Move to downtown paying dividends

STEUBENVILLE – To understand why Ken Perkins moved his financial services business out of plush uptown digs into a renovated garage in the heart of downtown Steubenville, you just have to see what he sees when he looks out his office windows: Opportunity.

His office complex sits on a quiet street in a seemingly unassuming part of town, but one that’s seen an enormous influx of investment dollars: There’s Steubenville High School’s new multi-use center, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers training center around the corner and the new-look Tri-State Printing just down the street. The county courthouse and city building also have benefited from major spending initiatives, and a host of historic properties celebrating Steubenville’s Victorian heyday as well as its frontier roots are sprinkled throughout the area.

Couple all that with an oversized, well-lit parking lot, an incentives package for businesses investing in downtown and a major interstate highway corridor – he can see state Route 7 from his building, and U.S. Route 22 is just a couple minutes away – that gives him unprecedented access to a client base scattered throughout Eastern Ohio, Northern West Virginia and even Western Pennsylvania and you have commercial nirvana, one Perkins admits he just couldn’t pass up.

“Start with Third Street and add it all up, all the money that’s been spent,” he said. “I would bet this has been the most developed street in Jefferson County. I bet more money’s been spent on Third Street than any other street in Jefferson County. “

But knowing it was a smart investment is one thing; getting everybody else to buy into downtown as a lifestyle wasn’t quite so easy.

“Everybody said ‘why’ when we were thinking about coming downtown,” he said. “But we’re actually seeing more people here at the new building than we ever saw before, we’ve seen an unbelievable uptick in clients. I’ve been doing this for 28 years now, and we had our best year ever in 2012 – and 2012 was our first year in downtown Steubenville. That’s wonderful.”

Some, but certainly not all, of that growth can be attributed to the shale oil and gas exploration. Perkins said the convenience factor, for clients as well as his office mates, is a major part of that growth. He said it’s been a true time-saver for him and colleagues Suzanne Kresser and Billy Petrella, all of whom have achieved major industry performance benchmarks.

“It just made so much sense, so much of the stuff we do is downtown,” he said. “We’re involved in so many things, all three of us, and we all spent too much time in our cars every day. Moving here really freed us up.”

It’s also given them the opportunity to do more for their community: After hours, they’ve hosted a variety of meetings for groups ranging from Jefferson County Trails & Greenways, Friendship Park Wine Festival committee and the Grand Theater committee to the now-defunct Progress Alliance and the Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Taste of Downtown” celebrations showcasing downtown restaurants. This year’s event is planned for May 16. They also offer free parking to area residents taking in the Thursday Night Concert series at Historic Fort Steuben during the summer months.

He said their new digs, a former garage at 255 N. Third St., had been vacant for more than three years, with no power, no water, no security – and no vandalism – before he took it over.

“That’s what impressed me,” he said. “There’s weren’t any broken windows or graffiti, and it had been empty.”

And the investment was nothing to sneeze at. Though he balks at talking specifics, he did point out the building is Project B.E.S.T. certified – meaning the renovation was done from beginning to end by union contractors with union labor, craftsmen who’ve served their apprenticeships and honed skillsets.

“We’re cheerleaders, not just for Steubenville but for all of Jefferson County,” Kresser said. “We get so tired of hearing negatives, we focus on the positives. Some people say it’s because we have our business here, but that’s not really it. We don’t have children, so we could move anywhere – but we want to be here.”

Petrella, for instance, could have been like most 20-somethings and left Steubenville as soon as he finished college, Perkins said, “but he didn’t want to leave Jefferson County. He came back here to work and he’s staying here.”

He said they’re already thinking about hiring more people and expanding their operation, and they’re also looking at marketing part of their property.

“We’ve already had some interest,” he said. “We’ve had a couple folks interested in the other side of the lot, building something there that would compliment our building. We’re looking at a couple professional building opportunities. The way we have it set up, we could divide the lot very easily.”

Perkins, meanwhile, is quick to point out there are “still some great opportunities” in the downtown.

“I think we’ve changed a lot of people’s minds,” he added. “They couldn’t believe it when we can downtown, then they saw the building, the parking, our location, and they love it.”