The Steubenville Kiwanis Club visited an old haunt with a new purpose when they ventured on a field trip to the other end of town recently, away from their normal luncheon meeting location at the YWCA.
Instead, they headed Jan. 29 to what used to be Lincoln Elementary School in the Steubenville school system, the school the Kiwanians had adopted to mentor to its pupils through visits and a reading program.
On this occasion, however, the meeting was an opportunity for the club members to learn about what's been happening at the former school since it became home to Nelson Fine Art and Gifts.
-- Janice R. Kiaski
The club members ate lunch first in what was a former classroom in the building, which in some ways still resembles a school - its bathrooms marked for "boys" and "girls" - but in other ways, it does not.
Owner Mark Nelson took to the podium after a catered lunch prepared by Judy Manfred of Manfred's Restaurant to first offer Kiwanians an overview of his business. Then, he took members on a tour.
Nelson was introduced by Larry Coleman, January program chair, at the meeting where Cas Adulewicz, president, presided.
Among the guests on hand were Steubenville High School Key Club members Arianna Berdine and Aspen Bradley, there with SHS Key Club adviser Ross Ivkovich, and Kim Gray, wife of Kiwanian Mike Gray of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County.
Nelson purchased the former school located at 980 Lincoln Ave., Steubenville, in 2008 and moved in the following year. "We're still getting our feet under us, getting rolling," he said.
Nelson Fine Art & Gifts has about 20 employees.
"We manufature between 20,000 and 30,000 religious items, and we ship them mostly wholesale around the country to religious and Catholic bookstores, gift shops and churches and church shops, those types of places, and they resell it," he said. It also has products in with Family Christian Stores, the world's largest Christian-focused retailer which is located in the United States.
Nelson said Family Christian Stores "saw a need to reach into the Catholic market and chose our company to help them in a pilot program to get there, so it's pretty exciting for our company to branch out into that," he said.
The business manufactures a variety of gifts and custom framing. "We have 22 printers running now that we print all different types of media on canvas, on outdoor materials, indoor materials, bumper stickers, we print a lot," he said.
All the design work takes place in the upper level graphics department with two formerly local graphic artists who now work out of satellite offices in Connecticut.
The inside has undergone renovations to include a showroom and to make "the building work for our purposes," according to Nelson, whose plans are to improve the exterior with a wraparound porch made out of an old barn on the premises. His hope is to give the building a more welcoming, country look.
With offices configured, some space could soon be available to some friends, he said, who are interested in moving a computer business to town and looking for a place to rent. "This would be a nice mix for us," Nelson said.
The business is being flexible to change and growth, according to Nelson, who noted the upstairs of the building sports the manufacuring on one side, and inventory and shipping on the other.
The business has expanded into other markets since opening in the former school. It started a Steubenville product line, for example, and has a sports line available. It also recently signed with local artist Dave Barnhouse to reproduce his artwork and product line.
Nelson said he pitched a product line for the state of Ohio, developing it around the state motto "With God All Things Are Possible."
"I was nervous walking into the doors of the statehouse gift shop," Nelson said, anticipating rejection yet encouraged to be welcomed with open arms. "We have a product line of about 30 items we're selling in the state of Ohio gift shop and in other gift shops around the state," he said, noting the business stays poised to create products for niche markets in an effort to diversify.
Nelson said the history of the company that he and wife, Gretchen, founded in 1994, formerly Nelson Woodcraft, "starts with me, I guess, in 1985 when my dad moved us to Steubenville from the middle of West Virginia." This was after mission work through the Diocese of Wheeling. The family originally is from Kansas City where his father was an aircraft mechanic.
Nelson was a junior in high school when he got to Steubenville. He graduated from Catholic Central High School and started out in the business program at Franciscan University but quit school early on and got involved instead in missionary work with his wife.
Nelson, who had always done woodworking in his dad's basement, said he hooked up with Father Samuel Tiese, the man responsible for the Portiuncula on the Franciscan campus, which is a replica of an ancient chapel built by St. Francis. Tiese used to make the San Damiano cross, an ancient Byzantine-style crucifix.
"I worked with Father Sam making that cross," Nelson said of the endeavour that ultimately led to his buying the business and the 14 products manufactured for a Catholic market.
"We ended up we slowly added products to our line," he said. It also focused on keeping up with the industry and technology changes.
"It's moved from just being a woodworking and framing company to a gift company to more of manufacturing and graphic arts and graphic design business, and that's really where we're at today," Nelson said.
Nelson said the business continues to also have a shop on the family's farm just outside Steubenville's city limits on Coal Hill Road. It has three employees.
Nelson said he is devoted to "seeing Steubenville come back. Those of you who know me know I am devoted to the kids and making an opportunity for my kids to stay."
He and his wife have eight children.
"They are all from here. I am not. I am a transplant, but they are from here, this is their town, and I am all for whatever it takes to bring back Steubenville so they have the opportunity to stay," he said.
Nelson said he has purchased a couple buildings in town and is in the process of rehabbing them but is not sure what their use will be at this point.
Nelson said he has taken to learning about city planning, is a regular attendee of Steubenville City Council meetings and serves on the Grand Theater Restoration Project board.
"My investments are here, and my kids are from here, so I am heavily paying attention, not really heavily involved, but paying attention to do whatever we can," he said.
The Kiwanis will meet Tuesday at noon at the YWCA. David Scarpone is February program chair. A county commissioner will be the guest speaker.
The club will host a division meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 28 at Karaffa School in Toronto.
Teams continue to be recruited for the club's trivia competition fundraiser set for 7 p.m. March 9 at Steubenville High School.
For deatils, contact Tom Timmons by phone at (740) 314-9574 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.