When Ami Vitori was a teenager, she couldn't wait for the chance to leave her hometown.
And when she finally did, she never thought she'd ever look back.
After all, Middletown, Ohio may once have been called the "American dream" for being a bustling Rust Belt town home to a prosperous steel company and dozens of paper mills, but it had long since lost its way.
By the 1980s, it had turned into a shuttered wasteland. Due to increased automation, jobs fell away. Drug addictions soared. Many townsfolk could barely afford their rent anymore. And by the time Vitori was in high school, the mall by the interstate was one of the only signs of life.
A storefront in Middletown, Ohio. All photos provided by Starbucks.
It's no wonder that when graduation rolled around, Vitori made a beeline for college out of state.
But even though it was easy to leave her hometown behind, it wasn't so easy to forget about it afterward.
Middletown's worsening state kept tugging at her heartstrings even after years of living in metropolises like Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
Every time she visited family members who still lived there, she was struck by the deterioration. Some neighborhoods she frequented as a kid appeared to be completely uninhabited.
"As I saw things fall on harder and harder times, I knew I wanted to do something with impact," Vitori says.
By the time she was married to Marine Officer Kevin Kimener and living in Washington with three sons, Vitori could no longer stand what the town had become. After all, Middletown was a part of her, and she simply couldn't let it wither away like a forgotten relic.
Together with her family, she decided to take a risky leap: She moved back to Middletown to try to save it.
Vitori with her three sons.
Vitori had a successful marketing firm in D.C., but she wasn't sure how that could be useful to a town that practically had no economy. That is, until she turned her gaze to a 40,000-square-foot abandoned building that had once been a JCPenney in the center of town.
Somehow she immediately knew it was the key to revitalizing the whole area, and the couple sunk most of their savings into buying and refurbishing the old building. The goal was to have it become home to a variety of different businesses.
"I wanted to see things come to life as quickly as they could," Vitori says. "I wanted to go all in."
Sanding floors in the old JCPenney.
They had never done construction and remodeling on such a large scale before, and the experience was more than eye-opening. Altogether, the refurbishment looked to cost over half a million dollars, and Vitori had no idea if it would pay off in the end.
But she had a vision right from the start. "I could see a restaurant with a big patio," Vitori recalls. "I could hear people eating outside. I could see a fountain." She knew the building could become the bustling hub Middletown so desperately needed.
They pushed onward.
Thankfully, they didn't do it alone.
Inspired by Vitori's bold endeavor to breathe life back into the town, several other locals with similar entrepreneurial drive took the leap with them and opened up shops of their own.
A former dental assistant named Lydia Montgomery opened a trendy boutique called Society. Another local, Heather Gibson, opened up Triple Moon Coffee Company, which quickly became a popular spot for people to gather and mingle.
"People [are] looking and saying, 'Well, if [Ami] can do it then I can do it,'" Gibson says.
Together, they all rolled up their sleeves and got to work. And, sure enough, over time, things started to look brighter.
Vitori renamed the old building Torchlight Pass in the hopes that it would inspire the next generation of locals to pick up where they left off and keep the Middletown revitalization going strong.
Today there's a wine bar, a yoga studio, and a hair salon, all of which are thriving even in their early stages. Gracie's, the comfort food restaurant Vitori opened inside Torchlight, has impeccable reviews.
So far, Middletown seems to have embraced the changes with open arms.
Vitori with her sons talking to locals by the coffee shop.
Vitori knew her venture wouldn't have been possible without this community that was willing to take a leap into the unknown with her.
"The answer to the small-town problem isn’t just jobs, and it isn’t just restaurants," Vitori says. "It’s all of it. It’s community building and cultural support. It’s that accessibility and connectedness that makes you feel like you’re really part of where you live."
You can resurrect the American dream in a town. You just have to take that first uncertain step together.
Learn more about Middletown's transformation here: