MANCHESTER, Ohio — Shandra Irwin recalls a time when Second Street in the Village of Manchester was a vibrant place to walk, dine and shop.
"At one point it was bustling, it was busy, it was one of the busiest places in the entire county," Irwin said.
Today, it is desolate. Just a few businesses, like the Eight Ball, open for a few hours each day.
It’s painful for Irwin, who was born and raised in Adams County.
That’s why she’s spearheading the HGTV Home Town Takeover campaign. HGTV is looking for a town of less than 40,000 people, that has historical homes and buildings and has a Main Street area that needs a facelift. Irwin said Manchester checks all three boxes.
“Everybody wants to see Manchester come back,” she said.
She’s right. On our visit to Manchester, we met people who witnessed the decline firsthand. They’re wondering if the town will ever bounce back.
Power plant closures
Joel Hanson recalls the day he learned Dayton Power & Light was shutting down operations at JM Stuart Station. The power plant sat just outside Manchester.
“It was a rainy, dreary, gloomy day," Hanson said. "Perfect for what was going on."
The JM Stuart Station closure followed the closure of the Killen Generating Station just one month prior.
“There was a plant on each side of the town so this was the central location for contractors and employees,” Hanson said. “You stopped here and got your gas before you went to work, you stopped here to get donuts to take in, you stopped here and got food when you got off work on your way home.”
Hundreds of people lost their jobs. Hanson clocked out for the final time on June 21, 2018. A 12-year career, his dream job, was over.
“Once I got there, that was the job I’d always wanted,” Hanson said. “That job was all I could ever ask for in a job. It was challenging, the pay was awesome, the people there were amazing.”
Hanson said he took pride in his baby blue uniform, even to the last day.
"I took pictures looking out my rear view mirror, looking back at the foggy, gloomy plant,” Hanson remembers of that final day.
Nearly two years later, the pain is still fresh. Hanson has to look away when he drives by the old plant.
“It’s only been a couple years," he said. "I don’t think we’re seeing even just barely the effects of it so far.”
Tragedy strikes Moyer Winery
Hanson’s job at the power plant afforded his wife, Brie, the opportunity to stay home and raise their three children. But with the kids in school, she was ready to go back to work.
“She got a job at Moyer’s, which was a winery down 52 on the river,” Hanson said. “Beautiful, awesome place.”
But Brie's newfound employment didn’t last long.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I was there about two weeks. I got a wake-up call from my mom … She informed me it was on fire.”
The beloved landmark dating back to 1972 caught fire in the middle of the night and burned for hours.
“When that burned, heartbreaking, it was just, how do you replace it?" Manchester Mayor Teresa Blythe said.
Owners Ken and Kimberly Smith struggle with that decision, too. The vineyards are still intact, but they’ve lost so much. It’s a big decision whether or not to rebuild in the same pristine spot along the Ohio River, a decision they’re not ready to make just yet.
What’s left in Manchester
“The only thing that's really left is the school and the facility; it is amazing,” Brie Hanson said.
People are quick to sing the praises of Manchester Local Schools. But even the town’s biggest employer has taken a huge hit as well.
Superintendent Brian Rau said that during the 2014-2015 school year, the district received around $7.5 million in local tax funding. That was before the power plants closed.
Last fiscal year, the school received about $4 million in local tax funding. When you lose that kind of funding, Rau said, you lose students. Enrollment is down about 200 kids.
And because of dwindling enrollment, the district has lost about $500,000 in title money from the state. Fewer students require fewer teachers, which dealt another blow to the district.
“You have to look at some very, very, very good teachers and look them in the eye and tell them they no longer have a job,” Rau said.
The schools are still performing very well, Rau said. He credits teachers with making adjustments to continue to get the job done.
Blythe is also a teacher.
“It's heartbreaking, because you can only do so much and your job, you still have to teach them, they still have to pass that test,” Blythe said. “They're not worried about the test, they're just happy to come to school and they get two meals."
Is this what rock bottom looks like?
“It's only been a couple years," Hanson said. "I don't think we're seeing even just barely the effects of it so far."
Brie Hanson agrees.
"It's a trickle effect," she said. "I'm afraid it's not anywhere like where it's going to get."
But Rau is optimistic about the future.
“Some people might say, is your glass half full or half empty?” Rau said. “I’m just blessed to have a glass and we’ll go from there.”
Blythe said the chatter about the HGTV Home Town Takeover submission has sparked life back into people. Groups have held cleanup events to spruce things up around town.
“We’ve lost so much, so there’s nowhere to go but up,” Hanson said.
The future of the riverfront
The shining star of Manchester sits alongside Second Street, and no one understands the importance of the Riverfront better than Joe Brumley. Brumley owns the Showboat Majestic.
"I knew there would be a market out here for something like that, and especially after the power plants closing and realizing there's nothing going on here,” Brumley said.
He hopes the Majestic could be the catalyst for the revitalization of the Riverboat culture.
“The river is the only thing here that is a solid attraction right now,” Brumley said.
The Showboat Majestic opened for the first time last Christmas with performances for sold-out crowds. Brumley said he’s committed to bringing tourism and money back to Manchester. It’s the same kind of enthusiasm that echoes across town.
"I know we can do it,” Hanson said. "It's not a question of if we can do it. It's a question of, are we going to do it?"
Hanson is optimistic about the future, too.
"The plants closing afforded me the opportunity to go to school,” he said.
Enrolled in Maysville Community College, Hanson has plans for his next career in IT.
And for now, no plans to leave Manchester.
HGTV received about 5,000 submissions for the Home Town Takeover contest. Manchester could hear back about their submission in early March.