Deadline near to bring shopping to downtown Kent

Adam Milasincic

Local business leaders are pushing to make Kent the 33rd Ohio city to join a nationally renowned economic development program that has injected thousands of jobs and millions of dollars into small towns across the country.

The National Main Street Program capitalizes on cities’ historic districts and architectural quirks to create high-end shopping zones where decaying storefronts once stood. Backers of the program say it brings $27.41 into communities for each $1 invested, and local Main Street organizers want Kent to seize on that equation.

“Kent has such a unique and charming downtown that it seems like a natural fit to get into the Ohio Main Street Program,” said Dan Smith, executive director of the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce. “While we have some bright spots on Main Street, there are also some challenges.”

A 17-member steering committee of Kent merchants and preservationists has until Oct. 6 to submit a “book-sized” application that will determine the program’s local adaptability, said Mary Gilbert, a current city employee who’s been tapped to head the local Main Street project if it materializes.

Kent City Council is set to finalize its financial commitment to the program tomorrow, and Gilbert said Main Street organizers will learn whether their application has been accepted before Thanksgiving.

Officials at Herit Ohio, the statewide organization that oversees the trademarked Main Street approach, will vote up or down on Kent’s application by mid-November. With a favorable outcome, the program would kick off locally by Jan. 1.

“We think Kent would make an excellent Main Street program,” said Joyce Barrett, director of preservation for Herit Ohio. “The density and the involvement of the community looked really nice.”

Barrett and other Herit Ohio staff members visited Kent in August to assess the town’s chances for admission into the exclusive program. Organizers look for communities with significant volunteer activity, a cluster of historic buildings and a financial commitment to hiring full-time staff, Barrett said.

“The application process isn’t a competitive one against other communities,” she said. “The selection committee reads the applications about the community’s readiness to succeed. They read that and say, ‘These people are ready to come into Main Street.'”

Gilbert said Kent’s program has a target budget of $75,000 per year, most of which would pay for salaries and administration. Local Main Street branches are established as non-profit corporations, and costs typically are divided three ways among city government, participating businesses and fundraising events.

Kent City Council voted Wednesday to preliminarily approve a financial commitment from the city. Taxpayers’ contribution would be to continue paying Gilbert’s salary as she leaves her current position in the city economic development office for a new one as executive director of Kent Main Street.

Main Street backers say university towns are particularly poised to benefit from the program. In Wooster, the program is funded almost entirely by contributions from the College of Wooster.

“One of the challenges (in Kent) was that here you have this architecture school and very distinguished programs at the university that haven’t been absorbed into downtown planning,” Barrett said. “It’s just funny that here you have access to this academic resource, and the community isn’t taking advantage of it.”

In Kent, the Main Street program aims to bring to fruition a long-time attempt to attract Kent State students and faculty to the downtown business district across state Route 59. Existing efforts have yielded some benefits, but the Main Street tag will attract more customers for businesses – and more new stores for shoppers, Smith said. The target area is bounded by Crain Avenue, Haymaker Parkway, Lincoln Avenue and North Mantua Street.

“Taking it to the next level would be getting an official designation from this group,” he said. “It opens us up to a lot more grants and programs. The big thing is to attract investment.”

Herit Ohio employees present the program as a nearly surefire method for economic revitalization, pointing to success stories in the other Ohio communities that participate. A recent land-use study showed an “eye-catching” 4-percent jump in sales tax revenue for Darke County, the home of Greenville’s Main Street program, said Herit Ohio spokeswoman Brooke Pawlak.

“The only explanation is, in consultation with locals, that seven years ago, half of downtown Greenville’s storefronts were vacant,” Pawlak said. “Now, every storefront is occupied due to Main Street. A Wal-Mart only generates a 1 to 2 percent boost. A downtown Main Street program easily has twice the impact of a Wal-Mart.”

The program’s four-fold focus consists of organizing Main Street – with a management strategy similar to an upscale shopping mall – advertising city businesses, enhancing the physical appeal of aging buildings and guiding the flow of development to establish a locally appropriate mix of shops. For Kent, that is likely to mean a great variety of restaurants and stores that cater to student tastes, Gilbert said.

“I see a much higher critical mass of people downtown, which will have several spin-offs,” Gilbert said. “The first year we’re going to be really finding our way, setting a work plan and educating businesses about what the Main Street program is and them educating us about what their needs are.”

Contact public affairs reporter Adam Milasincic at [email protected].