Non-Profits, College, Local Businesses, History Contribute to Downtown Growth

Rosemary Boeglin, News Editor

The East College Street Project has become home to several new businesses in recent months. Although Gary Boyle, City of Oberlin Planning Director, said the city does what it can to make Oberlin attractive to businesses, growth is ultimately in the hands of the private sector. “We set sort of a policy framework and a zoning framework and put the utilities in place to allow certain things to happen, but the private marketplace, the building or property owners and investors, they are the ones that actually do things. It really comes at the initiative of individuals that own property to submit project proposals and have them reviewed by the planning commission, or if need be, city council.”

The East College Street Project is one such instance, as Boyle observed: “In this case, College graduates were interested in community development issues in a broader sense and thought there was an opportunity to do something in Oberlin, and worked hard and long to develop a project and now we have this project that changes the face of a major corner in the downtown district.”

Sustainable Community Associates, a development company started by Josh Rosen and Ben Ezinga, OC ’01, and Naomi Sabel, OC ’02, is the organization behind the East College Street Project. Finished last year, the East College Street Project turned abandoned space into a sustainably designed, mixed-use building housing 33 condos and 20,000 square feet of retail and office space.

Rosen said via e-mail that he hopes that SCA can add to the diverse environment in downtown Oberlin with its Japanese Tansu shop, Asian market, Infinite Monkey, Slow Train Café and Café Sprouts. “I hope for more activity in downtown and more dollars spent locally. I hope we’ve added to the eclectic retail mix that already exists in Oberlin.”

Rosen said that the four goals of the project were to increase the tax base for the City of Oberlin and the Oberlin Schools, create attractive downtown housing, bring new businesses to downtown Oberlin and build a high-performance green building.

The East College Street Project is only one of many ventures to improve the downtown area and make it more attractive to new businesses. The Main Street Program, another one of Oberlin’s initiatives for downtown improvement, is a national program that identifies four particular strategies for encouraging downtown growth. According to Boyle, “The strategies provide sort of an organizational framework for downtown and have in the past been comprised of downtown business people and people interested in downtown. There’s an organizational component, a promotional component to make the downtown known to a wider region and try to bring visitors in; there’s an economic restructuring component, which the intent of that is to encourage vacant storefronts to be occupied, to look at markets that may not be served or underserved and the last one is the historic preservation/design component that really encourages some sensitive approach to buildings.”

Boyle said that a focus on downtown development has been in the works for decades. “As long ago as 40 years ago, downtown has been an area of focus for city planning issues. Part of it is to make sure downtown is a vibrant part of the community. The city did its first downtown improvement plan in the early ’80s, which again identified potential improvements to downtown. This has been an ongoing planning effort by the city for some time to encourage sympathetic development and redevelopment of downtown.”

Part of Boyle’s responsibilities as City Planner lie in posturing Oberlin favorably for city improvement grants. Oberlin has received two downtown revitalization grants in the past decade, one in fiscal year 2003 and the other in 2005. Each brought $400,000 into downtown projects, enabling business owners to make code improvements and address heating, air conditioning and energy efficiency and structural issues.

Boyle said Oberlin has a number of additional attributes that make it particularly attractive to investors and business owners, including the students and College staff that provide a stream of business. In addition to the optimal location, Boyle said that downtown Oberlin itself provides incentives for visitors and customers: “There’s this huge, built-in market right at its doorstep. All the interesting things that are going on at the College, I think is a factor, it’s clearly a big part of the marketplace for downtown. We’re fortunate that we have for the most part an intact downtown, with a lot of attractive, historically significant buildings, that haven’t been terribly altered to lose some of their character. I think that sets the physical stage for business to happen and I think that there are a lot of college events that happen,” Boyle said.

“We have destination restaurants that bring people in from outside of the community; the fact that there’s a small local theatre. There’s a whole host of things that creates something of a critical mass to attract people because they can shop, they can dine, they can go to entertainment venues. I think we’re fortunate in that respect because I think that a lot of other cities in the county don’t have those positive attributes.”

Boyle said that recent developments are an exciting addition to the already exceptional downtown. “We’re very fortunate that downtown is as vibrant as it is, because in most small cities, there are a lot of vacancies. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t suffered from that.”