Two people kayaking on the Cuyahoga River in Cuyahoga Falls (photo by Kevin Kopanski)
Ohio Life | Best Hometowns

Best Hometowns 2023: Cuyahoga Falls

This riverfront city offers easy access to both Cleveland and Akron, a revitalized downtown district and a range of outdoor recreation options that span hiking, climbing and kayaking.

Stepping inside the Falls Theater building along Front Street, it is tough to imagine a time when the historic structure almost had a date with the wrecking ball. Today, the original stained glass is back, the crown molding has been restored and the building that opened as a theater in 1925 serves as a downtown entertainment destination called The Workz.

Duckpin bowling as well as vintage and modern arcade games ranging from Skee-Ball to a 5,000-square-foot Nerf Arcade bring the fun, as does a full-service bar. A speakeasy that simply requires asking an employee for an entry card is tucked away for visitors to discover.

The Workz is just one of the success stories along Cuyahoga Falls’ Front Street, a bustling strip filled with businesses like the craft coffee and cocktail spot Asterisk Coffee Bar, the handcrafted-gift shop Reverie and the plant-based skin and hair care boutique Hope Soap.
      Cuyahoga Falls’ Falls River Square and Flury’s Cafe (photos by Rachael Jirousek)

Families play in sprinklers at Falls River Square (above left). Customers dine at Flury’s Cafe along Front Street in downtown Cuyahoga Falls. (photos by Rachael Jirousek)

Much of downtown’s building stock was built between 1900 and 1930 and a few properties date back to the 1800s, including the Italianate-style Comstock Building next to Crave Cantina. A Romanesque revival style is reflected in the 1908 George C. Tifft & Co. Building occupied by Justin Gamble Photography and the Natural Wonders Shop. A 1910 art nouveau structure now houses Metropolis Popcorn.

“This side of our downtown is a historical district,” says Kaylee Piper, executive director of Downtown Cuyahoga Falls Partnership, as we talk over drinks at Asterisk Coffee Bar. The city’s local historic district encompasses most of North Front Street and downtown from Stow Avenue to near Broad Boulevard, then from Riverfront Parkway to Third Street. “It would be such a shame to lose these buildings that have so much history and stories to tell.”

As recent as the first half of the 2010s though, businesses populating Front Street were in decline — both in visitors and appearance. Most notably, the Falls Theater had sat vacant for over a decade and fallen into disrepair. The downturn began when Akron’s now-closed Chapel Hill Mall opened in 1967, leading to a decrease in traffic to downtown Cuyahoga Falls. The city administration at the time proposed an urban renewal project called Front & Center, an eventual $6 million process that led to restricting vehicles from Front Street to develop a pedestrian mall that would act as competition for Chapel Hill.
    Sculpture at Cuyahoga Falls’ High Bridge Glens Park by artist Don Drumm (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Artist Don Drumm created the sculpture “Birdsnest” for High Bridge Glens Park. The work  was installed in fall 2022. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

The city closed the street on Nov. 8, 1976, with the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the pedestrian mall following in 1978. Yet the attempt to create a thriving shopping district failed and left buildings deserted. It remained that way for four decades. 

“Retail demands visibility and accessibility, and a pedestrian mall offers neither,” says Mayor Don Walters, who has held the city’s top office since the start of 2014. You can’t drive through and see what’s new.”

Walters began his tenure by almost immediately seeking solutions to the many downtown vacancies and heavy disrepair of properties. He took members of city council and the chamber of commerce to Valparaiso, Indiana; Oak Park, Illinois; and South Bend, Indiana, to see what was working for similarly sized cities and hired a consultant to survey city demographics, overall landscape and resident opinions.
      Clothing, plants and planner at Cuyahoga Falls’ Jean + Lou store (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Established in 2019, the women’s clothing and gift boutique Jean + Lou can be found in the heart of downtown Cuyahoga Falls. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

In 2015, work on Cuyahoga Falls’ transformation began, which included an inventory of historical architecture, studies on local and regional retail and residential markets, meetings with stakeholders and conceptual plans for bringing two-way vehicular traffic back to Front Street. City council unanimously approved the $13.6 million project in 2017.

Property owners began making significant investments in their buildings. Public and private investment spurred new and existing entities alike to find a home downtown. All spaces are currently spoken for — 85% with active tenants and 15% with in-progress or planned renovations.

“We’re in our fifth year, and it’s at capacity,” Walters says. “There are people seven days a week ... There are older people. There are people pushing strollers.”
      Skin and hair care boutique Hope Soap in Cuyahoga Falls (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Hope Soap sells plant-based skin and hair care products, among other goods, at its boutique on Front Street. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Located along a scenic stretch of the winding Cuyahoga River, Cuyahoga Falls covers nearly 26 square miles, is home to more than 51,000 residents and is the second-largest city in Summit County. Some of the community’s biggest businesses include Associated Materials, a maker of exterior building products for residential and commercial remodeling that employs 1,244. Western Reserve Hospital employs 1,067, while GOJO Industries, the maker of Purell products, follows closely behind with 1,037.

The city is served by five different public school districts with Cuyahoga Falls City School District and Woodridge Local School District educating most of the city’s students. Enrollment for Cuyahoga Falls is 4,149 across its one high school, two middle schools and six elementary schools, and Woodridge’s enrollment, across one high school, one middle school and one elementary school, stands at 1,984 students. (Hudson City Schools, Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools and Revere Local Schools serve a small portion of residents.)

Cuyahoga Falls sits along a handful of state Route 8 exits with big-box stores and car dealerships just off the highway. Yet the community also offers access to Cuyahoga Valley National Park and is home to Blossom Music Center, an outdoor concert venue that is the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra and hosts a range of national touring acts throughout its season.
      Cuyahoga River and friends on the overlook at Gorge Metro Park’s Gorge Trail (photos by Rachael Jirousek)

The Cuyahoga River is a fixture for Cuyahoga Falls residents (above left). An overlook along Gorge Metro Park’s Gorge Trail offers stunning views. (photos by Rachael Jirousek)

During warm months, that access to outdoor recreation draws visitors to the city to hike the Gorge Metro Park’s Gorge Trail (three Summit Metroparks locations are within the city), climb at High Bridge Glens Park’s River Rock or kayak the Cuyahoga River. In 2023, the city opened Paddle Park, a downtown hub with a stage, solar umbrellas with phone charging stations and 16 Jackson Kayaks that provide seating and a photo opportunity.

The river, which offers Class I, II, III and V rapids, is easily accessible through Burning River Adventures, which started operations in the city in 2015. It provides single and tandem kayak rentals. Customers can choose between 2-, 4.5- and 6.5-mile trips, the longest of which takes about three hours, and peak season runs from around Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“Our section of the river is serene,” says Moneen McBride, co-founder of Burning River Adventures. “... You are submerged in nature. … It gives you a different appreciation for the river.”

That mix of a downtown revival, a strong industrial base and access to outdoor recreation are what Walters says he sees as the balance that makes Cuyahoga Falls such an attractive place to call home. 

“We’re just the right size to where we have massive revenue to have all the parks and the beautiful amenities,” he adds. “But we’re small enough that I’ll still see you at the grocery store.”

Best Hometowns 2023-24: Celina | Cuyahoga Falls | Grove City | Lancaster | Sharonville