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Kent undergoes a major transformation

As a result of Kent's downtown revitalization project, Economic Development Director Daniel D. Smith said the city has added many businesses, including over 50 in the last 30 months. He said the downtown is now "kind of a unique blend of the new and old.” Smith said some of the upcoming and current additions are Panini, Fresco Mexican Grill & Salsa Bar, Georgio’s Pizzeria, Yogurt Vi, 4Cats Arts Studio, Figleaf Boutique, Gracylane (gifts & accessories), Shop 42, Don Palmieri Salon and Spa, Standing Rock Jewelers, Wild Earth Outfitters, Silver and Scents, The Fashion School Store, and many others.

Legal News Reporter

Published: September 26, 2013

When the economic downturn began in the United States over five years ago, many local governments began cutting back, but that wasn’t the case in the city of Kent. Instead of watching their pennies, officials in Portage County’s largest city embarked on a massive downtown revitalization project.

“At the start of the downturn our city was in a state of disrepair,” said Daniel D. Smith, economic development director in Kent. “We had many blighted blocks in the downtown, which had accumulated over a few decades.”

“Our city began going into decline when we lost our industrial base,” said Mayor Jerry T. Fiala, who has lived in the city his entire life. “We were not dependent on steel like Youngstown, but we did have a lot of small rubber factories and machine shops that kept our tax base strong. When they started disappearing, the city began to decline.”

“In a lot of ways we were no different than other urban areas but we had one big asset, Kent State University, which gave us the potential that other places did not have,” said Smith.

With that in mind, city officials began laying the groundwork for a $110 million plus project that is quickly transforming the downtown into a destination for visitors looking to dine and shop.

The public-private partnership responsible for the changes was made up of the city of Kent, Kent State University, PARTA (Portage Area Regional Transit Authority) and three development companies—Fairmount Properties, The Pizzuti Companies and Ronald Burbick, who owns RLB Phoenix Properties.

“It took a coalition of willing and visionary people who could buy into the vision, which swung into high gear in 2008,” said Smith. “All six partners worked very hard together and there were times it looked like we might not be able to move forward.”

But progress it did and today the central business district now boasts three and a half renovated blocks that include 250,000 square feet of mixed-use space and two corporate anchor tenants (The Davey Tree Expert Company’s Davey Tree Resource Group and AMETEK), along with the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center, which opened this summer and offers boutique-style guest rooms and suites, the Phoenix project/Acorn Alley retail strip, a $26 million multimodal transit center and parking deck, a new county municipal courthouse, which is still under construction, as well as an esplanade that connects the western edge of the Kent State University campus to the central business district.

In October, Smithers-Oasis Company will become the third corporate anchor for the project. The global manufacturer and marketer of floral foam, floral accessory products, cellular growing media and post-harvest products will be located on the second floor of the Davey Tree Resource Group building at the corner of South Water Street and Haymaker Parkway. The Davey Tree Expert Company’s main headquarters is located on North Mantua Street in Kent.

“Two of our three corporate anchors have a strong green horticultural theme,” said Smith. “The other, AMETEK, makes electric motors and electronic instruments.”

The Phoenix project was funded by Kent resident Ron Burbick, and is responsible for transforming a section of commercial space along East Main to Erie streets. It includes a pedestrian alleyway lined with shops known as Acorn Alley, which has three phases. The first part opened to the public in 2009, with Acorn Alley II and Acorn Corner getting up and running this year.

Acorn Corner is the site of the former Kent Hotel (or Franklin Hotel), which Smith said had been “a monument to blight” for nearly three decades. It is the new location of Buffalo Wild Wings, and will also house the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce, Marathon Financial Services, The Secret Cellar, a wine bar and jazz club and high-end apartments, among other things.

“In the last 30 months we have added over 50 businesses in the downtown, which is now kind of a unique blend of the new and old.”

Smith said some of the upcoming and current additions are Panini, Fresco Mexican Grill & Salsa Bar, Georgio’s Pizzeria, Yogurt Vi, 4Cats Arts Studio, Figleaf Boutique, Gracylane (gifts & accessories), Shop 42, Don Palmieri Salon and Spa, Standing Rock Jewelers, Wild Earth Outfitters, Silver and Scents, The Fashion School Store, and many others.

“We still have some of our old favorites like Ray’s Place, the Franklin Square Deli and Pufferbelly,” said Smith.

This year construction began on an additional five-story apartment building located Depeyster and Erie streets called The Legend. It will house Bricco restaurant and feature 32 high-end apartments, Smith said. The restaurant will open by the end of the year and the apartments will be completed in the spring of 2014.

Another highlight of the area is the Kent Stage, which opened in 2002 and hosts musical and theatrical performances and film festivals, catering to people of all ages.

“I would say our downtown offers something for everyone, in terms of food and entertainment,” said Smith.

He said the project is generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in new income and property taxes. “The city’s initial investment of $3 million for property acquisition is quickly being repaid. The other $7 million in city funds required to complete the project is being generated from the project through the redirection of new property taxes.”

The downtown transformation also earned the city and university the 2013 Larry Abernathy Award from the International Town-Gown Association in recognition of the cooperation and collaboration between the two.

Kent State’s campus has also been the site of development. The university has been buying properties in the surrounding neighborhood for several years. Officials plan to construct a new $40 million facility for the College of Architecture and Environmental Design along the esplanade extension. Also on the agenda, a new building for the College of Applied Engineering, Sustainability and Technology, as well as the renovation and reorganization of the School of Art.

In addition, Smith said the esplanade extension continues a segment of the Portage County Hike and Bike Trail that links the entire community and the greater northeast Ohio region.

There is also a boardwalk around Kent’s wastewater treatment plant.

“A lot of cities hide their wastewater treatment plants, we put a boardwalk around ours,” said Fiala.

Kent has joint economic development district agreements in place with

Franklin and Brimfield townships. Centennial Research Park along State Route 59 is part of the Kent-Franklin JEDD. It houses high-tech liquid crystal startup companies such as AlphaMicron and Crystal Diagnostics. The city is also home to Kent Displays, another company that works with liquid crystals. Officials support one business incubator on Summit Street in the municipal complex and it is currently full.

“We are working on creating a technology park along Mogadore Road, using a brownfield grant to clean up the area,” said Fiala.

Located in the west central portion of Portage County, what is now Kent used to be the villages of Carthage and Franklin Mills. The area was renamed Kent in 1864 in honor of Marvin Kent who was responsible for bringing a railroad through the town that played a major role in its development.

Kent became known as the “Tree City” in the late 1800s when John Davey, an expert horticulturalist, planted hundreds of trees throughout the city. He is the founder of the Davey Tree Company, one of the corporate anchor tenants in the city. The business is considered Kent’s biggest private employer. Kent State University is the largest employer overall.

The city has close to 29,000 residents plus about 28,000 students when classes are in session.

“When we first revitalized the downtown we thought it would attract about 70 percent of the students and 30 percent of the residents, but what we’ve seen is the opposite,” said Fiala. “Businesses have very strong sales in the summer when classes are out. During the evening, we have a lot of residents congregating in the downtown because it is a very pedestrian-friendly place.”

“We are expecting to see a lot of traffic because of the new hotel and conference center,” said Smith. “The hotel has 94 units and the conference center can house about 300 people.”

With all of the activity, officials were able to avoid layoffs and service cuts.

“We always had a slim crew and when we lost people through attrition we did not replace them,” said Fiala. “We are hoping to enhance our staff in the future because many of our employees are overworked.”

Officials are also using Moving Ohio Forward money and other grants to demolish a handful of properties left vacant due to the downturn.

The parks and recreation department offers a host of activities for residents and visitors, including annual events.

“We have Halloween and holiday parties for both children and adults as well as a tree lighting contest in the downtown where Santa comes down on a train,” said Smith. “Our adult Easter egg hunt last year was very popular.”

There are almost 20 parks in Kent; the largest is Fred Fuller Park, which has over 56 acres. It is located along the Cuyahoga River and includes the Kramer Field Ball Field Complex.

In 2010, Crooked River Adventures, a canoe and kayak livery, opened at John Brown Tannery Park at 100 Stow Street.

“A lot of our parks are neighborhood parks,” said Smith. “We currently have 17 city parks with two more in the planning stages. The Kent State University Student Recreation and Wellness Center offer facilities on Kent’s campus and around town.

“One of Kent’s newest facilities is a fitness center located at 1205 W. Main. It offers many fitness classes like Zumba, kickboxing, circuit training and more to come in the future.”

There are a number of cultural attractions as well, such as the Kent State University Museum, which is located on the campus and a number of sites and districts in Kent are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Children who live in Kent are served primarily by the Kent City School District, with a small portion attending schools in the Field Local School District. Kent State University’s main campus is located in the southeastern portion of the city. The university is known for the Liquid Crystal Institute, as well as being nationally recognized for a number of its other programs.

“The hope is that many of the students being trained at Kent State will become part of our future workforce,” said Fiala.

“We have made a great deal of progress with our downtown, but we’re not done with our revitalization efforts yet. There are still things on the drawing board.”