Demolishing or cleaning up and repurposing old or under-utilized industrial sites is a positive strategy for propelling Northeast Ohio into the future so my ears perked up when I recently overheard Portage County Planner Todd Peetz talk about a coalition to represent Portage County as it looks for public money to further that mission.
"Many of these old buildings are eyesores and should be demolished. Others should be cleaned up and repurposed as shovel ready industrial sites we can market," Peetz said.
Peetz pointed out that cleaning up sites and getting them Environmental Protection Agency certified as free of hazardous wastes takes advantage of the fact that most old industrial sites already have water, sewer, electricity and streets.
"Unlike greenfields, we do not have to pay to extend all this infrastructure since it is already there,"’ he said.
The trouble in this process is that public funds to achieve these purposes are scarce. Federal and Ohio funds for rehabilitating old industrial sites may annually be doled out by the millions, but once those millions are divided up among Ohio’s 88 counties, there is not enough to make rapid progress.
Peetz said that NEFCO (the Northeast Ohio Regional Planning and Development Organization that represents Portage, Summit, Stark and Wayne Counties) recently advised representatives of municipalities and townships in Portage County that collaborating to go after the scarce funds would be more effective than each community going on its own. Wayne County is already using a team strategy to advance its search for this type of funding, NEFCO told them.
"Otherwise, the bigger guys like Canton and Akron dominate the funding," Peetz said.
Examples of two victories for Portage County in rehabilitating old industrial sites are the former AMETEK Lake Street site in Kent and the former White Rubber site on Cleveland Road in Ravenna.
The administration of former Ravenna Mayor Joseph Bica secured approximately $800,000 to raze the old White Rubber factory and turn it into an attractive parcel, environmentally certified for new industrial or commercial development.
Similarly, Kent was able to demolish and clean up the 16-acre AMETEK Lake Street site thanks to a Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund grant of slightly more than $1 million obtained from the Ohio Department of Development. Smithers Oasis has since acquired the property from the city of Kent and reportedly plans to construct a warehouse there that will complement its production facility on nearby Marvin Street.
Kent Community Development Director Bridget Susel, who oversaw the successful application to fund the AMETEK project, says that decision-making for funding has since been transferred to an agency that reports to JobsOhio, the economic development unit set up during the administration of former Gov. John Kasich.
JobsOhio is funded by the taxes generated by the sale of alcoholic beverages in Ohio. Although it is taxpayer money, JobsOhio is accorded a shroud of secrecy in specifying how it makes decisions regarding the dispersal of development funds.
"It makes it more difficult to know why an application for cleanup funds is rejected," Susel said, referring to applications her department has made to the state since the change went into effect.
Public money should be transparent so I agree with her and wish the Ohio legislature would take another look at JobsOhio.
Susel said she has also been advised that recipients of funds to clean up old industrial sites must now show the jobs that the cleanup will create. Neither the AMETEK cleanup nor the White Rubber project needed to do this because they occurred before JobsOhio got control. Requiring proof of jobs to obtain a grant might have kept both AMETEK and White Rubber from securing the funds needed. Kent and Ravenna, instead of gaining two prime industrial sites with already built infrastructure, might have been left with two decaying factories and neighborhood blight.
The Portage County Land Reutilization Corporation or Land Bank was set up last year to accept foreclosed upon tax delinquent properties and hold them for resale. Funding, derived from fees, interest, and the sale of property, limits its current activity to handling smaller residential properties. However, Dan Morganti, Lank Bank’s executive director, said his agency might be able to help out in the instances of commercial or industrial properties in tax delinquency when the only hurdle to redevelopment is site control, "in which we would hold the properties for a short time until resale."
Because Northeast Ohio was so successful in participating in America’s industrial growth during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we are now rich in abandoned, decaying, tax delinquent industrial sites. Their demolition, cleanup and repurposing are important. Teaming up to present Portage County’s case for our share of funding seems like a good strategy to me.
David E. Dix is a former publisher of the Record-Courier.