By the standards of Middletown, Ohio, a rivet on the Rust Belt halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton, Ami Vitori got lucky. She got away.
At age 17, she received a letter of admission from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and left behind her city’s shuttered factories and dilapidated homes. Once she graduated, she went to work for an investment banking firm in New York City. After a few years in the world of finance, a desire for adventure and sunshine drew her to Los Angeles, where she ran a film production company, before she returned to Washington to start her own marketing and branding firm.
She was driven and determined, and business flourished. She married Marine Officer Kevin Kimener and started a family. They moved into a comfortable home in a tony, leafy enclave of the nation’s capital.
Wall Street, Hollywood, D.C.: For a kid from a small, blighted town in the Midwest, “it was the American Dream.”
Whenever she returned to Middletown to visit her family, the steady deterioration she observed in her small city of roughly 50,000 left her heartbroken. The giant steel plant was shedding jobs. One by one, other factories ground to a halt. The shopping mall near Interstate 75, where she had worked as a high schooler, lost almost all of its retailers. She’d drive past once-thriving neighborhoods and wonder, Are people even living here? And she would bicker with her mother, who sought to comfort her by insisting, “Middletown is still sweet.”
Vitori would have none of it. This isn’t any place I could imagine ever coming back to, she thought. Middletown doesn’t feel like a place you can succeed anymore.
As the condition of the city grew more perilous, she started to think of ways she could use her marketing skills to lend a hand. But Vitori, who possesses seemingly unceasing energy and a bottomless reservoir of kindness, soon realized there was only so much she could do from afar. And what good was marketing assistance, she reasoned, if there wasn’t a vibrant economy to market?
Instead of resigning herself to another depressing visit home, she persuaded her husband, who was employed as a business consultant, that they needed to put it all on the line: They’d quit their jobs and move to Middletown with their three young sons. She wasn’t sure what they’d do to help, but that wasn’t going to stop her. Kimener, who had served two combat tours in Iraq, knew better than to try to dissuade his wife.
They pulled up stakes from Washington in 2015. By the following year, their coastal friends no longer asked “Where?” when they heard the family’s new address. Fellow Middletownian J.D. Vance had published his gripping memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, in which he describes the city’s downtown as “a relic of American industrial glory” and provides an intimate portrait of the struggles of his white, working-class family. The book had rocketed to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list. Television crews and newspaper reporters from all over the world were descending upon Middletown to use it as a backdrop for stories that sought to explain why so many people in the nation’s struggling industrial heartland were embracing presidential candidate Donald Trump.
If there was a moment for Vitori and her husband to run back to Washington and reclaim their old jobs, that was it. But she dug in deeper. She set her sights on a 40,000-square-foot former JCPenney building on Central Avenue in the city’s then-forlorn downtown.
Soon after moving to Middletown, the couple plowed almost all of their savings into buying the building and starting the laborious process of renovating it into a hub of local businesses, including a yoga studio and a gourmet restaurant, which they planned to operate themselves. She hoped the rehabilitated four-story structure, along with a handful of other new businesses nearby, would help breathe fresh life into a dying city.
“I could see a restaurant with a big patio. I could hear people eating outside. I could see a fountain,” she says. “I could envision the vibrancy when I looked at the corner − and to me, that was the answer.”
She didn’t bother with any market research, nor was she worried that she had never run a restaurant or a yoga studio. She charged ahead with the same speed with which she had once fled the city.
“I wanted to see things come to life as quickly as they could,” she says. “I wanted to go all in.”
For most of the 20th century, Middletown drew, rather than repelled, people who hoped to achieve the American Dream. Thousands upon thousands of people migrated to the city. Some, like J.D. Vance’s grandparents, came from the mountains of Appalachia. Others, like Vitori’s great-grandparents, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and kept traveling west to avoid the discrimination that Italian and Irish immigrants faced in older, coastal cities.
They were lured by ample opportunities for employment. A dozen paper factories lined the banks of the Great Miami River. In 1900, the American Rolling Mill Company opened a manufacturing plant on a vast tract; it became the country’s largest producer of rolled steel, with legions of workers toiling around the clock to churn out products used by the automobile and railroad industries.
“This was a steel town, and it was a good place to live,” recalls Wilbur Cohen, the 94-year-old chairman of a metal recycling company that his father and uncle started in 1924.
Armco, as the steel company was known, was a benevolent employer. It offered workers health insurance, life insurance and a generous pension. The company built a large park, sponsored community organizations, and offered college scholarships, though many high school graduates simply followed their fathers into the plant, where they earned salaries that secured them a place in America’s burgeoning post-World War II middle class.
That prosperity, in turn, fueled a vibrant local economy. Restaurants. Department stores. A bustling downtown along Central Avenue.
“We had seven jewelry stores. Four furniture stores. There were haberdashers and ladies’ ready-to-wear,” recalls Dick Isroff, a 77-year-old whose parents opened one of the jewelry stores. “The downtown was thriving ... and there was a real sense of community.”
In 1958, Middletown was honored as an “All-American City” by the National Municipal League and Look magazine, then a large national publication.
“Middletown was the blueprint for what everyone hoped would happen” in the United States, Vitori says. “We had industry. We had great schools. We had great families. There was great retail and entertainment. We really had it all here.”
By the 1980s, however, the music slowed. The paper mills began closing down. Armco, which employed more than 6,000 people at its peak, was cutting jobs. The reasons were no different in Middletown than they were in almost every other manufacturing town in the Rust Belt: increasing automation and foreign competition − forces that would only accelerate in successive decades. The lack of new hiring crippled the city. The furniture and jewelry stores closed. So did the clothiers and the restaurants.
The downtown was nearly abandoned and boarded up before Vitori entered high school. But the mall near the interstate still hummed. Eventually, though, it too succumbed to the atrophying economy, which had been further pummeled by the Great Recession. Aside from a few strips of retail near the old mall, only the dollar stores and pawnshops seemed to be hanging on.
Disability and unemployment insurance helped pay bills in some homes. In others, people found themselves at rock bottom, unable to afford rent − or food. As a salve, some turned to prescription opioid pain pills. And when those became too expensive or hard to get, they sought out heroin or fentanyl from the dealers who ply Interstate 75.
“When we were growing up, the thing that you heard people say is that they wanted to get out of Middletown,” Vance, the author, recalled during a tour of his hometown this spring. “If you grew up here, the way to get up was to get out.”
Once Vitori and her husband took possession of the old JCPenney building, her focus on turning around her hometown narrowed to that single structure.
From the outside, the boxy, red-brick edifice spoke to the city’s past glory, not simply because it had been a busy department store, but because a four-story mural on the east facade depicted pioneer settlers and barges on the river. Inside, however, the building was anything but majestic. The roof leaked, the plumbing was decrepit, and carpet needed to be ripped out on three of the four floors.
The structure cost them $145,000. Renovations, they figured, would run past a half-million dollars − a “bigger bite of the apple than I realized,” she says.
Schedules were another challenge. They had wanted to open their comfort food restaurant, Gracie’s (named after Vitori's grandmother), in February. Construction and investment delays pushed the first dinner service to the summer.
“We had done a few home remodels in the past, but this is a completely and totally different thing,” she says. “The commercial construction game has been eye opening. It’s definitely not an HGTV show.”
They were encouraged along the way by a small cadre of local entrepreneurs who were also taking significant personal financial risk to resuscitate the downtown. There was Lydia Montgomery, a former dental assistant, who opened a smartly curated boutique called Society. Heather Gibson had started the Triple Moon Coffee Company, which is packed in the mornings and afternoons with everyone from high school students to retirees. Before long, a vacant storefront was turned into a wine bar. Another housed an artisanal leather goods shop and a bicycle store with microbrews on tap.
Montgomery and Gibson recall people discouraging them from trying to build their businesses downtown. “You’re insane,” Gibson was told. “You need to go somewhere else,” Montgomery was admonished. That only emboldened them.
“To get Middletown to the place everyone truly wants, even the people who speak negatively about it, it’s going to require people to take a leap of faith,” Montgomery says. “Shopping malls don’t have character. They don’t have charm,” Gibson says before pointing to Central Avenue. “What’s going on here is authentic.”
Middletown’s challenges − high unemployment, rampant drug abuse, a weak tax base, and workers who lack the technical skills now required by the steel plant − won’t be solved with new shops and restaurants along Central Avenue. But Vitori is convinced that those amenities are key to the city’s rebirth: The new employers the community needs, and the skilled workers to staff those firms, will only want to come if they see a livable place with trendy stores and eateries.
“What happens when these big industries that are literally the bedrock of your community go away or downsize? What’s the Plan B? How do we still thrive as a community? I think Middletown has spent almost two decades in shock not knowing the answer to that,” she says.
“When I think about rebuilding a city, rebuilding Middletown, it’s really almost atomic. You can look at bigger movements: new businesses, big buildings out by the freeway, or new industrial parks. And those are great things. And those make a difference. They bring jobs. They bring vitality,” she says. “But there’s so many smaller pieces. There’s so many particles that really have to reverberate through the town, in my mind, to really bring back the spirit of what we’re talking about, in rebuilding smalltown America. And those pieces are everywhere. Those pieces are neighborhoods and parks that need to be cleaned up. They’re small businesses that are enticing to millennials who want to move to an authentic downtown that’s got a leather shop and a yoga studio and a coffee place, and all the things that make a place attractive and alive again.”
Vance, who served in the Marine Corps, went to law school and worked in venture capital in San Francisco before returning to Ohio in the spring of 2017 to invest in Rust Belt entrepreneurs, sees what is occurring in his hometown as a case study in rebuilding small-town America. “One really productive thing folks can do is to make their town the sort of place people want to live in,” he says. “To provide the amenities, the cultural assets that make it a nice place to raise a family.”
To discourage people from referring to her project as the “old JCPenney building,” Vitori rebranded it Torchlight Pass − a passing of the torch, she believes, to a new generation of residents.
For those like Gibson and Montgomery, who planted their stakes along Central Avenue before Vitori, her return from the big city sent a powerful message not only to skeptics in the community, but to other aspiring entrepreneurs.
“Ami and Kevin coming back to Middletown has been a vital part of our revitalization,” Gibson says. “People say, ‘That was a big thing for Ami to leave Washington, to leave her career, and come back home and do this. And if she can do it, why can’t I do it?’”
Although moving back entailed “a big risk,” as she describes it, and a profound change in lifestyle, Vitori, now 43, believes she will get more in return − perhaps not financially, but in myriad other ways: She relishes the sense of community she felt growing up in a small town, and she wants to provide that to her three young boys.
She readily acknowledges that the success of her venture remains “a big unknown,” but she has been heartened by early signs along the street. Gibson’s cafe had a line out the door on its first day. The wine bar is shoulder to shoulder on weekend evenings. The yoga studio has been busier than she expected, and a hair salon in the building is almost always booked.
“When I saw, a few Fridays ago, that all the bars were packed − you couldn’t get in, you couldn’t get a drink − it just fills me with this sense of more encouragement,” she says. “You feel like you’ve found that wave and you’re riding it. You just know you’re in the right place, at the right time, and that’s a really good feeling.”