Ward 6 debate focuses on students, revitalizing downtown

Kate Bigam

Nearly a dozen people gathered last night to hear Beth Oswitch and Tracy Wallach, candidates for Ward 6 councilwoman, discuss issues facing the neighborhood and the City of Kent.

The audience, gathered in the library of Walls Elementary School, comprised Ward 6 residents, current councilors, and members of the League of Women Voters, which moderated the open forum.

Discussion focused primarily on two age-old Kent issues – student/resident relations and the city’s economic prosperity.

Ward 6 resident Jane Gwinn said it’s important for City Council not to view students as the enemy.

“If the students are being perceived as, we only want their money and we’re glad when they’re gone for the summer, I think that really is a turn-off to them,” she said, encouraging the council to recognize students’ involvement in the community.

Wallach, a mathematics instructor at Kent State, said education is the key to solving problems between students and residents, especially on streets where late-night parties are a common resident complaint. She suggested instituting a community “Welcome Wagon” program to greet student renters when they move in.

“They’re more likely to be respectful of the properties and the area if they know who the neighbors are,” she said.

Incumbent councilwoman Oswitch disagreed, saying it should not be the city’s job to remind students to obey the law. Furthermore, she said, students are not as problematic as they are perceived to be.

“Students get a bum rap, but the overwhelming majority of our campus occupancies are well-behaved and orderly,” she said.

She added that students would feel more integral to the community if there were more for them to do in Kent, spurring discussion about the local economy.

“Why would a business want to move to Kent?” asked Crain Avenue resident Rob Dinehart, citing a lack of activity downtown.

Oswitch replied that university towns are a “hot commodity,” and Kent’s historical downtown area is an attractive option for retailers. The diverse population and proximity to the river provide additional appeal.

“We have a lot of these demographics everyone’s looking for right now,” she said. “We just have to capitalize on it.”

Both candidates showed support for the Main Street Kent program, which each has volunteered her time for.

Wallach, who has served on the program’s steering and design committees, expressed hope that Kent State’s new president, Lester Lefton, will be both cooperative and enthusiastic about revitalizing the downtown area.

“When the downtown is looking good, he can get some prime faculty he wants to get at the university,” she said.

Still, Oswitch said council should focus on improving citywide business as a whole, not just downtown, and cited the recent departures of Giant Eagle and the Rich gas station on Main Street as economically problematic for Kent.

At the end of the forum, Dinehart said he is concerned about the city’s future. A 37-year resident of Kent, his job requires him to travel, especially to other college towns such as Oxford, home to Miami University.

“I’ve seen successful towns,” Dinehart said, “and I don’t see this being very successful.”

Contact public affairs reporter Kate Bigam at [email protected].