PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Ribbons of steel, rubber opened Portage highway

By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published:

The mayor of Youngstown had to use wire cutters to snip the ribbon. The mayor of Akron probably had an easier time doing the honors 50 years ago when Interstate 80-S opened in southern Portage County.

The celebration that took place on July 1, 1964, highlighted both industrial cities -- rather than Portage County -- because the dual four-lane highway was constructed as a connector route for them. So Mayor Anthony Flask of Youngstown and Mayor Edward Erickson of Akron did the honors while other dignitaries, including county officials and the mayors of Kent and Ravenna, watched from the sidelines.

There were two ribbons to be cut: Mayor Flask severed a ribbon of steel while Mayor Erickson snipped a ribbon of rubber.

"Industry and business will flow into and through Ohio as a result," the Record-Courier observed as the highway now known as Interstate 76 opened.

The east-west highway travels through four townships in Portage County -- Brimfield, Rootstown, Edinburg and Palmyra -- following a route through rural communities that, in some instances, divided farm holdings and left parcels landlocked.

The 12-mile stretch that opened 50 years ago cost $4.9 million, the equivalent of about $37 million today. Funding for the highway was made possible through a $500 million highway bond issue approved by Ohio voters as part of the Rhodes administration's efforts to spur industrial development in Ohio.

The initial Portage County leg of the highway extended from Tallmadge Road in Brimfield (better known as County Highway 18) to S.R. 14 in Edinburg. The next link, from Edinburg through Palmyra to S.R. 627, opened a year later. The final link to Youngstown onward to the Keystone Highway in Pennsylvania followed.

The mayors of Akron and Youngstown extolled the benefits of the highway linking their communities, which were still industrial hubs a half-century ago. Mayor Erickson said that the "economic health" of what was then known as the Rubber City was tied to highways.

Clifford Newhall, Division 4 engineer for the Ohio Department of Highways in Ravenna, predicted that industry would be "flowing back from Pennsylvania into Ohio" once the final leg of 80-S was completed.

The economic fortunes of Youngstown and Akron took a downturn in the decade or so that followed the opening of 80-S. Youngstown's steel industry began shutting down in the late 1970s, sending that city into a tailspin. The rubber industry in Akron followed suit in the 1980s. Both continue to recover and reinvent, but the days when they were centers of industry and manufacturing are long gone, giving way instead to the "Rust Belt" tag.

For Portage County, the opening of 80-S mirrored the opening of the Ohio Turnpike a decade earlier, as rural communities in the northern part of the county were transformed by the ribbon of pavement and overpasses.

Like the opening of the turnpike and the Ravenna Arsenal a generation earlier, 80-S took a toll on the local property tax duplicate. More was to come, too, as construction of the West Branch reservoir and state park project in eastern Portage County began in earnest.

But while the two cities the highway was aimed at connecting faltered, the construction project did spur growth in Portage County that otherwise would not have occurred.

The S.R. 43 interchange at Brimfield became a travelers' destination point, as motels, restaurants and service areas flourished there, and the once rural community became one of the fastest growing in Portage County.

Development on an even larger scale was destined for the S.R. 44 interchange in Rootstown, which became the site of the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine -- now NEOMED -- which opened its doors in 1977. The medical school was formed as a consortium of the Kent State University, the University of Akron and Youngstown State University. The Rootstown location -- once the site of the Bryan Jones farm -- with its convenient access to the interstate proved to be the perfect spot for the three universities to meet.

The highway hailed as a regional transportation breakthrough appears to have lived up to expectations, but the grand opening didn't come off without a slight disappointment.

Several motorists tried to put 80-S into service before the opening ceremony, the Record-Courier noted. They "were turned back the way they came."

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