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Gina Cronley, the Short North’s favorite wizard
by Karen Edwards
© Photos Gus Brunsman III
Gina Cronley, this year's Short North Neighborhood Foundation
Community Leadership Award winner, spends most of her time
serving the needs of the Short North community. "If I could
make time for anything," she says, "it would be painting."
If you can picture the Short North as Oz, the Emerald City – and, really, that shouldn’t be much of a stretch – then Gina Cronley is the wizard behind the curtain who makes everything run, or at least the wizard’s right-hand aide.
• Cronley persuaded a former employer to move offices to the Short North, even though the area was just beginning its renaissance. “I knew it would be worth the risk,” she notes.
• Cronley marks her 10th anniversary this month (January) as a member of the Short North Business Association’s (SNBA) board of directors. Throughout that tenure, she has held every office, “at least once,” she says, and has sat on just about every committee.
• When you think of the Short North does the Mona Lisa come instantly to mind? Thank Cronley. She worked with Bill Welsh, then the SNBA executive director, on creating a Short North brand. “Shop owners told us they were always giving directions to tourists who wanted to see the Mona Lisa mural. We thought it was one of the area’s most identifiable features,” she says. “And because she’s shown sideways, it exemplifies the Short North’s funky, art-with-an-edge spirit.”
• Cronley designed the promotional poster for the very first Holiday Hop. “We still promote it,” she says, “but it has reached a point where we really don’t need to.”
• Cronley helped develop (and continues to work on) the indispensable Short North Guide.
• Cronley was one of the founders of the Short North’s hugely popular “Via Colori” event that takes place every fall.
• Cronley worked with developers on the design for the I-670 cap.
It’s no wonder that, with all of these accomplishments (and these are just the tip of the iceberg), the Short North Neighborhood Foundation decided to award its 2005 Community Leadership Award to this energetic and vivacious woman.
But if you’ve ever stumbled across the bright turquoise building at 20 W. Poplar Ave., just behind the former Functional Furnishing buildings, then you probably know Cronley in a completely different context.
Cronley the business owner
She, and partner Kris Harrison, own Orbit Design, the design-cum-collectibles shop that’s housed in a former carwash. Take note: the word “owner” here is not used lightly. In May, the pair was delighted to buy the place outright after 11 years of renting.
Orbit is one of those quintessential Short North businesses. Sure it’s a little quirky – it’s part design studio, part collectibles shop – but it’s one of those open-door places where family, friends, area residents, clients and other Short North business owners go to exchange ideas, gossip, and catch up on news.
“One of my friends says it’s like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” says Cronley, with a laugh. “There are always people inside talking about every subject imaginable, then someone will pass by the window and shout ‘Hello’ and someone will come up with a collectible they want to buy. From the start, though, Kris and I wanted a place where people could stop by and feel comfortable hanging out with us.”
Orbit Design has frequently thrown open its doors to host an SNBA party or gathering, plus there’s always a huge party there during Holiday Hop. “And it’s a good base for those attending Comfest,” says Cronley. “They can come in and cool off – and use the restroom.”
That doesn’t mean business doesn’t get done here, however. Orbit Design has an international clientele, and they’ve designed everything from menus to signs to logos to T-shirts for such local companies as Longaberger Baskets, the Ohio Historical Society, L’Antibes, Rigsby’s – the list goes on.
Cronley says her partner Kris is the reason she is able to volunteer with so many Short North functions.
“Kris is an incredible business woman,” says Cronley. “Without her, I wouldn’t be able to devote as much time to all the activities that I have.”
Cronley the collector
It’s a wonder, given work and the wizard-like activities she engages in on behalf of the Short North, that Cronley is able to find time to indulge other interests. And yet she does.
She’s involved with both the Italian and Victorian Neighborhood Societies, as well as Friends of Goodale Park, Friends of Doo Dah, and the Short North Neighborhood Foundation.
This fall, she went on an architectural tour of Spain with a group of friends, including a couple of architects. “The only thing better than the Short North is Europe,” Cronley says with a sigh.
Then, there’s her collecting bug.
She and Kris are avid collectors of ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s memorabilia, and it’s not unusual to find the pair at tag sales, flea markets or auctions on a given weekend, tracking down the rare treasure.
Cronley is partial to bottle-cap figures and memory jugs.
“They’re jugs that people have covered with small trinkets and items that mean something to them,” explains Cronley. “They’re like mosaics, really. Works of art.”
Such a piece would understandably appeal to the Columbus College of Art and Design graduate. Although she majored in advertising art, she enjoys oil painting, ceramics and creating mosaic folk art. Not that she has time to do any of those at the moment.
“If I could make time for anything, it would be painting,” Cronley says.
But that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. After all, the Short North is, if nothing else, a place of constant surprise, and always in need of some attention.
“The place has really developed since we moved into the area,” Cronley says. “It’s been a huge transformation.”
Dark, blighted, boarded-up buildings have given way to new businesses and, lately, the condominium building that’s taken place in the area has helped shore up the streetscape, filling in gaps. “This area of High Street is one of the densest in the city,” Cronley notes. And she says she’s pleased to see that, during the last Gallery Hop, the northern part of the Short North was as busy as the south.
But that level of activity means someone has to keep an eye on the Short North – even if it’s to make sure it continues to live up to its potential.
Cronley the field producer
Take this past spring, for example.
The SNBA received a call from someone in New York City. Cronley agreed to return the call and learned that producers from TV’s Style Network were going to be in town shooting a “Fashion for Less” segment. Experience Columbus had referred the producers to the Short North as a possible location site for them.
“The first thing they wanted to know was what major retailers we had in the area so they could see some of the clothes beforehand – like at the Gap and Old Navy,” Cronley recalls. “I knew we were probably going to lose their business, but I told them I was actually quite proud to say we had no major retailer in the area, just independent stores with a collection of eclectic but fashionable clothing at various prices.”
She went ahead and sent the producers a packet of information about the Short North – including a CD and DVD about the area, the Short North Guide, and various pamphlets put together by some of the area clothing stores.
The producers were sold and made arrangements to shoot in the Short North the first week in May.
“I took them everywhere,” says Cronley, “modern dress shops, vintage shops, everywhere.”
Consequently, the Style Network producers shot two segments in the area. One featured “Vintage fashion for less” and the other was “Fashions for less.” The latter, explains Cronley, focused on business-like clothes but with a cutting-edge appeal.
The “reveal” party, where the outfits put together by the producers were presented, was hosted by Columbus Dispatch fashion writer Marshall Hood.
“It was great exposure for the Short North,” says Cronley. And because the Style Network frequently reruns its programs, there are chances for even more exposure.
“It’s funny though,” Cronley reflects months after the fact. “Some of my friends never knew about it “
Cronley the award recipient
If Short North events sometime escape her friends, you can bet there are few, if any, Short North events that escape Cronley’s attention. She’s there for everything from Via Colori (“It’s a huge event now,” she says) to Gallery Hops.
And last month, during Holiday Hop, Cronley helped judge entries in the first-ever pet parade pageant. “It was all dogs this year, dressed in some real Christmas finery,” she says.
And yes, Cronley is qualified to judge. She once owned an Afghan hound, as well as a mute cat. “She tried and tried to meow, but nothing ever came out.” Now she says she’s lobbying for a studio cat.
“Kris is a cat lover too, and we’re sure to have one some day, but we’ve just been so busy,” she says in what could be considered classic understatement.
Ironically, Cronley sent reminders to invitees to attend the Short North Neighborhood Foundation’s Community Leadership Award dinner – never dreaming she’d become the evening’s star attraction.
“I was honestly surprised,” she says. “I walked in and saw my family there, but I thought maybe I was being thanked for some promotional work I’d done. It never occurred to me that I might be the award recipient.”
Yet how could she not be – this Short North wizard?
Some day, maybe during a Gallery Hop or an evening at one of the area dining spots, you’ll find the Short North humming along, busier, livelier, more eclectic than ever. You’ll see the signs for new condos going up; maybe you’ll stumble across a business, shop, or gallery you haven’t seen before.
Maybe you’ll even pass by the turquoise building on Poplar Street and find the crowd inside more animated than ever.
If so, don’t be surprised.
After all, the Short North wizard is at work – and she’s busy creating a fantasy place to live, work and play that could rival the Emerald City of Oz itself.
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