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To Move His Community Forward, Ohioan Gives Back

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By Tom Konecny, MeetAmerica

Mark Costilow

Mark Costilow, who has dedicated his life to giving back to his community

It’s one thing to love the community you live in. It’s another to show that love by giving back.

Mark Costilow does both quite well, but he admits it takes a lot of hats. He wears so many proverbial hats, in fact, that it’s ironic none of his roles actually require him to wear one.

Public servant, volunteer, entrepreneur, business owner, conservationist, farmer, author, renowned carver – there isn’t much Costilow hasn’t done in historic Amherst, a charming northern Ohio city (pop. 12,021) where he’s led by example for nearly three decades.

“I like to stay busy,” said Costilow. “If I’m not busy, I think I’d be bored.”

You can’t slight city hall

It didn’t take long for Costilow to find happiness in Amherst. He grew up in nearby Florence, Ohio but moved to Amherst upon marrying his wife Cheryl in 1989. From there, two love affairs began.

The first was when he and his wife started their lives together and had their two children:  Luke, now 25, and Audrey, now 24. The second was when he learned the value of giving back to his community.

“Giving back is what I like to do with my free time,” he said.

That’s what ignited Costilow’s interest in government, such as through serving on city council and on different planning boards. It ultimately led to his election as mayor in 2015, where he’s in the midst of a four-year term.

Mark with his wife Cheryl, daughter Audrey and son Luke

While on city council, Costilow helped develop its first IT department that today has ushered in substantial technology to a community that had been behind-the-times. Thanks to his efforts years ago, Amherst’s scattered municipal buildings are now connected, and fiber optics are more commonplace.

But it wasn’t by serving as mayor that taught him about volunteerism. It was through his work of serving others that led him to become mayor.

“These other things I did taught me that helping the community was an important part,” Costilow said. “A lot of the volunteering I did before taught me how important it was to be a mayor.”

Offering a reel service

Though mayoral work takes up most of his daytime routine, he’s also investing in the town that he’s emotionally invested in. He and his wife happened upon the opportunity to buy the local theater, Amherst Cinema, 18 years ago. Today its humble, yet cozy one screen offers seats for a mere $4.50. That’s pricing which may seem impractical to most movie houses, but Costilow believes in keeping it affordable for families even if it means a little less profit.

Amherst Cinema, the small-town movie theater that Costilow owns and operates.

Costilow is admittedly not a big movie fan, but he’s always behind-the-scenes making sure things are running smooth. He also takes great care to select movies that appeal to everyone, which brings out families in droves.

He’s honored to be the caretaker of the same successful theater he visited as a child.

Second nature

But perhaps the largest way Costilow gives back – both literally and figuratively – is through the sustainability and conservation of land. Both he and his wife and their two adult children own 500 acres of wetland in Ashtabula County along Lake Erie. Working with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, they’ve put conservation easements on the majority of it to protect its future, and they continue to focus on wetlands restoration.

“It’s really important for clean drinking water and the environment,” said Costilow. “It helps the critters, it helps nesting places and for wild animals to live. Wetlands are a natural filter and helps filter it before it gets into Lake Erie. Wetlands help to control that.”

There they also grow and harvest miscanthus, a tall, thick grass once foreseen as a renewable energy source but now more commonly used for paper pulp. Fast-casual chain Chipotle now makes its take-out bowls from miscanthus, according to Costilow.

Hunting and fishing remain two of his pastimes, which make the 90-minute drive to his property a vacation of sorts.

“Whenever I have a day off, or a weekend or afternoon away … that’s usually my vacation,” Costilow said. “Most people go to Vegas or Disneyland; I take my hour-and-a-half trip to Ashtabula.”

Ducks in a row

Hunting and fishing is what cultivated another interest:  duck decoys. Following a close friend’s death who got him interested 25 years ago, Costilow bought his remaining tools and carries on his friend’s legacy. This spirited hobby has turned Costilow into one of the foremost duck decoy carvers in the nation.

Not only does he travel the country to competitions, but his originals have been reproduced and sold commercially. Costilow’s writings about decoys were printed so regularly in magazines that he published a book of his own, and he still ships his creations everywhere.

It’s an art form that can amass $250 to $2,000 apiece for originals, so much that even celebrities, sports figures and major corporations have sought out Costilow’s talent.

Timely priorities

Costilow can’t admit to having more time than anyone else, it’s how he chooses to spend it.

“It’s not that I have time, it’s a priority because I find the time,” he said. “Giving back is what I like to do with my free time.”

Being mayor has bettered Costilow as a person. While working at the theater or on the farm, he does things his way, but serving as mayor helps him to listen to others’ ideas.

Long after he’s gone, he knows he’ll leave a few good things behind – and in good shape for others.

But someone will have to pick up the hats and wear them.

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