place public-art display

Dan Mosora

The Medina County Courthouse on the Square

Dan Mosora

Medina's charming gazebo

Dan Mosora

Medina's historic Town Hall and Engine House

Dan Mosora

Downtown Wapakoneta and the Wapa Theatre

Thom Sivo

The Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum

Thom Sivo

Wapakoneta's popular waterpark

Thom Sivo

By Jennifer Rogers

In January, a group of residents in Worthington met to discuss the community’s challenges and articulate a shared hope for the future. Representatives from every aspect of Worthington life attended Worthington 360, a weekend of idea swapping that resulted in a new vision for the city.

This collaboration, while noteworthy, is commonplace in Worthington — this is, after all, a town of team players. And in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to observe any endeavor that isn’t defined by its partnerships.

There’s the community garden, for starters, which was created in 2010 by Sustainable Worthington, an organization founded by a group of earth-conscious residents. The volunteer-run Healthy Worthington Coalition also works on healthy initiatives and proposed the city’s non-smoking ordinance for public areas. A large neighborhood network — which ensures that the tradition of summertime block parties continues — is another example of the “together is better” spirit.

And one can’t mention Worthington’s partnerships without mentioning its sister city, Sayama, Japan. Since 1999, hundreds have traveled between Worthington and the Tokyo suburb, harvesting a tradition of cultural understanding and appreciation for both cities.

“We value our partnerships. There’s always so much more that can be done when we work together,” Anne Brown, public information officer for the city of Worthington, says. “We’re always looking for ways to do that.”

Founded in 1803 by a group of families from western Connecticut and Massachusetts, Worthington was built on three values: education, community and faith.

“We were an early planned community — Worthington was all plotted out before [the settlers] left Granby, Connecticut. They thought about how much space to set aside for schools, churches businesses, libraries and green space — all of the things that are so important to us today,” Kathryn Paugh, executive director of the chamber of commerce, says. “We’ve stayed true to their mission.”

Worthington’s roots are apparent uptown, where you’ll find the Orange Johnson House (one of the oldest residences in the state that still sits on its original site); the Village Green, where you can enjoy a concert on Sunday evenings in the summer; and the Worthington Inn, built in 1835 and now an upscale restaurant.

Yet while a reverence for the past is evident in Worthington, the city has historically hosted a progressive populace that’s focused on the future — signs of growth are abundant uptown, including the Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center, home to a 213-seat theater, four classrooms and gallery space. The “Mac” has become Worthington’s most popular entertainment space — that is, if you’re not counting the Saturday farmers market.

One can’t talk about focusing on the future without mentioning education, an integral part of life in Worthington. The school district, which received an Excellent with Distinction grade on its 2009 state report card, serves 9,500 students. Among the schools’ creative initiatives is the Schoolyard Enhanced Learning program, in which elementary students tend to a butterfly garden and grow their own produce right on school grounds.

And perhaps the best illustration of Worthington’s focus on the future and penchant for collaboration is the way the city marks Groundhog Day: A chamber-sponsored gathering of citizens discusses the forecast for what’s next for Worthington in the year ahead.

Sandy Byers, a resident for 45 years and the development director for Healthy Worthington, sums up the experience. “Our opinions are sought out. And as a resident, I think that’s wonderful.”

Year Founded: 1803
Location: Franklin County, 12 miles north of Columbus
Population: 14,125
Size: 5.7 square miles
Type of Government: City Manager, 7-member council

By Jessica Esemplare

Urbana is a community steeped in faith.

It’s not just the 30-plus stately old churches that flank historic Monument Square, giving residents and visitors alike diverse options for worship, or the fact that there are Sunday services at the county fair every year. It’s also the belief that Urbana, despite its small-town status, constantly transforms in big-city ways.

Each person — whether a lifetime resident or newcomer — seems transfixed by the serenity of the town and proud of its development that comes in the form of a thriving downtown business district, plus successful schools, including Urbana University, and agriculture like Freshwater Farms of Ohio, Robert Rothschild Farm and Michael Farms. Nothing, it seems, is out of reach in Urbana.

“In the year that we have been here, we have seen a great new energy in the square,” says Joni Kaplan, who moved to Urbana with her husband Tom and son Ben. “New shops and restaurants have opened that have attracted people from all over.”

Joni owns ben and me, an upscale home store on Monument Square, and her husband teaches at Wittenberg University in Springfield. They chose
Urbana in part because they appreciated having schools and businesses within walking distance. And, as Joni says, their new church is wonderful.

“Once we got here, we were convinced we made the right decision because of the people. We have moved seven times in 22 years and never have we felt so welcome,” she says.

Aside from Joni’s shop, downtown teems with successful businesses, from 117-year-old Carmazzi’s Candy & Deli to niche restaurants and specialty home, clothing and beauty shops. Affordable loft-style apartments exist in and around the square, allowing people to live, work and play all in the same area. It’s city living without the expense, crime and traffic.

Urbana, however, is less than an hour from Dayton and Columbus, making it attractive to people who want to live in the country but still have access to urban areas.

“It’s not behind the times but it feels like it,” says Pat Thackery, owner of Café Paradiso, an upscale casual Italian restaurant on the square. “You can be in the fast-paced race if you want, but you don’t have to be,” he says.

Urbana’s proximity to cities has other advantages as well. While the town has a hospital, Mercy Memorial, the Urbana Municipal Airport also allows quick access to Dayton and Columbus hospitals for additional specialized medical care.

It was her wish to reduce medical emergencies and faith that the town would support her that led Nancy Lokai-Baldwin to form the Simon Kenton Pathfinders. After a scary bicycle accident involving her young son (who recovered from his injuries), Lokai-Baldwin followed what she calls her “trail of dreams” to create the Simon Kenton bicycle trail, a 14-mile stretch along an old rail bed that connects with other bicycle trails all the way to the Little Miami Scenic Trail just outside Cincinnati. So far, her favorite part is seeing generations of families biking, walking and watching birds on the path.

Sara Kerns, owner of Guild Galleries Interiors & Gifts downtown, cites the trail as one of the town’s many benefits.

“There’s everything you could want in a big city but without the high crime, poor education and high cost of living,” she says. “And,” she adds, “We’re blessed with wonderful churches.”

Year Founded:
Location: Champaign County seat, approximately 35 miles from Dayton and 40 from Columbus
Population: approximately 11,700
Size: approximately 6.8 square miles
Type of Government: Mayor/council president, 7-member council

By Marie Catanese

A cowboy, a six-foot-tall poodle and a fireman stand on South Sixth Street …
No, it’s not the lead-in to a joke — it’s a description of the public art display on the sidewalk in front of sculptor Alan Cottrill’s Zanesville studio and gallery — and you can immediately tell the locals from the visitors based on their level of surprise at the larger-than-lifesize pieces.

Cottrill, a Zanesville native, returned to his hometown in 2003 to open the 17,000-square-foot space. It’s both a workspace and a showplace, where he sculpts, he says, “like a crazy man,” often working seven days a week. Cottrill is intense and passionate about his art; that’s evident in his gallery, which features more than 450 sculptures.

The arts scene in Zanesville has been growing steadily since Cottrill’s return and the founding of the Artist Colony of Zanesville — an effort that he led and which now comprises more than 70 artists. The Colony’s First Friday Art Walks and the annual Y-Bridge Arts Festival are popular events, and July’s annual Zanesville Pottery Festival — celebrating a craft that once defined this region — brings visitors and collectors from all over the world for an event that Hartstone Pottery’s Dawn Lafferty calls “truly incredible.” 

Zanesville served as Ohio’s capital for two years, from 1810 to 1812. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of this event, the all-volunteer Pioneer and Historical Society of Zanesville created the “Zanesville 1810 Project,” which includes a lecture series and a new downtown walking tour.

In fact, folks here support the historical society so staunchly that the group is running out of room for all the donated artifacts and furniture, says society director Jim Geyer. But, he agrees, it’s a good problem to have. The Stone Academy, one of two buildings that house the historical society’s collection, was itself a donation of Lydia McHenry, who stipulated that it always be used as a museum.

Through another generous donation, the Zanesville Museum of Art has acquired more than 100 photographs of city life circa 1930. Dr. Harry Taylor took the photos as a teenager, capturing candid moments like a pro. Museum director Susan Talbot-Stanaway says the photos are considered to be the largest known group of 1930s non-WPA photos in the country. 

Over the past few years, the economy in Zanesville has been “holding steady but with quite a few major victories,” says Zanesville/Muskingum County Chamber of Commerce President Tom Poorman. In 2009, Avon Products opened a high-tech distribution center in the city’s East Point Business Park. Another 300-acre site is in the final stages of the Ohio Job Ready Sites program certification.

Zanesville’s largest employer, Genesis HealthCare System, employs thousands of workers, while new small businesses, like Mike Brooks’ Three Sixty Bicycle Shop, are also opening in town. Innovative locals such as Carl Cardi, developer of a new electrical technology called coolWIRE, find a home at the regional Muskingum County Business Incubator, where fledgling entrepreneurs learn skills to help them thrive. In addition, Ohio University-Zanesville offers 13 complete academic degree programs, including business, communication, education and nursing.
Younger students are also learning to thrive in Zanesville, and were welcomed to the 2010 school year by Mayor Howard Zwelling at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Zanesville High School, John McIntire Elementary School and Zane Grey Elementary School. The schools boast new gymnasiums, interactive whiteboards in the classrooms and, of course, new studios and equipment for the next generation of Zanesville’s artists.


Year Founded: 1797
Location: Muskingum County seat, approximately 50 miles east of Columbus
Population: 25,500
Size: approximately 11.5 square miles
Type of Government: Mayor, 10-member council

By Linda Feagler

At first, the assignment appeared to be a daunting one: Jason Redfox, floral director for the Rose Float Association of Downey, California, was given the task of finding a gazebo that best reflects the theme, “A Stroll Down Memory Lane.” For 55 years, the Pacific town has had a float in the Tournament of Roses Parade, and 2011 will be no exception.

As Redfox searched the Internet for photos of this quintessential slice of small-town America, he quickly realized there was no contest when it came to choosing a winner: The charming gazebo in Medina, Ohio, outshone all others.

“Quite simply, it’s beautiful, and the ideal model for our float,” he says.

“Medina gave us just what we needed.”

Not surprisingly, that sentiment is echoed closer to home every day. For this town of 26,000 has it all: a historic 19th-century square boasting an eclectic array of shops that includes art galleries, antiques emporiums and home decor studios. An impressive array of eateries to satisfy every taste. World-class care from the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and Summa Health System close at hand. And a growing manufacturing base.

In fact, many establishments such as Root Candles –– known worldwide for their tapers –– wouldn’t think of calling anyplace else home.

“The community has been generous to us in so many ways,” says company president Brad Root, whose great-great-grandfather began the business in 1869. “It’s become an important part of our lives.”

It’s clear that while many towns are struggling with the economic downturn, Medina has risen to the challenge.

“We’ve chosen to ignore the recession,” says Mayor Dennis Hanwell, who served as police chief for 13 years before being elected to the town’s highest office last November. He points with pride to the fact that Medina has invested more than $40 million in the creation of 200 jobs over the last two years.

“We love it here,” adds Mark Sandridge, CEO of Sandridge Food Corporation, a 50-year-old, family-owned refrigerated food company that makes and ships soups and salads coast to coast. “Medina is very business-friendly –– not to mention the fact that it’s a great place to live and visit.”

Year-round activities do indeed abound to entice residents and visitors of all ages. Community band concerts and farmers markets in summer give way to Christmas in the Colonies, a fine-art show that’s become a holiday tradition. And in February, artisans from around the country will congregate in Medina to chill out and carve frozen masterpieces during the 17th-annual Ice Festival.

The high school campus boasts a community recreation center managed by the city and a state-of-the-art 1,200-seat performing arts auditorium, offering a variety of entertainment options. Outdoor enthusiasts commune with nature in the city’s park system, comprising 12 parks covering 800 acres.

And when it’s time to take a break, finger sandwiches and scones from Miss Molly’s Tea Room, a bowl of Guinness onion soup at Sully’s Irish Pub or chateaubriand for two –– Main Street Café’s specialty of the house –– are sure to please.

A booming business and residential district coupled with a thriving tourist trade.

“Put it all together,” says economic development director Tom Krueger, “and we’re truly a tale of two cities.”


Year Founded: 1816
Location: Medina County, 34 miles southwest of Cleveland, 22 miles west of Akron
Population: 26,000
Size: 10.8 square miles
Type of Government: Mayor, 7-member council

By Ilona Westfall

When Wapakoneta native Kent Boyd danced his way onto the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance,” the city wasted no time in rallying its support. From signs in yards and windows proudly stating, “We love you Kent Boyd,” to packed viewing parties at The Wapa Theatre, the entire town was eager to cheer on one of their own. While Boyd ultimately was voted runner up, he was welcomed home as a hero nonetheless.

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Wapakoneta, located about 15 miles south of Lima, off I-75. After all, it has a history of warmth and friendliness dating back to the late 1700s when the area first earned the name “Wapakoneta,” which loosely translates to “white cloth” in Shawnee, a term referring to its status as peaceful, neutral ground.

And the town’s warmth has never faded for another famous Wapak (as residents refer to the city) native, Neil Armstrong. The first man to set foot on the moon is still celebrated with the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum and the annual Summer Moon Festival.

The city’s upbeat nature extends beyond well-known citizens, too. “Wapakoneta is one of the friendliest communities I’ve been in,” says Chris Burton, a Dayton transplant. While he moved here for his new job as executive director of the Armstrong museum, he soon discovered what long-time residents know — that there’s much more to the town than its civic pride.

Residents enjoy the safety and slow pace of small-town life, as well as an affordable cost of living. Homes range from the pretty old structures near downtown to newer developments on the outskirts of the city. They love the convenience of being a mere hour and half drive to the cultural amenities of Toledo and Columbus, but with a tiny fraction of the traffic.

But really, there’s little need to leave their beloved community. One could spend hours roaming the charming downtown, lined with vintage buildings housing the theater, Riverfront Art Center and shops including the Cloud Nine Café, The Cheese Cottage and an antiques store. The Auglaize County Courthouse, dating to 1894, towers above a portion of downtown that contains a total of 65 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Not everything in Wapakoneta looks to the past, however. For example, children started the 2010–2011 school year in completely renovated or new facilities. A spruced-up main building and new state-of-the-art performing arts center welcomed returning high school students while two new elementary schools — complete with energy-efficient features and high-tech computer labs — opened their doors to younger children.

And the area surrounding the Auglaize River, winding its way adjacent to downtown, is in the beginning stages of its very own facelift. The River Corridor Project will add decorative sculpture, a bike trail and panels detailing the area’s Shawnee and Shaker heritages. A pedestrian bridge will connect downtown with the city’s wildly popular water park, where young and old enjoy pools, water slides and other warm-weather fun.

This investment in the future is a point of pride for the city. It will certainly help to continue another tradition in the city that longtime resident and city council member Dan Lee mentions: Young people who leave often return to raise their families.

Year Founded: 1833
Location: Auglaize County, 15 miles south of Lima
Population: 9,500
Size: 5.7 square miles
Type of Government: Mayor, 8-member council