Middletown’s gains through struggles highlighted in documentary

Nearly a decade ago, Forbes Magazine identified Middletown among America’s 10 fastest-dying cities.

This week, Middletown is back in the national spotlight as its revitalization efforts will be among 11 communities featured in season two of "Upstanders," an original Starbucks series. The episode is entitled "Saving Middletown."

The five-minute film features the story of Ami Vitori, founder of Torchlight Pass, a dining and retail destination, and how she gave up a successful career and tapped her retirement fund to rebuild her struggling Rust Belt hometown, according to Starbucks. The film also includes a number of Middletonians such as J.D. Vance, Ken Cohen, Wilbur Cohen, Heather Gibson and Richard Isroff.

Starbucks is producing the 11 stories from across the nation to prove change can occur when people have the courage to stand up, instead of standing by, and the company said it believes these are the kinds of stories that need to be told.

Through short films and audio books, the stories can be accessed through starbucks.com/upstanders and also are being streamed through partners Amazon Video and Audible. Other “Upstanders” stories focus on support for veterans, the opioid epidemic, juvenile incarceration, refugee resettlement, climate change, and creating economic opportunity and equity

“Ami’s story, and others like it in Upstanders, reveals a different side of America than we often see on television or in our social-media feeds,” said Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Upstanders” executive producer, author and former Washington Post editor. “These stories are set in small towns and big cities, from coast to coast, and they introduce us to people just like Ami who are fearlessly challenging the status quo and making our communities better. We are proud to work with Ami and thank the City for the warm welcome we received when filming this episode in Middletown.”

On Wednesday, city officials hosted an invitation-only screening to celebrate Middletown being portrayed in a positive light and highlighting the work done by many over the years to revitalize the city and the downtown district. More than 40 people attended.

Mayor Larry Mulligan noted that the changes in the downtown area as he looked back to when Middletown was an All-American city in the 1950s and the various challenges it faced over the years since.

“There was a time it looked like a Hollywood movie lot,” he said.

Mulligan praised past leaders such as former city manager Judy Gilleland who envisioned using the arts and entertainment to begin the revitalization, as well as Jay and Linda Moorman of BeauVerrre Riordan Stained Glass Studios, the Pendleton Arts Center, the late Perry Thatcher whose properties helped to bring Cincinnati State’s branch campus as well as the founding the Broad Street Bash, the Windamere Event Venue, the forming of the Community Building Initiative, and trips to Paducah, Ky. and Greenville, S.C. to see how other cities transformed their downtowns. He also noted the city saw 24 businesses open last year.

Mulligan said Vitori, a fourth-generation Middletonian, returned to her hometown and “jumped in with both feet” as she and her family worked to prevent the former TV Middletown building from becoming an eyesore as they created Torchlight Pass.

“It’s a good positive message that highlights the good things about Middletown,” he said. “We’re not without our warts and faults. We still have things to work on.”

Vitori, who is one of five people seeking two open seats this November on Middletown City Council, also credited the people before her who have been working to revitalize the city and hopes this national publicity continues to help Middletown move forward. She said her fellow downtown business owners continue to work together and help each other.

“Lots of people came in the past few years to make things happen,” she said. “I hope this story can continue to grow. It speaks to what other small towns can do.”

Vitori said film crews came to Middletown about four times to produce the story. In March, Vitori said she hosted a dinner with Chandrasekaran and a number of Middletown residents and stakeholders to help tell the city’s story to the producer. Vitori said she didn’t pull any punches, noting that she drove them on “an honest tour” of the city.

Jerry Heidenrich, a local landlord and a city Board of Zoning Appeals member, thought the film was a very positive image of a city coming back.

“It’s recognition of all the good things that are happening in the city,” he said.

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