Bob Leighty Chats About All Things Merion Village
The Merion Village neighborhood was officially established as such nearly 25 years ago, and has seen huge changes since then. Bob Leighty first moved to the neighborhood in 1988 and currently serves as President of the Merion Village Association Board. We recently sat down with Bob to discuss the history of the neighborhood (which can be explored more deeply this Saturday with the Columbus Landmarks walking tour), some of the ongoing development projects along the Parsons Avenue corridor, and some of the other social events that the MVA hosts to keep life enjoyable on the south side of Columbus.
Walker Evans: Let’s here a little about your background first. When did you move to Merion Village?
Bob Leighty: I was transferred to Columbus from Northeast Jersey. I worked for AT&T for around 100 years and I was transferred in 1984. I moved out east near Reynoldsburg where I worked for a couple years and then bought my house in Merion Village in 1988. My first wife and I found it and loved the idea of an old house and a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. We had no idea anything was called Merion Village down there. There were no signs up at the time, and no Realtors were talking about it, so we just stumbled on to that.
WE: When did the name Merion Village come along?
BL: Well, actually, the name was already in existence. It was registered with the city and the neighborhood association already existed. We are actually 25 years old next year. 1985 is when it was founded, and we are going to have a party of some sort… we just haven’t planned it yet.
WE: I imagine a lot has changed there in the past 25 years.
BL: Oh, yes. My hair was dark back then! Anyway, I first got really involved back in 1992. I’d heard there was a lady, Dorothy French, who was trying to get the organization moving along a bit. When I joined our group was really fairly small… at one point there was half a dozen of us and we met for the reason that most of these volunteer groups meet: to have community litter pick-ups, social events, and also an opportunity to interact with city officials. Going back to your question about the name… the city had recognized this area as Merion Village for years and so we were the official civic association that the city recognized to deal with neighborhood issues. Some of it started with crime issues, and code enforcement, and those issues still exist to some extent today. The neighborhood has changed a lot though, and the revitalization has swept south from German Village. One of the things that drew me to the neighborhood was the diversity. All kinds of people… gay, straight, black, white, green… you name it, we have it. Different levels of income too… truck drivers and PhDs… a nice mix of folks, and I’m hoping we always have that. We had a lot of discussions early on about what we wanted the neighborhood to be. We were just a group of volunteers trying to make it a little bit better of a place to live, make it a little safer and make it a little cleaner. We really were fairly small and our main event was our little annual craft show. Anyway, in the mid 90’s the city identified six different neighborhoods where they were going to do these community reinvestment area programs and they wanted neighborhood community folks to get together and work with the city and their planners to define projects that they wanted to do. Each neighborhood was going to receive about $2 million for various types of projects. Our group had just gotten our 501c3 non-profit tax status. We weren’t really sure what to do with it, but the city was looking for an agency with that status to be the fiscal agent for these projects. That was sort of a “baptism by fire” for us. It was a real learning experience and we did a lot of really good projects with that money. The arch that’s on Mithoff that a lot of people have seen, that’s where that came from. That’s where we first got the funding for our Merion Village Information Center which now our association has taken over and are paying for. We helped 60 low income homeowners do exterior rehab on their houses, helping people stay in their homes and get things up to code and stuff like that. We redid the playground in Southwood Elementary, which has been dug up now because of the expansion… but that’s a good thing. That’s what brought the Community Crime Patrol to Merion Village which was a big deal, that’s a very helpful tool. We have a block watch type entity called our Merion Village Safety Committee, it’s been really successful and we work closely with the city’s bicycle cops and the Community Crime Patrol. It’s been a really helpful tool for not only dealing with crimes after they happen but helping to prevent crimes and sharing information.
WE: You mentioned that when you first got started there were only a small handful of people involved. Have you seen a lot of newer residents and even established residents take a new interest in the neighborhood more recently?
BL: Oh yeah. We do have a paid membership that is $15 per year for an individual. That’s mostly just to show the city and other organizations that we have people who are interested enough to commit 15 dollars. We usually run between two and three hundred members now. It’s not like a private club or anything either. Anybody can come to our meetings, and we will work with everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a member or not, just as long as you are interested in making this neighborhood a little better.
WE: The Merion Village Association puts on a lot of events throughout the year, and the one coming up this weekend is the second annual Landmarks Tour of the neighborhood. I got to attend the first one last year, which was a lot of fun.
BL: Yeah. Your podcast was a big hit:
WE: Can you tell us what’s going to be different on this year’s tour?
BL: That event sort of came out of left field. Columbus Landmarks is a wonderful organization. They were looking to expand their tours and I was contacted last year to see if I’d be willing to lead a tour. We ended up having over 40 people, and it was a lot of fun. They asked us to do it again this year and I started thinking about how different it should be. It’s hard to know if we’re going to have some people repeating the tour this year, or having an entirely new group. One of the things about last year is that we covered a lot of ground. We had a lot of sites because it was hard to limit it to just a few. Our two hour tour ended up being closer to four hours if you went through the whole thing. This year we’re going to keep it to two hours. We are going to go back to St. Leo church because that’s one of the wonderful stories here and the renovations have continued and the church organ restoration is almost done so we will talk about that. That’s one of the key things we’re highlighting. Another one is one of the best and most incredible institutions we have down here, which is Southwood Elementary. That school was built in 1894 and was on the school district’s list to be demolished several times. We worked with the teachers and staff and community folks and convinced the school district not to demolish it. We got it listed on the Columbus Historic Registry and now the school has been renovated and expanded. It is actually two elementary schools merged into one. The kids are coming back, the teachers are in there now, and from what I hear they have boxes up to the ceiling that they’re currently unpacking. We’re going to give folks a peek inside the building on Saturday.
WE: Yeah, last year you weren’t able to go inside since it was still heavily under construction.
BL: The project’s basically done now, so it will look very different on the outside too. This is a really cool project because it’s the best of both worlds. They were able to keep a lot of the original tin ceilings in the classrooms and things like that. At the same time, it’s wired for the future. It’s got some state of the art technology that’s required for new schools, energy efficient windows and all that stuff. It should be a great asset for the community.
WE: One thing that I really liked about the tour were some of the interesting historical tidbits that you won’t know about just from looking at a building. I remember that we went through the Red Brick Tavern which you mentioned used to be Piggly Wiggly.
BL: Yeah, I didn’t even know that until we were pulling our tour information together. I just knew it was an old tavern that had been a lot different things over the years.
WE: I just thought it was really interesting as there are still a lot of Piggly Wiggly stores in the south. I just assumed Columbus never had any because there’s none around today.
BL: It was fun pulling that information together. We have a lot of interesting churches and historic schools too. We are creating a State of Ohio historical marker at Southwoood. The marker will not be up until the fall, but we are trying to help people understand the history and what it must have been like back when German was the predominant language in the neighborhood and they started off with only five teachers. The teacher to student ratio was 50 to 1. This was in the 1890’s which was just a totally different world. I live on Fourth Street and my block has a very wide rounded street corner at the intersection at Fourth and Hanford. It was originally built that way because the Streetcars needed the wide angle to turn that corner.
WE: An interesting note for those reading… we’re actually conducting this interview inside a historic 40-year old restaurant in Merion Village: Tee Jaye’s Country Place. This was the original restaurant, right? Any plans for a stop here on the tour?
BL: Nothing official planned but there’s no reason there can’t be an informal biscuits and gravy afterparty. I love coming here. This restaurant is a great cross-section of humanity. I had a best friend who passed away two years ago, and for ten years we came here every Saturday for breakfast. We actually came here the day I got re-married six years ago and my wife had snuck in early and decorated our booth. I walked in and everybody was grinning at me and I had no idea what was going on.
WE: Very nice! Speaking of special events, you just hosted the 10th annual Merion Village Garden Tour as well. How did that go this year?
BL: It was a blast! We had a great turn out. It’s just amazing that it pulls people from both the neighborhood as well as all over the region. I like it because it’s always been a free event. You don’t have to pay to get in and see these beautiful gardens. We always end up having the event on the hottest day of the summer, but this year it wasn’t quite as bad as in the past.
WE: Can you give us a quick rundown of some of the other annual events?
BL: Sure. One of the big ones in the fall is our Crafters and Artisans Market. That’s our longest-running event. That takes place on Saturday, October 10th from 9am to 3pm at Gates Fourth United Methodist Church. It’s a wonderful church where we hold several of our events. We have our annual pasta dinner there, and we have a potluck there around the holidays too. We also have a holiday light tour and a cookie sale at the end of the year. Our organization is a mix of social events and serious issues. For example, we’ve been working with Kroger on their Parsons Avenue store. Kroger came to us over a year ago and said they were thinking about adding a fuel station. We told them that we’d like to see them clean up the store first. We vote on taking stances like this, and while the city doesn’t have to follow our recommendations, they still look to us as that valuable neighborhood barometer. This Kroger store was built a little over ten years ago, and it was a state of the art store at first. It was really let go for a while and cleanliness and maintenance issues surfaced. To Kroger’s credit, we talked with them about this for about a year and they they really stepped up and made some major improvements. We all eat, and we need access to good, clean food. I think it was eye opening for Kroger to come to our meetings and hear the number of people who said that they lived very close to the store and either drove to the Giant Eagle in German Village or the Kroger in the Brewery District. Anyway, Kroger has gotten more involved, joined our association, and we have been told that there is a multi-million dollar renovation coming. We worked with them on the design of the fuel station, so that will be coming soon too. This is the kind of issue where you can never get everybody happy with the final outcome, but we had a lot of good discussion, so it’s going to be done with a design that fits the neighborhood, and that’s what it’s all about in the end. For those of us wanting to see the revitalization of Parsons Avenue, having a really good quality Kroger there is important. I think it will help stimulate development in the area. There’s some big stuff coming, so it’s good to see Kroger making this kind of investment here.
WE: Yeah, definitely. The whole Parsons corridor has really gotten a lot of planning steam behind it, it’s just a matter of kind of getting things moving. We just did a Columbus Underground happy hour a few weeks ago at Hal and Al’s on Parsons, which has been open for around three months now.
BL: I didn’t make it there that night, but I heard great things about the event.
WE: It sounds like the management and staff there are excited about being part of the neighborhood. What do you think it’s going to take to get more people to take a chance on opening a business on Parsons… or even just coming down to patronize some of the existing businesses?
BL: A friend of mine always says that neighborhoods are built one house at a time, and one business at a time. When you see somebody doing what they’re doing at Hal and Al’s, that’s wonderful inspiration and they are showing that you can pull a crowd there. If you offer a quality service, people will find it and people will come. We’ve got places like Plank’s and Tee Jaye’s that have been here forever and some other little neighborhood spots that are great too. The impact of Nationwide Children’s Hospital adding 2,000 new jobs is going to have a huge impact on Parsons Avenue.
WE: Children’s is doing a lot of residential work around it as well.
BL: Yes. There is an enormous amount if housing being done east of Parsons and that’s great, because it’s in all of our interests to have these neighborhoods around us improve as well. Our son and his girlfriend live in Vassor Village. That’s a wonderful neighborhood seeing some improvements to housing and the old Techneglas site redevelopment. I do some community work south of Merion Village too. I’m the President of the Board of the Southside Learning and Development Center down on Reeb. That’s a neighborhood that has had a lot of challenges, but there is great potential there at the old Schottenstein’s site. You have about seven acres there that the city is looking to redevelop. It’s going to take some time, but it will eventually happen.
WE: If it’s not already apparent, you seem to be a pretty busy guy with various groups and organizations. Are there any others that you wanted to mention?
BL: I’ve been involved in some other groups like the Council of Historic Neighborhoods. I get involved sometimes with the Southside Area Commission. I’d say those are the main ones I’ve been involved with in terms of being a volunteer.
WE: I should probably also mention that I recently noticed that Merion Village is now on twitter (@MerionVillAssoc).
BL: Yeah, one thing that we really are looking to do more of is social media outreach. We have our website, but are also now on Twitter and Facebook. Twitter has been helpful with getting the word out on some of our crime prevention issues.
WE: Good to hear! Well, thanks again for taking the time today, Bob! Always great to learn about new progress in the neighborhood and get these updates from you.
BL: No problem! Thanks for having me.
More information about Merion Village can be found online at MerionVillage.org.