MANSFIELD — John Fernyak still has copies of the bumper stickers that read, “Will the last person leaving Mansfield please turn off the carrousel?”
The downtown businessman can also smile, look out his West Fourth Street office window every day and see proof across the street that the vision he and others put forth three decades ago did indeed come to fruition.
It was a shared vision of 52 wooden figurines — though questioned and mocked by many as a horribly bad idea — that literally helped to save and resurrect downtown Mansfield.
As Richland Carrousel Park marks the 30th anniversary of its opening Monday, it would be tempting for the 87-year-old Fernyak, still active as the owner of Engwiller Properties, to take a victory lap.
Instead, he refuses to take the lion’s share of credit for a unique, public-private partnership idea that helped to transform a community in 1991.
“I’m very happy with the result, but there were a lot of people involved in this,” Fernyak said during an interview in his office last week. “This wasn’t a one- or two-person operation. A lot of people gave money to it. A lot of people donated to it. There were probably over 100 people that made this happen.”
Those entering today’s Carrousel District, with its stores, restaurants, coffee shop and trendy bars and eateries, would not recognize the North Main Street area in the 1970s and 1980s, especially between Temple Court and West Fourth Street.
Aging and decaying buildings were boarded up, some for so long the utilities had been disconnected. Many, if not most, storefronts were vacant.
Rough bars, massage parlors and crime were thriving businesses in the area, including down east and west on Fourth Street. Fernyak said even a pawn shop owner in the area closed his doors after being robbed at gunpoint.
It was not Mansfield’s Fun Center for most local residents, who stayed away in droves.
“I think all the people involved in (the carrousel development) felt that the downtown was in pretty bad shape,” Fernyak said. “No one wanted to come downtown. A lot of the buildings were boarded up.
“The antique store down here … you could walk into the basement and look up and see the birds flying overhead because the roof was gone. The floors were gone. It was just a shell of bricks,” Fernyak said.
“It was pretty dead down here.”
Time, changing economics and differing demographics took a toll on the downtown, just as those same factors negatively impacted many comparable midwestern cities.
Industries closed. Some businesses and residents fled downtowns for the suburbs and other sites that were easily accessible as Americans became more mobile.
Shopping centers opened outside of the downtown, including West Park on Park Avenue West in the mid 1950s, followed quickly by Johnny Appleseed Plaza on Lexington Avenue and the Mansfield Shopping Square Mall, also on Park Avenue West.
The Richland Mall in Ontario opened in 1968, another painful blow to the central city.
Comedian Bill Cosby performed at The Renaissance Theatre in 1984 and poked fun at the blighted downtown, jokes which likely made some in attendance squirm with their accuracy.
One of the final blows came when Don Blasius, then president of Tappan Co. in Mansfield and a member of the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce board, attempted to recruit a new financial vice president to the city.
“They flew this candidate and his wife into Mansfield Lahm Airport and they came up North Main Street,” Fernyak said. “And of course, most of the buildings down here were boarded up. The wife said, ‘I don’t want to live in this dump. Turn this car around. We’re going home.’
“(Blasius) just raised cane at the next (chamber) board meeting. It was a big issue. About the only business that was open on North Main, below Fourth, was the Coney Island Diner. (Almost) everything else was boarded up,” Fernyak said.
Fernyak, then the vice chairman of the chamber board, said the board met in 1986 to discuss the downtown blight and brainstormed ideas on ways to improve it, a discussion that included then Chamber President William Hartnett.
“I don’t know who had the idea, but somebody said we ought to put a carrousel downtown,” Fernyak said. “And, of course, everyone laughed us out of the room.”
Thomas Hoaglin, then the CEO of BankOne in Mansfield and chair of the chamber board, told Fernyak, “You don’t have anything to do as vice chairman. It’s just a guy in waiting to be the chairman. Go around and see if we can buy a carrousel somewhere.”
It wasn’t that simple, though.
As Fernyak, then president of Mansfield Typewriter, began a multi-state quest for the actual carrousel, efforts also began to form the non-profit Richland Carrousel Park, Inc.
The agency’s first president was Rex Collins, a retired banking executive, who helped spearhead fundraising efforts that ultimately gained $1.25 million in donations to build the facility at the southwest corner of North Main and West Fourth streets.
That corner is the one shown in the photo at the top of this story, some of the buildings were demolished to clear the way.
Planners went to Mayor Ed Meehan for the city’s help in acquiring the properties needed for the new carrousel. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in urban planning, Meehan served as director of Richland County Regional Planning Commission until he was elected mayor in 1980.
Meehan agreed to add additional parking, purchase and demolish vacant buildings and crack down on businesses in the area engaged in illegal activities, including a Fourth Street massage parlor nearby that was raided for prostitution.
The city’s financial investment was around $474,000, money some residents believed would be better spent trying to keep local companies in business.
In exchange, the mayor said he needed a commitment from the private sector to redevelop nearby buildings, which was quickly gained.
“We had not had anyone come to the city with the idea of a public-private partnership (of) that magnitude,” Meehan told the Mansfield News Journal at the time. “Nobody had come up with a plan for that area.”
Collins, who had also led community fundraising drives for things such as the Renaissance Theatre restoration and a local hospital expansion, agreed to help lead the effort after he contacted key contributors.
“We determined before we kicked it off that we had support from the private and public sector,” Collins told the NJ. “This is isn’t something we just decided over coffee.”
Working with property owners to acquire buildings and property was a massive effort. Many residents didn’t think spending time and money on the carrousel was a good idea, especially during tough economic times.
That led to some contentious City Council meetings with a few lawmakers who didn’t support the effort.
In his book, “Resilient Downtowns: A New Approach to Revitalizing Small- and Medium-City Downtowns,” author Michael A. Burayidi describes remarks by Collins before a crucial council vote.
“The whole downtown redevelopment effort hinges on this vote. Local investors are prepared to take a major risk on an area that has sat dormant and decaying for years,” Collins said. “If this doesn’t go, you’re never going to see anyone come forward to develop it.”
Collins told the News Journal at the time that too many people focused their thoughts only on the carrousel.
“It’s a catalyst, it’s not the answer. It’s not going to cure all the evils. But you have to look at the private investment that it has inspired. What it has encouraged in the private sector is amazing,” Collins said.
Fernyak and other developers invested money in restoring historic buildings in the area, investments made prudent and possible by changing the character of the neighborhood through the carrousel park.
Meehan said he knew the carrousel itself was just a piece of the puzzle.
“The carrousel was rightfully played up because of its uniqueness, but it wasn’t to be the focal point. The engine to pull the train was really the building redevelopment,” the former mayor said.
In December 1988, City Council approved the Fourth and Main Street Area Urban Renewal Plan, making the city responsible for acquiring and clearing the land, a deal that hinged on the aforementioned private investment.
On June 19, 1990, Meehan and other leaders and dignitaries staged a symbolic sledge-hammer swinging event that launched the beginning of the demolition work. Construction began about three months later.
Fernyak’s efforts to “go buy a carrousel somewhere” included trips to multiple states to look at existing carrousels and those that may be for sale. Once popular around the country, carrousels were going out of style in many places and new ones were rare.
In fact, the Richland Carrousel Park featured the first all-wooden, hand-carved carrousel built in the United States for nearly 60 years.
During a visit to Massachusetts, Fernyak attended the auction of a carrousel manufactured by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company In Pennsylvania.
“It was a beautiful carrousel. Tom Hoaglin and I figured we could raise $500,000. He said ‘Bid on it.’ I started bidding and it reached $500,000 and then $600,000 .. and it sold for about $800,000,” Fernyak said.
“I came back and we discussed it at the chamber and they said, ‘Well, we have land to purchase, we have a carrousel building to build. We can’t afford an $800,000 carrousel.'”
Planners began to realize a different approach was needed.
“Tom Hoaglin and I went up to Connecticut and we found a company called Carrousel Works up there. It was Art Ritchie and Dan Jones. They carved figures, but I don’t believe they had ever carved a carrousel.
“We gave him a contract to carve a Dentzel carrousel. We moved them to Mansfield (in 1988) and we put them in a building at (what is now the Little Buckeye Museum),” Fernyak said.
Ritchie and Jones launched a three-year effort to build the colorful animals that are the centerpiece of the carrousel.
With the figurines figured out, Fernyak turned his attention to the mechanisms needed to make the carrousel go. He went to the east coast and found a used Dentzel mechanism and had it shipped to Mansfield for $2,000.
Planners worked with Mansfield architect Dan Seckel, taking him to visit other carrousel buildings.
“He then designed (Richland Carrousel) and he did a fabulous job,” Fernyak said.
Seckel designed a brick building that blended in with the century-old neighborhood with a cupola on top and brilliantly lit by many windows, including garage-style glass doors.
About one month before the carrousel was to open, Fernyak said they discovered the wooden center pole (30 feet high, 18 inches in diameter) obtained from the east coast was rotted. He began making calls and received estimates between $6,000 and $10,000 to get one that could be put together in pieces.
Fernyak, who said the effort was running short on money, made contact with a wood preserving company in Louisiana. He told a company representative what he needed and found they actually had two that met the bill.
“I asked what it would cost me delivered. He said $800. Sold!” Fernyak said.
After the new center pole arrived, Fernyak had it tapered by Leppert Machine in Mansfield and installed.
The last-minute problems continued, however.
The cranks that made the animals go up and down were defective with cracks. A company in Cleveland created new ones.
It was an anxious opening on Aug. 30, 1991.
“We opened up and the mayor was out there dedicating it and we’re putting the final touches on the carrousel. So we open it up … and it worked,” he said with a laugh. “We had close to 18,000 people the first day.”
Like the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes, the success of the vision shared by people like Fernyak, Hoaglin, Meehan, Collins, Hartnett and others is remarkable.
Dubbed The Carrousel District, the area surrounding the intersection of Fourth and Main streets is undeniable. Private investment flowed from Fernyak and others as the character of the neighborhood changed.
Granted, it didn’t happen overnight. But a stroll through the district on a warm, sunny summer afternoon last week revealed a far different scene.
The now usual musical sounds of the carrousel permeated the downtown neighborhood. Shops and restaurants were open and doing a brisk business. Adults and children strolled the sidewalks.
Gone are boards on windows. Gone are vacant storefronts. They are replaced by shiny windows.
Now residents and visitors can grab a beverage at Relax, It’s Just Coffee. Families can check out the Little Buckeye Children’s Museum. Restaurants like Hudson and Essex, City Grill and Two Cousin’s Pizza are readily available.
Richland Academy of the Arts has a home in the district, as does the Buckeye Bakery, The Phoenix Brewing Company, The Warehouse Tavern, Tara’s Floral Expressions, What Goes ‘Round Thrift Shoppe, Salon Vivace, The Boot Life and more. There is also Idea Works, a co-working space that is home to Richland Source.
Businesses and organizations like the North End Community Improvement Collaborative, Downtown Mansfield Inc., Destination Mansfield-Richland County and Haring Realty all have offices along North Main Street.
It’s not your father’s downtown Mansfield and that growth is expanding beyond the immediate downtown.
So what comes next? It starts with keeping The Richland Carrousel churning round and round.
Simply put, the non-profit facility doesn’t earn enough on its own.
“Little did we know that carrousels are not profitable,” Fernyak said. “After a month of operation, we figured that out.”
The initial key was his successful bid to land the license bureau contract, using revenue from the facility to help fund the carrousel.
“The license bureau pays income tax, but what they have left over after income tax goes to keep the carrousel operating. So people who buy licenses down here are supporting the carrousel because their operation is not profitable,” he said.
Fernyak and others, including Collins, Hartnett, Bob Enskat and John and Peter Black, also established a trust, income from which also supports the carrousel.
“We’re going to have to build that trust to at least twice what it is now. Hopefully, we will have enough to do that in the next 10 years,” he said.
Fernyak said the area will also benefit if a planned Main Street Corridor Improvement Plan goes forward. A two-year design/engineering study was approved by City Council earlier this year. The plan may include changing Main Street to two-way traffic, matching recent conversions to Mulberry and Diamond streets.
That conversion on Main Street is a key to Fernyak.
“One-way traffic kills businesses,” he said, pointing out that studies show businesses increase sales volume 10 to 25 percent with two-way traffic.
He said two-way streets also decrease traffic speeds and improve the environment for pedestrians.
“I had a guy call me recently to tell me I should put a pizza place in downtown. I told him we have Two Cousin’s on North Main. I asked him where he worked and he said it was out by the airport. He lives south of the city and drives by it every day on his way home — and never noticed it was there,” Fernyak said.
“Mulberry Street has picked up. Walnut Street has picked up. Diamond is starting to pick up. It’s not rocket science. It just works,” Fernyak said.
The long-time local businessman will turn 88 later this year. But retirement is not in his plans, nor will he stop working to improve his hometown.
“I enjoy what I do,” he said. “With Engwiller Properties, there are challenges all day long every day and it’s fun. I love it. It keeps my blood circulating.
“Mansfield is one of the best places in the world to live. I just can’t say enough about this city.”