Ada: Summer ghost town

The main thoroughfare through Ada, along with its sidewalks, is nearly deserted on an early August afternoon. The pace of this village is never exactly frenzied, but summer takes on an even slower feel, as nearly half the village’s populace leaves campus. (Photo by Sara Arthurs)


ADA — The pace in this village is never exactly frenzied, but it’s much slower in the summer, with half the populace away.

Ohio Northern University’s enrollment of about 3,200 students makes up roughly half the residents of Ada. So in the summer, with students gone, life in Ada — never full of bustling traffic — slows down.

“It’s quieter,” said Samantha Mattevi, who works at Tavern 101, a downtown eatery.

She said the place gets a steady crowd of locals, but a lot of students eat and drink there, too.

She’ll miss some of those who graduated earlier this year, and said “I love it” when the students come back in the fall.

Dave Retterer is in his 14th year as the village’s mayor. He is also a retired professor of math and computer science at ONU. The dual role meant sometimes students would come to his office on campus, not because they needed help with a calculus problem, but to discuss something going on in town.

Officially retired, he still teaches occasionally. For years he taught full-time, while also serving as mayor. Yes, it was time-consuming: “But if it’s fun it doesn’t matter.”

Rooster in residence

Census data puts the population of Ada at about 5,900 residents. So “roughly half” are students — and more than that are affiliated with ONU if you factor in faculty, staff and visitors who may come to town because of the campus.

So Retterer said it’s easy to assume that everyone in town is affiliated with the university. Many are. And others who work at, for example, restaurants, owe their livelihoods in part to the university population. But there are other elements to the town’s economy including the Wilson Football Factory and other industrial businesses.

Those who do work in restaurants have learned to adjust to the slower pace of summers.
Susan Fricano, the wife of the owner of the restaurant Viva Maria, said she met her business goals this summer every day but three — but she sets the goals lower in the summer.

During the school year, about 40 percent of the restaurant’s business is students, along with their families who come to visit. Students tend to order carryout more often than they dine in.

“They love the strombolis and calzones,” Fricano said.

And while the stereotype of college students in general is that they just want to fill their tummies as cheaply as possible, students in Ada have a more refined palate, she said.

Dave Retterer is in his 14th year as mayor of Ada. He came to the village in 1979 to take a job at Ohio Northern University, and has lived there ever since. (Photo by Sara Arthurs)

“These kids really enjoy food,” she said.

Brandon Johnson is general manager at Padrone’s Pizza downtown. He has been at the store for four years and enjoys the small-town atmosphere of Ada and how “close-knit” it is.

They have many regulars who live in the village, but during the school year, about 30 percent of their business is students. They hear from alumni out of state who miss their pizza.

There’s a student dinner rush, and a late-night surge in pizza orders. The week before finals is huge, with students fueling their study marathons with pizza.

Townies tend to not eat their pizza as late. After 8 p.m., the town goes dead, Johnson said.

Padrone’s is open different hours in the summer because of this. Johnson said this is common among area businesses.

COSI at Ohio Northern University was closed by the time a Courier reporter stopped by, with a sign in the window saying summer hours were from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Retterer, who grew up outside Marion, came to Ada to take a job at ONU in 1979. He’s lived there ever since.

No, he doesn’t actually know everyone in town. You’d hardly guess it, though, from the number of people waving and saying “Hi, Dave” as he took a Courier reporter through the community.

Still, he said he can, on occasion, walk into Tavern 101 and “not know a soul.”

Retterer said some people may see Ada as the northwestern Ohio version of Cicely, Alaska, the fictitious town in the quirky 1990s show “Northern Exposure.” The show’s credits depict a moose walking down the street.

“The rooster story made it seem that way,” Retterer said.

Villagers this summer have been clucking over a certain rooster.

The Ada Icon reported that the rooster was first seen on East Lehr Avenue in mid-July. He was claimed but then escaped again, becoming a regular denizen of Johnson Street, the newspaper reported. (In his travels, one assumes he crossed a road — but why is anyone’s guess.)

Ada Police Chief Michael Harnishfeger happened to be getting his hair cut the day everyone started talking about the rooster. He mentioned it to his barber and — in perhaps typical small-town fashion — it turned out that the barber was the rooster’s owner.

Harnishfeger said there are fewer calls to the police this time of year, with students gone.

Not that Ada is exactly teeming with crime. Ada was, in fact, honored as one of the 50 safest cities in Ohio in June.

Officers mostly tale “small-town calls” such as alcohol or drug issues, animal complaints or domestic situations. They do get more alcohol violations when school is in session, but Ohio Northern students don’t drink a lot compared to many schools, Harnishfeger said. Still, having fewer people in town, period, during the summer, means there are fewer calls to police.

“The officers here in Ada are dedicated to keeping our village safe,” said Harnishfeger, who has been chief since 2001.

They work hard, he said, to keep it a place where all they have to worry about is roosters.

As for things Retterer has to worry about, he said although people assume it’s just “a quaint little town,” there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes to keep things running. Water and sewer use in town changes dramatically “almost immediately” when the school year ends, the mayor said

A sewer system is a living organism, with bacteria that digest the sewage, and this bacteria population must be managed differently when the population is suddenly much smaller.

Retterer said it’s an example of how, in a town this size, one entity like the university can have a major effect.

Points of pride

Ada measures 2 miles by 2 miles square. It’s a small space, but it’s flat, and flooding has been an issue.

Summer means not just fewer people in town, but a higher likelihood of good weather. So

construction projects that involve closing streets are planned around students’ absence.
One student still in town this week was William Lockhart, a junior majoring in musical theatre.
“It’s kind of like a ghost town, a little bit,” he said.

On the day of The Courier’s visit to Ada, Lockhart was at the university’s Freed Center for the Performing Arts, working on beautifying the box office.

Not many communities the size of Ada have entertainment opportunities of the caliber of the Freed Center, Retterer said. It’s a performance venue for students as well as professionals. Past performers include Rockapella, Micky Dolenz and Carol Channing. The center is decorated with posters of past productions.

Retterer’s son, now 32, worked at the Freed Center as a junior in high school. He had vowed to leave town for college, but when he started looking into theatre programs, ONU “was it.” He majored in international theatre production there, and worked on lights, sound and rigging.

Most ONU students live on campus, but there is a lot of crossover between campus and town.

Students will join faculty and staff in Ada’s “community engagement” soon, doing service projects. Community members come to play disc golf at a course on campus. Retterer said ONU is “generous” with allowing the greater community to use its facilities.

Retterer said churches in Ada attract parishioners from the rural outlying areas. The Hardin County government works with the village on several things, such as grant proposals and emergency preparation. The village itself has a staff of about 24 people, full- and part-time, and Retterer said they are impressive.

Another source of pride is the Ada War Memorial Park. This is one place that is busy in the summer, serving as a venue for things like family reunions. There are places to play tennis or soccer, play structures for children and a band shell. The adjacent pool is officially part of the village, funded separately from the park. Citizens are also in the process of developing a dog park, Retterer said.

This weekend is the town’s Farmers and Merchants Picnic, held at the park. It used to be on a Thursday, and the entire town would shut down — if you needed something, you would go to the park, Retterer said.

The event features rides, an equestrian show, a tractor pull, chainsaw carving and, of course, food. It began more than 100 years ago, making it among Ohio’s oldest festivals, Retterer said.

It celebrates the relationship between the agricultural and commercial communities.

“They rely on each other,” the mayor said.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
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Twitter: @swarthurs


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