Sharonville controls its downtown's destiny

Cincinnati’s first-ring suburbs face unique challenges. Changing demographics, economic stability, and issues regarding resources and security are common threads among these jurisdictions. 

The ways the 49 Hamilton County cities, villages, townships, and municipal corporations not only adjust but thrive is the focus of this series, First Suburbs—Beyond Borders. The series explores the diversity and ingenuity of these longstanding suburban communities, highlighting issues that demand collective thought and action to galvanize their revitalization.

In the heart of Sharonville, the city’s oldest business has been selling paint, tools, drill bits, grass seed, rakes and shovels, even old-fashioned bottles of soda pop, for 90 years. It’s been in owner Eli Wickemeier’s family for 54 years, and he’s worked there since he was a teen-ager.

But time marches on, and Cliff Hardware, a fixture in the northern suburb, is closing soon, a casualty of competition from big boxes and corporate-owned competitors. When its inventory is sold, probably in the next two or three months, Cliff Hardware will close its doors to the public for the last time.

“It's just slowly declining,” Wickemeier says. “And without completely changing the business, I don't think there's any way of surviving another 10 or 20 years.” 

The store, which has sizable footprint in a business district that is on the upswing, has been sold. That can spell trouble for small business district that is working to attract locally-owned merchants and preserve a small-town vibe. But it’s unlikely that a gas station, dollar store, or fast-food franchise will move in to the old hardware store. The city of Sharonville purchased the property in December and plans to seek a tenant that will complement its Main Street business district.

By buying and controlling the property, city officials say they and the community can determine the best use for it, in keeping with the city’s long-term vision.

“In developments, site control is important, especially when it’s an icon of the community,” says Sharonville Economic Development Director David McCandless. “We want to make sure that the right type of redevelopment or the right user goes in there, obviously with community feedback and buy-in.”

The 10,000 square foot store, with a dozen parking spaces in front, sits squarely in the center of Sharonville’s downtown. The half-mile long district is bounded by two one-way streets, Reading Road heading southbound, and Main Street going north. The two one-ways, connected by Sharon Road and Creek Road, create a walkable loop until they converge three blocks to the north at Reading Road. Hence the branding of this budding neighborhood: The Loop.

Two one-way streets create The Loop in SharonvilleThe city has already invested $2.3 million in improvements to a portion of the district directly next to the hardware store that it calls Depot Square. It added an artistically designed splash pad that runs in the warm months, a stage, and seating. A building that resembles an old train depot houses Charcuterie Creations, a café and catering business that opened in the fall of 2023. Next to that is alReddy Café, a Sharonville eatery for 20 years open for coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner on the weekends, and live music on Friday nights. The city has made other streetscape improvements to Depot Square, and it’s become a site for community gatherings, holiday events, and live music.

Cliff Hardware is right next door, and the opportunity to buy it was a rare opportunity for Sharonville to control its destiny when it comes to further development of that block.

“Instead of just rolling the dice to see what may go in there, we saw it as an opportunity to, in a thoughtful and deliberate manner, figure out what might be most beneficial next for the downtown,” McCandless said. 

No decisions have been made yet, but city leaders will look for something that can be integrated into the new downtown development. A locally owned restaurant, or a large bakery has been mentioned. The site is also big enough to house a food court concept, or a mixed-use development, says Anna Ehlerding, assistant to the mayor. Sharonville’s Community Improvement Corporation, the actual owner, will ultimately make that decision.

“We’re really sad to see Cliff Hardware go; they’ve been part of the community for almost a century,” says Mayor Kevin Hardman. “But we’re excited about the opportunities that are available to us to look for a redevelopment.”

Sharonville officials bought the property for $575,000, an investment that should pay dividends if they are successful in attracting tenants in keeping with the vision of a unique, community-oriented, walkable downtown. “All the options are on the table,” Hardman says. “We want something that will generate people coming into the city. Something that makes our downtown loop a destination.”

It’s a playbook that is working in other neighborhoods.

A model for controlling a business district’s destiny is in the Cincinnati neighborhood of College Hill. There, the nonprofit College Hill Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. (CHCURC) has acquired more than $85 million worth of property along Hamilton Avenue over the last 10 years. It owns more than 30 properties, an investment that has paid off in millions worth of redevelopment of aging neighborhood buildings with locally owned restaurants, coffee shops, and retail as tenants. In 2022, newly built apartments were opened next to the business district, bringing in hundreds of new residents who can support the neighborhood retail.   

“If we as a community have site control, then we get to select our own partners that we know will meet the goals of the community,” says Kate Greene, executive director of CHCURC. “With ownership, we always have a seat at the table to make sure that the decisionmaking is in line with the aspirations of College Hill.” Its most recent success is the transformation of an old bowling alley on Hamilton Avenue, Mergard’s, into 14 affordable housing units.

The model is being followed with results in other communities, including the Cincinnati neighborhoods of Walnut Hills and Northside, as well as in some first-ring suburbs, such as the village of Silverton, where the village retained control of a centrally located property and is transforming it into a town commons.

In Sharonville, the decision makers will be guided by a comprehensive community plan, Sharonville 2030, a detailed document that was adopted in 2020 and includes plans and maps covering housing, neighborhoods, and transportation corridors throughout out the community of 14,000.

Geographically, Sharonville is a sprawling community that includes its Northern Lights District along Chester Road, home to the newly expanded and renovated Sharonville Convention Center, 20-some hotels, and dozens of restaurants.

Creating a community identity through a Main Street-style business district that is accessible and walkable is critical for most communities, but especially for one that is so geographically diverse. For the Downtown Loop, the community plan calls for creating a critical mass of retail activity, encouraging pedestrian-friendly development, and slowing traffic, among other goals.

The city is also the site of several major employers, such as Ford Motor Co., which has operated a factory there for decades, a General Mills cereal plant, the headquarters for Gorilla Glue, the Princeton school district, and many others. More than twice as many people work (and pay earnings taxes) in Sharonville than live there.

The number of people who work there – more than 30,000 – has helped create a healthy municipal balance sheet and a budget surplus that is rolled into a capital reserve fund. The fund – now totaling more than $8 million, Hardman says – is tapped to pay cash for projects like the Depot Square redevelopment and the hardware store purchase.  

Cliff Hardware is gradually selling the last of its paint brushes, bird feeders, weed killer, and ice melters. When everything’s gone, Sharonville will have lost a venerated hardware store, but may gain a new locally owned destination for its budding downtown.     

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.