It Will Take Hometown Heroes to Fix Broken Towns

EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio -- Greg Bricker is tired of his community looking through the rearview mirror to an idyllic past, rather than looking forward and trying to plot a better course.

He feels this rearview mindset dominates his town, especially the local government.

So after missing the statewide deadline for getting on the Nov. 5 ballot, Bricker went down to the Columbiana County Board of Elections to register as a write-in candidate for mayor of East Liverpool.

Outside of his wife, Katie, he didn't even tell his family. The rest of his family "found out when they read in the local paper," he says with a smile.

Street after street in the neat grid of East Liverpool is filled with stunning turn-of-the-century buildings that are all boarded up.

East Liverpool was once the pottery capital of the world. More than 300 pottery companies competed here to win business all around the country. But since the 1960s, East Liverpool has been plagued with massive population loss and a fentanyl crisis that made national headlines. This is the town where, in 2016, a grandmother and her companion were found overdosing in their car, while her 4-year-old grandson looked on helplessly from a car seat.

Since then, the opioid crisis has ebbed, something Dr. Bob Walker, who stops to chat with Bricker, attributes to heightened social services. But the town continues to bleed.

"I went to a city council meeting this past week," Bricker says, "and they were touting two things that made me realize even more how much we need to change our goals for this city: how we gained 22 people since the last census, and tearing down some businesses and houses that were abandoned."

Bricker is at the deli counter of Bricker's Cafeteria on 6th Street. His uncle Don is behind the counter, putting out fresh-baked lemon and coconut pies with mile-high towers of meringue.

The place is part deli, part grocery store and part old-time cafeteria. Bricker, now 33, worked here throughout his childhood and during summer in his college years.

He married Katie McIlvain, a girl from high school whose family owns the nearby Homer Laughlin China Company. She serves as the marketing manager of this iconic American pottery company that makes the colorful Fiestaware dinnerware. It also makes china used in both the finest restaurants and the coziest diners in the country.

When the Brickers first married, Greg Bricker hung up his shingle (he is a CPA) in downtown East Liverpool, and they both commuted from their home in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

"But we both wanted not to just come home; we wanted to make a difference in our hometown," he says. Since they've moved back, Bricker has become more and more determined to "do something."

He recently bought one of those old buildings to place his business.

He meets monthly with a handful of other civic-minded people who stayed in town and talks about a strategy to help East Liverpool. "Finally, I decided the only way I can bring change is to take the risk and run for mayor," he says.

Bricker is the kind of millennial whom rural places or post-industrial towns dream of bringing back. He's offering ideas and a little personal risk in an effort to lift the town up. He is young, fearless, tactical and dedicated. He serves on five boards in the city including at the Y, the local hospital and the Rotary Club. Towns like East Liverpool need an abundance of Bickers.

He says: "We cannot continue to hold on to that dream of some big employer coming to town and saving us. We've done that for a generation, and that dream has never come true. Instead we need to work on attracting small businesses to our city and working with them as partners for all of our success."

That kind of vibrancy will then make them more attractive to a larger company, he says.

Bricker faces incumbent Mayor Ryan Stovall and at-large councilman Brian Kerr. His challenge may not be as quixotic as you may think; of the 10,000 people who live in the city limits, just over 2,000 voted for Stovall four years ago. In a three-way race, Bricker's quest is far from impossible.

"I knocked on 300 doors last week from a voter list," he says. "Then I just decided to throw the list away. I am going to knock on every door and tell the people some of my plans for the city and ask them how I can best earn their vote."

The first thing he'd like to do is reduce the 20% storefront vacancy rate downtown: "I have to be able to sell this as a place to live and do business. That's our first challenge. It's one I know I can do."

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.