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Kent wins award for downtown revitalization project

By Andy Harris
Ohio.com correspondent

College Town Kent
The main office building of College Town Kent. (Photo courtesy of the Kent Economic Development Office)

KENT: The city of Kent received the Ohio Economic Development Association’s 2012 Best Project of the Year award for the ongoing downtown revitalization project that has constructed multiple new businesses and structures.

Kent Economic Development Director Dan Smith attended the OEDA's annual conference in Columbus from Oct. 24-26 and accepted the award on behalf of the city. Because the award recipients for the OEDA's honors are not revealed until the night of the presentation, Smith was the city's lone official representative at the event. To ensure that the honor could be shared with the other parties involved in the process, an official presentation was made at the Nov. 7 city council meeting.

In its submission for the award, the city noted that 32 new businesses have opened in its central business district in the past 24 months, with 20 more expected to do so in the next year.

Winning the award was something that a smaller city such as Kent ordinarily would not be able to accomplish, Smith explained, while competing with larger cities that can attempt projects with bigger budgets and on a wider scale.

"It can be bigger municipalities and nominations come in from across the state," Smith said. "To win best project is an incredibly exciting project for the city of Kent. Normally, we would not be able to compete on that sort of level that would get us noticed against bigger cities.”

In a sense, the award represents recognition for a project that has been discussed and brainstormed about for decades. Smith described the project as an effort that "never seemed to get there," but in 2008, construction began on the core elements of the plan, including the area now known as the College Town Kent block, located at the corner of Haymaker Parkway and Water Street.

Initially known as the Phoenix project, a multi-tenant building housing the Davey Tree Resource Group and Ametek, both with approximately 90 employees on site, was the first major piece that went into place. Public partners for the project include the city, Kent State University and the Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority, with Fairmount Properties, the Pizzuti Companies and the Dunlop family of companies taking part as private partners.

The Davey Tree Resource Group moved into its new office space in mid-July and Ametek opened its doors on Sept. 4.

The concept behind the building, according to Smith, was to use the top floors mostly for corporate offices while keeping the first floor walkable with access to restaurants and connections to existing parts of the city.

"I would say making sure it complimented the existing [area] was the foundation of the project," Smith said.

Part of the benefit the city expects to reap from the project is an increase in tax revenues. Previously, the block where the office building is located was generating approximately $52,000 annually in taxes. With the renovations and repurposing, that total is expected to increase to $725,000 or more. The biggest beneficiary of this rise, Smith says, will be Kent City Schools, which received $39,000 in tax revenue previously and should see that total increase to $215,000 annually.

The remainder of the tax revenue will go toward paying bonds sold to pay for the sewer, water and electricity elements of the project. Total cost for the project is estimated at $12 million, with $7 million coming from tax-incremental financing.

Next on the timeline for the revitalization project is construction of a 300-space parking structure. A hotel and conference center is also on the horizon, with a targeted opening date of June 1.

"The hotel and conference center will be a boutique hotel, with 96-units, that will not be franchised," Smith added. "It will be branded in that it will be called the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center and owned by the KSU foundation."

Smith estimates that the revitalization project is 65-70 percent complete and should be almost entirely finished by the end of 2013. The total investment in the project is expected to be $106 million, with 950 construction jobs created and 700 permanent jobs resulting from the process. Those figures include new restaurants opened as part of the College Town Kent block, including a Panini's sandwich shop and the new Yogurt Vi shop on South Water Street.

Another key aspect of the project will be the KSU Gateway-Esplanade, a walkway that will connect the western edge of the KSU campus to downtown and in Smith's view, create "an important link between 28,000 students and 3,500 faculty and staff."