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The ornate 1878 Licking County Courthouse is the centerpiece for Newark Square, the revitalized historic district in downtown Newark, Ohio. The city of 50,000 in central Ohio has been successful in bringing back people and business to the area. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
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Hit the Road: In Ohio, historic Newark Square comes full circle

It’s noon on an early-June Tuesday and it’s standing room only at Elliot’s Wood Fired Pizza Kitchen & Tap in downtown Newark, Ohio.  It’s been only a handful of days since the state’s governor lifted all pandemic restrictions, and it looks like Elliot’s patrons are devouring deep-fried portobello mushrooms, Italian-Cuban sandwiches and street tacos with pre-pandemic abandon.

It’s not just the end of pandemic restrictions that account for lunch-bunch enthusiasm. Elliot’s and other restaurants in Newark Square also are reveling in this historic district’s comeback. Throughout the last decade, this central Ohio town of 50,000 in Licking County has brought people and businesses back to its core with freshly painted, multi-use buildings, new roundabouts and hardscape, abundant, colorful flower pots and hanging baskets, and a refurbished, National Historic Landmark courthouse that serves as the square’s centerpiece. Come the day after Thanksgiving, the ornate, 1878 building is illuminated with thousands of LED lights and becomes the focus of holiday celebrations.

“This all didn’t get here by chance,” says Jeff Hall, Newark’s three-term mayor whose focus has been to transform Newark Square into a thriving social and business space. A Newark native who returned to the city after a 24-year hiatus in Florida, Hall worked in his father’s shoe store on the square — now a thriving coffee shop — and is the town’s biggest cheerleader.

Denison University’s new Michael D. Eisner Center for the Performing Arts in Granville, Ohio, brings all of the school’s performing arts under one roof. The facility provides the latest high-tech environment for students of dance, music and theater. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

“(Before renovations) we solicited professionals for ideas,” says Hall from his second-floor office that overlooks the square. “We gathered groups and asked them what they wanted.”

What residents got were “more trees and green space than we had before … and (second-floor) lofts that support the businesses. Weekdays used to be dead, but now there are waiting lines at restaurants.”

Including places like 1922 on the Square, owned by a fourth-generation restaurateur whose mouth-watering seared sea scallops with risotto and Moroccan Harissa Chicken are not standard Midwest fare. Still gotta have your pierogis? These are served with local vegetables from the nearby farmers market and a thyme velouté sauce.

Business is so good at Snapshots Lounge in nearby Granville that owner Lucas Atwood built an addition and will open a second restaurant in Newark Square.

“The day we broke ground for the addition we had to shut down because of COVID,” he tells us, but “Granville supported us through the pandemic (with takeout), so we were able to still do business.”

The popular restaurant specializes in “American-style party food — where everyone brings something.”

To that end, most of the reasonably priced offerings come under the heading of “snacks” – Atwood’s version of tapas. The generous portions include such inventions as oven-roasted rosemary grapes (delicious) and vegetable fondue, and extensive sandwich selections. There are plenty of gluten-free and vegetarian items.

On the northeast corner of Newark Square is the Midland Theatre, built in 1928 and beautifully restored in 2002 with an $8.5 million donation from wealthy local businessman Dave Longaberger, founder of the Longaberger basket empire.

“We tried to preserve the era – Art Deco,” says development coordinator Maryann Crist as she guides us through spaces big and small.

In 1964, Newark native Jerrie Mock became the first women to fly solo around the globe. This statue stands in the courtyard of The Works, a unique Smithsonian-affiliated museum where visitors learn about local history, art, science and glassblowing through hands-on exhibits. There is a corresponding indoor exhibit dedicated to Mock and her accomplishments. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

In its heyday, stars such as Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis played here; today, the 1,200-seat theater hosts such names as Joan Baez, America, REO Speedwagon and Vince Gill.

“We are experiencing a second Golden Age,” says Crist, who clearly loves this building and what it means to the community. And sometimes, like last February, it became more than a theater.

Social distancing requirements could not be met at the courthouse across the street for a trial that involved a robbery that escalated to murder. With its spacious auditorium and stage, the historic theater fit the bill. Suddenly, the stage hosted a real-life drama.

“There were 20 officers stationed all over the theater,” remembers backstage technical guru Robin Pickenpaugh as he brings up video of the proceedings and recalls seeing the defendant brought in through a backstage door.

After less than a week, the two defendants were found guilty of multiple charges.

Four blocks south is The Works, a unique Smithsonian-affiliated museum where kids and grownups can learn about local history, art, science and glassblowing through hands-on exhibits. Visitors learn that Licking County was so named for the nearby Licking River and salt licks, places that attract animals (and humans) because of naturally occurring salt deposits. The county also claims the largest deer population in Ohio.

“This building is the former Scheidler Machine Works,” says Janice LoRaso, a former California resident who eventually returned home. “We are preserving the industrial heritage here.”

The Works not only is jammed with exhibits indoors, but offers a serene, green and free outdoor courtyard that features a statue (and corresponding indoor exhibit) of Jerrie Mock. In 1964, the Newark native became the first woman to fly a single-engine plane solo around the world.

A short drive to the west is the National Heisey Glass Museum, the repository for a mind-bending collection of Heisey glass in an expansive, three-home complex that reflects Victorian, Arts and Crafts and Colonial Revival styles. The museum also is headquarters for Heisey Collectors of America, 1,300 members nationwide who are passionate about this cut glassware, tableware and figurines, once manufactured in Newark.

The Heisey name may be unfamiliar to some, but they likely will recognize some of the 9,000 pieces of high-quality glass on display at the museum because Heisey glassware, known for its incredible patterns, color, brilliance and clarity, once graced the tables of millions of Americans.

Managing Director and Curator Jack Burriss, a walking encyclopedia on Heisey glass, leads us throughout the maze of rooms and display cases.

“Mr. Heisey set out to make the best tabletop glassware on the market — in both quality and clarity,” he says. “He was 50 before he started the company in Newark and built the first factory. He was very smart at marketing. He put out catalogs even before production of the glassware and created a demand.”

A 15-minute drive west brings visitors to the Licking County village of Granville, a picture-postcard, New England-style burg saturated in history and home to Denison University, a private university (2,300 students) ardently dedicated to liberal arts.

Fine Arts Programming Assistant Marla Krak and Director of the Vail Series Michael Morris escort us through the new Michael D. Eisner Center for the Performing Arts, so named for the former CEO of the Disney Company, Denison alum and generous benefactor. The 108,000 square feet of high-tech performing spaces for dance, music and theater make possible boundless opportunities for students and “allows us to bring all the performing arts under one roof,” says Morris.