Residents: revitalize downtown for wider appeal

Kate Bigam

Nearly 50 Kent residents, business owners and students gathered at the Kent Stage last night to discuss their hopes for the downtown area – hopes that will soon become a reality if Mary Gilbert has her way.

Gilbert is executive director of Main Street Kent, a local non-profit branch of the Ohio Main Street Program, which is designed to revitalize downtowns across the state.

Under the Ohio Main Street Program’s guidelines, Main Street Kent must design a strategic plan that lays out strategies for bringing about economic change downtown. The goal of yesterday’s forum, Gilbert said, was to gather input from the community about what people would like to see happen downtown.

“How can we write a strategic plan if we don’t know what the businesses need and the community needs?” Gilbert said, calling the forum a “gathering and information stage.”

The Ohio Main Street Program works, she said, because it provides community members with a structured plan and a higher governing body to report to. The program has successfully revitalized downtowns in 39 Ohio cities, including Bowling Green, Wooster and Oberlin, she said.

Many of the community members in attendance agreed that Kent needs to create a niche market by opening businesses not found in neighboring cities. Among the suggestions for new businesses downtown were: whole foods stores, a full-service bookstore, a kayak and bike livery, art galleries and coffeehouses.

Others at the forum, such as Kent resident Karen Barrett, encouraged the Main Street Kent board of directors not to ignore businesses already in existence.

“I think there are a lot of great businesses downtown at present,” said Barrett, who co-owns City Bank Antiques on South Water Street. “I’d like to ask why people don’t support them more, and I’d like to see Main Street promote them.”

Gilbert said the downtown business owners she has spoken to all say they want one thing – more people.

“They want more positive customers,” Gilbert said. “There’s a lot of good businesses, they just don’t have enough people to go to them.”

Kent resident Ruth Freeman said bringing more Kent State students downtown should be a top priority.

“We don’t have anything the kids want because we don’t have any shops they’re interested in going to,” Freeman said, encouraging Main Street Kent to use marketing and advertising to spread the word about downtown activities to students.

Junior hospitality management major Kristen Reitz, who said she rarely goes downtown, agreed downtown could use a boost.

“It’d be nice, because when your friends come to visit, you have something to do, somewhere to go instead of sitting in your dorm,” said Reitz, who attended the forum as part of her Dynamics of Leadership class.

Gilbert said the Main Street Kent board of directors will take residents’ suggestions into consideration when composing the program’s strategic plan after attending a leadership seminar in February. Once a plan is developed, individual committees will begin to work toward carrying it out.

And although some residents expressed concern that, as in the past, the discussions of revitalizing Kent would result in very little action, downtown resident Harriet Begala expressed confidence that Main Street Kent could make residents’ goals a reality.

“All these are things we can do ourselves now that we’re talking about it and thinking about it,” Begala said, “and I hope it’ll be in the near future.”

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