CUYAHOGA FALLS -- It's official. The city began moving dirt April 24 to remove its pedestrian mall and open up Front Street to vehicular traffic.
Decades ago, a section of Front Street downtown was closed off and made into an outdoor mall to compete with indoor malls. After years of inactivity downtown, the city hired consultants who determined retail, residents and the city would benefit if cars could drive up and down Front Street.
"It's quite literally taken us 40 years to get to this groundbreaking tonight," Mayor Don Walters told an estimated crowd of 150 gathered to watch the groundbreaking ceremony beneath a clear blue sky. "We've been talking about this for quite some time now and after all of the in-depth research, meetings and conversations, I can tell you I've never been more excited by the turning of dirt."
Together, members of City Council and the mayor donned hardhats and turned over shovelfuls of dirt inside a long wooden box on the pitted brick surface of the riverfront mall.
"This has been a long time coming," said Laura Petrella, CEO of the city's Chamber of Commerce, "As a Chamber of Commerce, we could not be more excited to be a part of what's about to happen in the next couple of months."
Petrella said many potential business owners have called or dropped by the Chamber office on Portage Trail to inquire about available space on Front Street. "They are ready," she said.
"I told the administration back then, 39 years ago, you're making one hell of a mistake," said Libert Bozzelli, who was on City Council when the city closed the street and made it a mall. "I said it should never be closed, but they closed it anyway." Bozzelli told the crowd he was "glad and honored" he lived to see Front Street open back up.
Donna Procaccio of Cuyahoga Falls said she can remember when the street was open to motorists. Her friend Rosaleen Brady also recalled those times, and more recent days. "I remember the cars and I enjoyed it when it was only walking, but I only came down when there was a festival," Brady said.
"I remember when this was a two-way street and I frequented the stores down here -- F.W. Woolworth, O'Neil's, the pet store -- this was my Saturday hangout when I was about 12 years old," said city resident Laurie Gilles. "I'm happy to see it reopen. It will be great for our kids."
Mark Gilles, Laurie's husband and a member of the city's Historic Landmark and Design Board, said he is looking forward to the end result of opening Front Street. "I think this is going to be a real boost (for the city). It should work out really great." Gilles said with a historic district established downtown, and the Design Board, business owners can get historic tax credits.
"This renovation brings Cuyahoga Falls into more of a contemporary city in terms of its downtown," said Ed Monaco, an architect and member of the city's Planning Commission. Monaco said the city's downtown circulation improvement plan is to keep existing features of the mall such as the clock tower and amphitheater and add two-way streets, on-street parking and more landscaping.