Lorain Awaits $5.5M Economic Stimulus

The Oberlin Underground Railroad Center may be on the docket to receive funding from the state of Ohio.

Effie Kline-Salamon

The Oberlin Underground Railroad Center may be on the docket to receive funding from the state of Ohio.

Elizabeth Dobbins, Staff Writers

Several publicly funded Lorain County organizations are eagerly awaiting the passage of HB 497, a capital appropriation bill that would allot more than $5.5 million to a variety of local infrastructure and construction improvements. The bill passed in the state House last week. If passed through the Senate, HB 497 will allocate $2.4 billion in statewide funding, in part aiding the development of struggling Lorain County.

The Lorain Historical Society, formerly known as the Black River Historical Society, is among the organizations hoping to receive funding as a result of the bill’s passage. For the Society, the bill will mean $500,000 in funding for a projected $3 million renovation of the exhibition space in Lorain’s Carnegie Library.

“I just think public-private partnerships are really important and really gratifying,” Executive Director of the Lorain Historical Society Barbara Piscopo said. “In a time when we’re just beginning to come out of an economic crisis, that the state is willing to allocate some of its funds for education, arts, humanities, cultural development … When times are tough, we tend to forget those areas, but they really are important to the culture of people and to our society, so I’m glad to see that they are being brought into the budget.”

If passed, the bill will not raise taxes. According to the website for Ohio Budget and Management, the funding is derived from the state of Ohio’s biennial Capital Budget, a financial plan enacted in each even numbered year that “provides appropriations for the repair, reconstruction and construction of capital assets of state agencies, colleges, universities and school districts.” Funding for most capital projects is supported through a similar budget, compiled of either the long-term debt issues by the State or by various cash funds. Overall, HB 497 aims to improve higher education, create green spaces, increase funding for the arts and encourage economic development. These changes, according to Lorain County House Representative Dan Ramos, will encourage increased tourism.

“I think those types of things can bring people into our community to see that we do live in a nice place and there are things to do here which could, in turn, not only help the tourism industry but also theoretically [could] indirectly affect whether or not a business wants to locate here, expand here, et cetera,” Ramos said.

The bulk of Lorain County’s $5.5 million will go toward Lorain County Community College’s $4.4 million renovations of the Health Careers Building and SMART Center for Sensor Commercialization. Other projects throughout the county, such as building a Black River Landing Pavilion and renovating Avon Isle, are expected to increase tourism and aid in economic development. The Oberlin Underground Railroad Center, located on South Main St. to the left of CVS pharmacy, is also among the projects potentially funded by the bill.

“There are several key sites and activities and places to visit and learn about the Underground Railroad, but the number one in Lorain County is Oberlin,” Oberlin City Manager Eric Norenberg said. “We think having a facility dedicated to the Underground Railroad Center and the history of abolition here in Oberlin and to the people who freed themselves … that’s an important story.”

The city of Oberlin requested $282,233 to fund the second phase of its renovation of the Oberlin Underground Railroad Center. If passed, the bill will only allocate $200,000, but the city hopes to use those funds to make the grounds available to the public and connect the center to the North Coast Inland Trail bicycle path. Norenberg said building facilities near the bike path and creating the Underground Railroad Center will draw more business to downtown Oberlin.

“Right now if you ride down the bike path, you might cross Main Street and not even think to go left or right and visit downtown and explore Oberlin more,” Norenberg said. “But we really think this bike shelter and rest stop on the bike trail will be a spot where people will … read some information about what’s downtown and people will say, ‘This is really neat, I think I’ll go get some ice-cream downtown or go maybe take a break and do some shopping.’ We think this will be a boost to downtown restaurants and shops.”

The bill, with bipartisan support, met with very little opposition in the Ohio House of Representatives, passing with only two opposing votes. Lorain County Representatives Ramos and Matt Lundy both voted in support of HB 497. Ramos, however, says he has some reservations about the bill.

“I would have liked to see a little bit more equitable funding,” Ramos said. “There were counties that are not as large as ours that got twice as much money, for example. So I think … I would have liked to see more for Lorain County. And my other reservations are basically, I don’t want the administration or the majority to think that, well, we gave Lorain County $5 million in projects, so that’s good enough.”

The state has seen a variety of budget cuts under Ohio State Gov. John Kasich’s administration, and Ramos feels HB 497 will not make up for low funding in other areas.

“I think this is a good thing in and of itself, but I don’t think it’s a replacement for the billions in cuts to very basic services like schools and police and fire, etc., that communities have sustained under this administration,” Ramos said.