Main Street Makeover

Brianne Carlon

Main Street Kent to make immediate, long-term impact on downtown

City officials hope the Kent Main Street program will attract business and improve downtown. DAVE YOCHUM | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: John Proppe

After much studying and paperwork, Mary Gilbert is finally ready to pick up the scalpel and slice open her first patient. She hopes it will come out with a much younger, vibrant appearance, replacing the old, haggard one it has now.

She’s not a doctor. She is director of Main Street Kent, and her job is to give Kent’s downtown a facelift. Through this program, she’s going to fill vacant buildings, get rid of eyesores and encourage public and private investments in the downtown area.

“Downtown consistently ranks near the top of every ones’ top priorities,” City Manager Dave Ruller said. “I guess it’s showing signs of its age.” Even fourth graders have given presentations about how to revitalize downtown, he said.

What to expect

Although downtown will not strut a completely new image for about five more years, residents can expect to see improvements immediately, Gilbert said.

“We need people to understand this is a long-term project,” she said. “This is not going to happen over night, but I think we can have some small successes this year, even if it is a couple new businesses or a couple new events.”

Ruller said results are already being revealed to some extent.

“People are calling and saying, ‘Tell me more about it,’ and, ‘Maybe I’m interested in moving my store there,'” he said. “Word of mouth has started already.”

“Shops and restaurants were the biggest requests,” Gilbert said. “Stuff you can’t get anywhere else that people would actually drive to Kent to get to.”

Ruller agrees that downtown needs more shops, and there are many opinions of what should be put downtown.

“People like to see interesting and different shops downtown, and we have a good start on that,” Ruller said. “We just need more of a mix, more reasons for people to be downtown.”

Don Schjeldahl, vice president and director of The Austin Company-Facilities Location Group, said he would like to see shops geared toward students.

“Internet cafes. Wi-Fi hotspots. That’s the way it works in other college towns,” he said. “It’s not just going down to drink beer. That does not build a good town.”

Ruller said he would also like to see more places to eat.

“We need some places to eat that are more ‘crossover’ meaning it’s not just students, but everyone would enjoy eating at them, like the Winking Lizard,” he said.

How it will work

The Ohio Main Street Program offers a formula that works, Ruller said. It’s a proven approach, he said. They have a very specific way to revitalize downtown.

“With Main Street, we can’t just write our plan and walk away,” Gilbert said. “We are required to meet that plan and prove to Main Street Ohio and the national program that we are doing something, or they will not let us be affiliated with them anymore.”

The program requires a monthly report. There is also an evaluation every year of the work plan, Gilbert said.

“They are basically going to be our mothers looking over our shoulder making sure we are doing this,” she said.

The program is based on a four-point system: organization, design, promotion and economic restructuring.

“Other than those four points, Main Street does not tell you what to do and they don’t do it for you,” Gilbert said. “They want you to figure out what fits your community, and then they’ll hold your hand basically.”

Gilbert has added a few touches of her own that she feels will truly work for Kent.

“If someone wants to come in and do a business, we are working on helping connect property owners with businesses,” she said. “This property owner has a vacant space. This entrepreneur wants to bring in a business and needs a certain amount of space. I’ve been trying to match them up.”

Gilbert has also been working with the Ohio Small Business Development Center at Kent State.

“They actually help entrepreneurs write a business plan and a marketing plan to help them get started, and once they’re ready, they let me know about them and then I can help find a space down here,” she said.

The Budget

“Main Street recommends a city of our size has at least a budget of $75,000 a year,” Gilbert said. “So we knew from the beginning we would need to raise that money.”

A five-year plan had to be developed for the application process.

“We had to explain where we were going the get the money, what pledges we had, what cash we had, and how we plan to fundraise,” Gilbert said.

The city will pay her $150,000 for two years of work, she said.

“We have funds that are part of our budget that has to do with revitalizing downtown, so we will use those funds,” Ruller said.

There is a budget of about $100,000 a year for two years to support functions, he said.

The city has three programs to offer businesses. Main Street helps those who are interested to fill out applications, Gilbert said.

– Fa‡ade program offers up to $10,000 in grants, $10,000 in loans and $2,500 for architecture fees to improve the store’s frontage.

– Revolving Loan Program helps pay down payments for someone purchasing a building.

– Community Reinvestment Area allows for tax abatement for 10 years on any improvements made to a building that increases its value, inside or out.

Private donations will also help to fund the program. The Burbick Foundation has already donated $50,000 to the cause, Gilbert said.

Odds of success

Schjeldahl said he sees great potential in downtown Kent.

“I think downtowns, in general around the country, where there is a core left, there is a lot of potential, and it is attractive to companies,” Schjeldahl said. “Communities with a downtown are going to do better in the long term than those that don’t have a downtown.”

He also said Kent has many resources, such as the university, good transportation, a river running through it, lots of smart people and a new library.

Gilbert said she feels that Kent is ahead of the game.

“We had Main Street Ohio come up here in August and do a report on our downtown,” she said. “They were impressed with what we already have.”

Other successes

Other college towns have seen great success with the program in the past.

Sandra Hull, executive director of Main Street Wooster, Inc., said she is very pleased with the results of the program in her town, which is the longest-running program in Ohio.

“It was started in 1987,” she said. “I would definitely recommend it.”

Wooster has seen a dramatic decrease in vacancies downtown.

– Vacancy in store fronts:

1987- 42 percent

2006- Less than 5 percent

– Vacancy in second and third stories:

1987- 65 percent

2006- Less than 20 percent

Wooster has also had more than 140 renovations, interior and exterior, 110 new businesses and 52 expansions, Hull said.

Christina Nichols, director of Main Street Oberlin, is a 2005 alumna of Kent State and recommended Kent pursue the Ohio Main Street Program. Oberlin has been a member of the program since June 1, 1998.

“North East Ohio has had so many problems with the economy declining and a lot of the downtowns have really suffered because of that,” she said. “I think this program is one way to help communities enliven their downtowns again.”

The Oberlin program provides resources for events on and off campus, Nichols said.

“There is a big parade on campus that is put on by students, and it is one of the biggest events of the year,” she said. “We might not actually do the event our self, but we will help with publicity and resources like that for them.”

What students can do

Schjeldahl said the university, students and faculty are vital parts of the process.

“Start to demand that the services be put there,” he said. “Unless we start to bridge that connection, it won’t work very well. The university is really important to the health of the town.”

However, Cary James, owner of Stahl’s Bakery, said it is everybody’s responsibility to support downtown.

“People will pick out things they want to see, but they never say ‘I will support by going there and buying x or y,'”

“People want to have a pretty Kent, but if they are not willing to actually come down and buy things from pretty Kent, there won’t be a pretty Kent,” she said. “I think we have to start with our own people.”

James said she would also like people to be more observant of what is already downtown.

“I get so many people saying, ‘I didn’t know there was a bakery in Kent and I’ve lived here for 20 years.’ Well the bakery has been in Kent for longer than you have,” she said.

James also said people who think small downtowns are more expensive need to look again.

“They aren’t always,” she said. “And you got to weigh that against how much gas money you are going to spend and how much time you’re going to spend driving out to Streetsboro and fighting the traffic to get to the mall.”

Schjeldahl said he thinks the Main Street Program is the right thing for Kent.

“Things will get better,” he said. “No doubt about it.”

The Four Points

1. Organization is the building of consensus and cooperation between the groups that play a role in the downtown.

2. Design involves improving the downtown’s image by improving its physical appearance.

3. Promotion involves marketing the downtown’s unique characteristics to shoppers, investors, new businesses, tourists and others.

4. Economic Restructuring means strengthening and diversifying the existing economic base of the downtown.

Information provided by

2007 Main Street Budget

* Rent: $4,000

– Travel (Training sessions): $2,000

– Meeting and conference registration fees: $2,400

– Dues and subscriptions: $1,000

– Copiers and printing: $3,600

– Office supplies: $1,200

– Computer: $2,000

– Phone: $2,400

– Accounting fees: $500

– Insurance: $2,400

– Postage: $2,500

– Newsletter: $4,000

– Marketing/Promotion: $5,000

** Projects: $21,000

– TOTAL: $54,000

* Space was donated so money was saved.

** Projects include hosting special events downtown

Courtesy of Mary Gilbert

Reinvestment Statistics for Ohio

– Total number of communities: 32

– Total $ invested in improvement: $299 million

– Net new businesses: 315

– Net new jobs: 1,820 full-time/1,051 part-time

– Business expansions: 203

– Building rehabilitation projects: 1,118

– Reinvestment Ratio: $27.41 to $1.00

– Volunteer hours donated (since 2000): 188,838

– New housing units created (since 2000): 352

Information provided by

Contact public affairs reporter Brianne Carlon at [email protected].