Ohio City Inc., Placing Bet on Local Retail, Buys City Goods

"This is a long-term investment," OCI director Chris Schmitt told Scene of the retail cluster purchase

click to enlarge Liz Painter and Sam Friedman, co-founders of City Goods in Ohio City's Hingetown. The duo sold their retail cluster complex to Ohio City Inc., in a bid to keep it going as a boon to the community. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Liz Painter and Sam Friedman, co-founders of City Goods in Ohio City's Hingetown. The duo sold their retail cluster complex to Ohio City Inc., in a bid to keep it going as a boon to the community.
The seven U-shaped, silver hangers at 1442 West 28th Street aren't going anywhere, but they are changing hands.

This week, Ohio City Inc. finalized a deal to purchase City Goods, the cluster of 30 small businesses selling everything from organic skincare products to hanging plants and vinyl records.

The move, eighteen months after co-founders Sam Friedman and Liz Painter opened shop, follows the duo's decision to convert City Goods into a nonprofit, believing the model would keep the operation more financially healthy.

A sale to OCI, Friedman said on Tuesday, furthers City Good's permanency in a growing neighborhood endlessly begging for stores selling home goods without Big Box affiliation.

"We need money. That's the simple fact of the matter," Friedman said.

It's why, he and Painter began conversations with Chris Schmitt, OCI's executive director, the day after Christmas, as a path to nonprofit status began to look ideal: to ensure that City Good could, unlike most retail clusters, keep its ease-of-entry philosophy intact.

"What [the sale] does is keep City Goods going strong in the future in ways I couldn't guarantee," Friedman, also the owner of Chagrin Valley Soap and Salve, said. "It moves it into the public square in the way that we were attempting to do anyway."

In 2022, after reading a Scene article highlighting entrepreneur Graham Veysey's build of seven silver "pod" structures near Church + State, Friedman's interest piqued. After a decade in retail, he felt the need to start a small business cluster with a model that favored new talent. Everything besides one's rent—marketing, taxes, signage, maintenance, workers comp—is handled by City Goods management.

The only problem, for Painter and Friedman, is that model didn't prove to be wholly sustainable: City Goods as an entity did not turn a profit. As a financial backstop, Friedman opened Hangar, an upscale cocktail and amaro bar that would ideally earn enough to allow other tenants affordable operational costs. Or, as Friedman, who also bartended once a week at Hangar, put it: "We're having espresso martinis with you to support makers."

Schmitt was, of course, one of those patrons.
click to enlarge OCI interim director Chris Schmitt, at Lekko Coffee on Detroit Avenue, on Tuesday. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
OCI interim director Chris Schmitt, at Lekko Coffee on Detroit Avenue, on Tuesday.
After taking over for former OCI director Tom McNair in October, Schmitt quickly realized that Ohio City's ground-floor retail, its contemporary breakfast mainstays and variety stores, was paramount to keeping the neighborhood on a healthy trajectory.

McNair had helped decrease retail vacancies from 40 percent in 2014 to a laudable five percent in 2019, and observed as three years of the pandemic threatened the health of occupied storefronts. Absorbing City Goods into one of OCI's "seven subsidiaries," Schmitt told Scene, was key in keeping the bespoke goods—home goods, especially—Ohio City could maintain.

"This is a long term investment," Schmitt told Scene, from a table at Lekko Coffee on Detroit Avenue. (Schmitt and Friedman declined to talk purchase price.) "A long-range investment by us, to create the brands of tomorrow. They're going to fill the vacant storefronts."

"Brands," Painter said, sitting next to Schmitt, "that have that goal to shift and move to their own space eventually."

As for the brands, for ilthy or Brittany's Record Shop, Friedman said that "almost all" of City Goods' vendors are renewing their leases this year, while others look to bigger spaces or will disband altogether.

Ohio City Inc.'s accumulation of those seven arched domes comes at a time when the City of Cleveland investigates whether or not to close a sliver of West 29th Street, a block away, to car traffic. Though OCI is so far neutral on the issue (Schmitt wants to "wait until a study comes out"), Friedman believes that City Goods' location on the eastern fringe of Hingetown will keep it as a destination for years to come.

"Walkability is why City Goods is where it is," he said. "Because small business retail, the one thing it requires—Requires with a capital R—is walking traffic."

Friedman and Painter will stay involved with City Goods in some form: Friedman as an advisor to OCI, Painter as brand manager and an OCI marketing director. As for regulars scoring a Friedman-made cocktail on Friday night's at Hangar, the co-founder is most likely out as its Sam Malone.

"Hey, every night I banged the glass, I yelled about the shops, I talked to every single person who comes in about why we're here," Friedman said. "But breaking news: Sam doesn't like breaking his back."
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Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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