Downtown development creates low unemployment rates and economic growth

Tyler Goddard

Businesses in Kent see an increase in the economy as the city finished 2011 with an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent and Portage County finished at 7.2 percent unemployment rate.

Only 17 counties had lower unemployment rates than Portage, and the downtown development project has played a huge role in the achievement.

Dan Smith, Kent economic development director, said the university has played a factor in the trend.

“Kent State University is an economic engine, and enrollment is at an all-time high,” Smith said.

The city unemployment rate peaked at 8 percent in July at a time when the student population is usually diminished for summer recess.

“You can see the influence of students on the central business district and in the entire community,” Smith said.

  • The city of Kent finished 2011 with an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent, and Portage County as a whole finished at 7.2 percent, while the state ended the year with a rate of 8.1 percent, and the national unemployment rate was 8.5 percent.
  • Among the 88 counties, Mercer County had the lowest unemployment at 4.9 percent and Pike County had the highest at 14.3 percent. The lowest city unemployment rate in the state at the end of 2011 was Dublin with 4.7 percent.

Smith said that because Kent is a college town, entrepreneurism is embraced more than in other areas.

“I think there is a place for both chain stores and the local entrepreneurs, and there needs to be a balance of that,” he said.

The current downtown project is worth $100 million, and an estimated 700 to 800 temporary workers are doing construction in the area.

Lori Wemhoff is the executive director for both the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce and the Central Portage County Visitors and Convention Bureau.

She said the increase in jobs can be attributed to the positive attitude regarding the economy.

“Buildings are being built, and that equals jobs,” Wemhoff said. “The buildings will eventually be filled with employees, which equals tax income.”

Wemhoff said businesses are already experiencing success as a result of people shopping local.

“We’ve heard from local business owners that the recent holiday shopping season was amazing for them,” she said. “People were shopping local, and that’s what we’ve been encouraging.”

Mike Beder owns Water Street Tavern and is also co-owner of Tree City Coffee and Pastry. He said the renovation has renewed interest in downtown Kent and things are on the upswing. “We saw the need and the market for a local coffee shop that had some local connection and values,” Beder said.

He said as an added bonus to the shop, the drive-thru window offers a service that no other coffee store offers in the area.

Smith said he doesn’t expect the economy to slow down anytime soon.

“I see us moving forward and coming out of the current recession quicker than other areas,” Smith said. “I think the key indicator was that the unemployment rates are lower in Kent.”

Wemhoff said she only sees the economy getting better as well because more businesses are still going to be opening.

“People will come downtown to check out the new places and shop at the businesses they’ve patronized over the years, eat at the new places and get their favorite eats at the longstanding restaurants and eateries that help make Kent so unique,” she said.

Beder said the downtown development will encourage more jobs as well as improve the economy overall, which he described as predominantly an evening economy with the bar crowds.

“That night-time business will always be there, but there will be renewed interest in downtown Kent with more people working and will fulfill more needs of the customer,” he said.

Wemhoff said another positive for the Kent economy will come from the employees themselves.

“They will need places to eat and shop at lunch or after work— that means revitalized revenue for downtown and area businesses,” she said.

“There is a positive vibe in the area that things are looking up.”

Contact Tyler Goddard at [email protected].