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Photos by Megan Leigh Barnard & Ben Yoder

The Transformation of Franklinton

We use a strip mall where West Broad meets I-70 to turn around in Chris Sherman’s rehabbed 1965 Ford Thunderbird. This is the end of the line in Franklinton – a bustling mish-mash of nail salons and fast food. An interstate runs through it. I ask Sherman, serving as my Franklinton ambassador for one day last fall, if he can ever imagine the neighborhood’s revitalization reaching this far down the road.

“It’s possible, one day,” he says while waving to yet another onlooker admiring his car, “but that’s far in the future.”

His T-Bird is a mobile symbol of making what’s old new again, and his enthusiasm for Franklinton pours out every few blocks. The transformation of historic Avondale Elementary. The clusters of homes getting facelifts around Mount Carmel West. Franklinton Garden projects on various corners throughout. Green businesses setting up shop and hiring within the community. A city initiative to improve storefronts.

Sherman’s optimism about Franklinton was apparently contagious.

Fast forward nine months later, and the future is closer than he would have guessed. Both the Rich and Main Street bridges over the Scioto River have opened, allowing for steady, unabated traffic between downtown and Sherman’s hamlet of East Franklinton. The view from his garage is, as he puts it, “bucolic” – a place where flora still reigns in vacant lots, and warehouses sit waiting for adaptive reuse. It’s a blank canvas.

He arrived in the struggling district in 2004, when banks were “puking” money and he could purchase the space he needed. Since then he’s become an integral part of a DIY community of big dreamers, with visions of Franklinton transforming into a haven for artists, tradesmen, and forward thinkers.

A critical piece of East Franklinton’s renewal is 400 West Rich, a formerly abandoned warehouse that Sherman has led the charge in renovating since 2011. Originally intended as working studios for minimal rent, it has blossomed into the epicenter of the Franklinton Arts District. The organization has spawned annual events like Urban Scrawl and Go West!, as well as a regular farmers market. Meanwhile, the building has added the one-stop food-truck court Dinin’ Hall and a restaurant-bar-event space in Strongwater Food & Spirits.

Last year, Rehab Tavern opened up nearby, anticipating the shift occurring in this oft-neglected neighborhood. All have become magnets to bring the masses back to this side of the river.

“Things are popping up over here. What’s on the ground right now is not tremendous, but there’s been a lot of planning. It’s the efforts of a devoted group of people, though, that have put some focus from the city over here,” Sherman says.

On Town Street across from 400 West Rich, they’re pouring a new polyurethane floor in anticipation of the fall opening of Land Grant Brewery. It’s a fitting place for rebirth for Jamie File, Adam Benner, and Walt Keys, as Land Grant almost didn’t happen. The former Oval Brewery was forced to change its name due to a copyright issue and landed in FTON after a deal for a Grandview space fell through. It’s the first of its kind in Franklinton and hopefully another boon for the neighborhood. For Land Grant, it already feels like home.

“We love the energy here. We love our neighbors,” says Benner. “There’s a real momentum here that is palpable.”

The biggest arrival this year is one of those neighbors, the relocated Idea Foundry, a 60,000-square-foot property aiming to become the biggest “makerspace” in North America. It hosts power tool races, welding classes, 3D printing, game-changing projects and more; it’s a collision of art, commerce, and modern industry emblematic of the new spirit in Franklinton. In addition, Ethical Arts Collective and Glass Axis have planted new roots in the neighborhood, and Liz Lessner will be opening the Franklinton Tap Room in an “up-cycled” brick building on West Broad, aiming for a public opening next month.

Directly east across the railroad tracks, the radial expansion of downtown Columbus has begun to stretch into Franklinton, too. Talks about the long proposed Scioto Peninsula are coming to fruition, with prospects of a park connecting COSI with the Ohio Veterans Memorial and Museum, which will replace the existing Vets Memorial.
Though Sherman sees those tracks as a line that separates what he’s doing in the neighborhood with the planning downtown, there is a symbiosis between city, neighborhood, and outside investors that feeds off what has already been created. Everything is starting to weave together.

As we make our way up Sullivant Avenue – another main thoroughfare of dive bars and mini-marts – blight remains. For the most part, though, the causes of urban decay have stopped growing. Sherman remembers a time early in his tenure when open-air drug transactions and prostitution were the norm. Nick Manus, whose family of Greek immigrants has run Phillips Coney Island on West Broad for literally a century, recalls bussing tables as a teenager and seeing red rags dangling from the pockets of gang members hanging out in the shop.

“You don’t see that anymore,” says Manus. “Now I see people riding bikes and exercising, not just running to catch the bus or running from something undesirable.”

“People’s perceptions have changed, because things have changed down here,” Sherman says.

Matt Egner and his wife Erica Wait were some of the brave few to relocate here back in 2008, and now they are helping to bring in neighbors via Egner Construction Company. Previously in the business of remodeling, Egner now builds new homes and buys up vacant properties for gut renovations in Franklinton. He also started Franklinton Rentals, a venture that rehabs properties and leases them at low rates. It’s a “try before you buy” approach to enticing more young professionals and families into the area, which he sees as a manageable way to spruce up the neighborhood one home at a time. All of this in addition to the city’s investment in Franklinton through the Home Again program, which eliminates vacant and abandoned properties through rehabs and demolitions.
“People want to be around things that are happening,” Egner says. “What I love about here is that you can have a modest-sized home, with a garage and a garden, and you can still walk to downtown.”

The work is not done, though – far from it. Sherman admits one crucial missing link is more housing and jobs in close proximity, a live/work environment with new residential areas coexisting next to manufacturing and commerce. But the progress over the past decade, and just the past nine months, is heartening, even for someone who was optimistic before the vision was clear to everyone else.

“I figured the area would change at one point,” Sherman says, “but never this quickly.”