Gap widens between downtown Kent and East Main Street business activity

Emily Crilley, Alicia Balog, Alaina Altieri and Megan Brown

Walking through Downtown Kent, visitors can explore, eat and shop at new businesses that have moved to the area, seeing the work the city has done to build up downtown over the past four years.

However, just a few minutes down the road, businesses struggle on East Main Street.

“You can’t really walk here from campus, so it’s kind of far,” said Kaitlyn Oelkers, former manager of Family Video. “People don’t want to walk, and a lot of the younger students don’t have their cars to come down here, so they don’t.”

Economic Development in Kent, Ohio from Emily Crilley on Vimeo.

Kent City Manager Dave Ruller explained in an email that the city, which doesn’t own any storefront properties downtown, works with building landlords to keep track of what places are available in Kent so prospective businesses know who to contact.

“A big part of the city’s mission is promoting economic development, which means we facilitate landlords in any way we can when we get asked to do so, but typically landlords hire realtors to advertise their space and bring new tenant prospects to them,” Ruller said.

Small businesses, such as Popped! and Wild Earth Outfitters thrive in Acorn Alley, wanting to be a part of the downtown atmosphere. 

Gwen Rosenberg, owner of Popped!, said she wanted to be a part of the rebuilding process and have a business in the community.

“Location is a huge part of a successful business,” Rosenberg said. “Having people walk around, shopping, location is always going to be very important.”

Karen Barrett, co-owner of City Bank Antiques, said although the store is dealing with retail sale issues, the problems are more due to inventory rather than customers. 

“The young student population is in awe,” Barrett said. “They love to come here. People do come here a lot. I would say the build up of the community has certainly transitioned pedestrian traffic here.”

And with the completion of the Lester A. Lefton Esplanade last fall, it opened up downtown to more pedestrian traffic from the Kent State campus.

Down on East Main Street

Family Video still sees new visitors every day, but the location could be better, especially if it was closer to the campus and could bring more underclassmen in for business, said Elaina Rehs, assistant manager at Family Video. 

Oelkers said that many underclassmen don’t have cars, making it harder to market to those students.

“We went to this one fair of some sort that we didn’t realize was geared toward the lower classmen,” Oelkers said, “And we passed out about 600 coupons and didn’t get any of them back because they were toward the kids who don’t drive.”

Still, businesses such as the former Ponderosa Steakhouse and Darque Zone Tanning Salon sit empty along the stretch of East Main Street, or State Route 59, leading from Kent to Franklin Township. 

Bridget Susel, community development director of the City of Kent, said the city does not have any current plans for redeveloping East Main Street.

“This area does not have contiguous vacant properties, as was the case with the downtown, so the few vacant commercial properties and/or parcels that are present are considered scattered site in-fill projects and are done as private transactions between the parcel/property owner and the potential purchaser,” Susel said in an email. 

Businesses not technically in Kent

Susel and Ruller both said that some of the area of East Main Street is located in Franklin Township — not directly within the City of Kent limits. 

“It is part of what’s called a Joint Economic Development District between the city and the Franklin Township,” Ruller said in an email. “We work with the township to generally promote economic revitalization in the area as opportunities arise, but unlike the downtown, there are no long-term plans for any major transformation there. Again, it’s mostly in the Township, so they would be the lead on developing any major projects.”

The JEDD is “the result of an arrangement between a township and a city (or a village) that allows them to share the benefits and responsibilities of commercial and industrial development in Ohio,” according to the Ohio State Bar Association.

Kenneth Penix, Franklin Township administrator who serves as the chairman of the JEDD, said the township doesn’t have a lot of money to pay people to determine how to market those properties best, so it relies on business owners to promote their locations.

Question: How’s business?

Karen Barrett, co-owner of City Bank Antiques: “Natives in northeast ohio is a rather a flat market. The young student population is in awe; they love to come here. People do come here a lot. I would say, the build up of the community has certainly transitioned pedestrian traffic here. That does not mean you will have retail sales, and that’s what we’re confronted with.”

Laurie Gumbimer, owner of Silver and Scents: “As soon as school started in session, it took a huge hit.”

Thomas Gavozzi, owner of Bellaria Pizza: “My worry was again being on the second floor, not ground level, was going to be difficult. At first it was kind of difficult trying to get the word out that we’re down here. But this past summer even with the students gone, it’s a destination place for people to come with their kids, and we had a great summer.”

Gwen Rosenberg, owner of Popped!: “Business is great and has been from the get go. It will be three years in January.”

Rosenberg also on how businesses in general do: “Sometimes people want to retire, sometimes people get in to financial trouble in areas of their life, and sometimes they run into medical difficulty. So when you see that a business is closed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that business wasn’t good. Successful businesses close; unsuccessful businesses close. It gets a lot more complicated as to why and the background of it.”

“We really don’t have anyone or any organization within Franklin Township dedicated to helping to market properties,” Penix said. “We really rely on, primarily, the owners of the properties and really, with the JEDD Agreement with Kent, what we look to as maybe piggybacking on Kent’s economic development organization that is specifically charged among other things with helping to improve or helping to provide locations for businesses that are looking to relocate.”

Penix said he tried to market locations to five or six businesses about 10 years ago but never heard a response.

“I think that most major corporations have got a — I want to say — a department or several departments that are dedicated to doing the research in identifying where the potential customers are, how much traffic there are here and how much money people may have in the area,” he said.

Businesses still moving away

Despite the major traffic on East Main Street, the township has lost three or four businesses, due to the economic downturn several years ago.  Additionally, Penix said more businesses have been moving.

“Within our area, there is a lot of movement and interest in the city of Kent with Acorn Alley and all that good stuff, new buildings,” he said. “And I think that businesses want to relocate to that area first. Like we have one of the businesses that is near — the Belleria — came from Franklin Township into Acorn Alley.”

Belleria, which now sits on an upper level in Acorn Alley, originally was located on East Main Street for five years, said Thomas Gavozzi, owner of Belleria Pizza.

“It was difficult because we were a little off the beaten path down there,” he said. “I didn’t attract enough student attention, I think, being that far away from campus. The building was relatively old and antiquated, built in the ’70s, so I had a lot of problems with that with the repairs and maintenance and what not.”

Gavozzi said he saw what was happening with businesses in that area.

“Some of the larger, big bucks-type stores and/or businesses had moved out,” Gavozzi said. “And I had come down and visited a few times, seen what was going on and just wanted to be a part of the vibrant upbringing of the new Downtown Kent.”

So, he decided to move his business. 

“I figured if I came down here, even though it’s going to cost me more, in the long run it won’t because I won’t have to do any repairs on it because everything is brand new,” he said.

Gavozzi said he was initially worried about how business would be after the move to downtown but knew that downtown offers many options for the public. 

“At first, it was kind of difficult trying to get the word out that we’re down here,” Gavozzi said. “But this past summer even with the students gone, it’s a destination place for people to come with their kids, and we had a great summer.”

Hope for East Main Street

East Main Street, however, still has hope as new businesses look into the area due to Kent’s attractiveness and activity.

“I think this is more of a tendency for establishments to come in because of the activity in the city of Kent,” Penix said. “It’s a more attractive area now in total, and I think that most of the businesses left because of bad economic conditions. And now they’re coming back up.”

A new restaurant, Toyko Japanese Steakhouse, is moving into the former Ponderosa location, and this new business will probably help Family Video, Oelkers said. 

“I didn’t know there was a new restaurant coming in, but I would say if people are going there for dinner, they would be ‘Oh, let’s get a movie after dinner,’” she said.

Though his business is no longer on East Main Street, Gavozzi also sees new businesses moving into the old locations as a good sign.

“The more that’s down there, the more businesses will be,” Gavozzi said. “I think, take the chance of moving in down there. So even though it’s competition, you want everything to be full down there because that’s an area where people will go. It’s going to become a destination area like it is downtown here.”

Contact Emily Crilley at [email protected], Alicia Balog at [email protected], Megan Brown at [email protected] and Alaina Altieri at [email protected].