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Kent, Ohio and KSU: A Public-Private Partnership Transforms Downtown
To commemorate the new relationship between the city of Kent and Kent State University (KSU), representatives from both entities dedicated the Partnership Tree on October 5, 2013. The tree is a pin oak that stands in Lefton Esplanade, one of several projects created by a public-private partnership that has brought Kent and KSU closer than they have been in decades. The partnership, which includes the Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority (PARTA) and developer Fairmont Properties, has developed $110 million in projects that socially, economically, and physically connect the blue-collar town of more than 30,000 with the school of approximately 27,500 undergraduate and graduate students located just east of downtown. The developments have also increased the city’s tax base, provided residents with high-quality rental housing, and reversed decades of decline in Kent’s downtown. Today, according to city manager Dave Ruller, the relationship between the city and the university has grown from cooperative to collaborative.
A Geographic and Psychic Divide
The shooting of four KSU students during a demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1970 left lingering psychic scars for both the community and KSU. Then, five years later, the U.S. Department of Transportation built State Route 59, a five-lane highway, to ease traffic. The new roadway discouraged pedestrian access between campus and town and aggravated the town/gown divide.
Downtown Kent slipped into economic decline over the next few decades. The town’s rental housing, mostly built in the 1920s and 1930s and largely used as high-turnover student rentals, fell into disrepair. Meanwhile, other cities in the region such as Cleveland and Detroit faced bankruptcy and widespread blight. Kent’s leaders saw these cities’ decline as a warning sign, says Ruller, but Kent’s residents refused to “go down without a fight.” In 2006, armed with the city’s Bicentennial Plan, which called for better land use and transportation facilities and recognized the city as a “university community,” the city, KSU, PARTA, and Fairmount Properties embarked on a transformation of the infrastructure, housing, transit, and commercial space that would bring the city and university closer together.
Kent Central Gateway: The First Piece of the Puzzle
In the early 2000s, stakeholders from Kent, KSU, and PARTA began working together to establish the need for, and potential goals of, a new transit facility. At the time, the town’s transit station was located on KSU’s campus, did not offer public parking, and lacked space for buses to Cleveland, Akron, and other destinations. PARTA completed a conceptual design for a new bus transit facility in 2007, and KSU commissioned a feasibility study shortly thereafter. With this groundwork in place, the group applied for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Discretionary Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and in 2010 became the first community to receive a grant through the program.
With the $20 million grant and $4 million from the city of Kent, construction began in 2011 on the 210,000-square-foot multimodal transit facility, Kent Central Gateway. The facility, which opened the following year, comprises a 348-space parking structure, a 10-bay area for regional buses, bicycle parking, and storefront retail space. Bridget Susel, director of community development for the city, says the facility was pivotal to the next stage of the partnership’s redevelopment program and downtown’s revival: College Town Kent, involving $30 million in private investment in a block adjacent to Kent Central Gateway.
Fairmount Properties constructed two 3-story buildings totaling 167,000 square feet of mixed-use space within easy walking distance of Central Gateway. The available parking in the transit center made it possible for the developer to secure two primary tenants, AMETEK and Davey Tree, explains Susel. In addition to these companies, the mixed-use buildings house additional office space, and 15 shops and restaurants occupy the buildings’ ground floors.
New Rental Housing and Walkability
On a lot between College Town Kent and Kent Central Gateway, Fairmount Properties added a residential component to the partnership’s program. The Landmark at Kent is a 42,000-square-foot building of 32 one- and two-bedroom loft-style apartments that opened in April 2014. The market-rate apartments, fully leased at the time of the building’s opening and now with a waiting list, are marketed to young professionals, KSU faculty and staff, and empty nesters. Although Landmark’s housing is at the high end of the rental market, no comparable housing is available in the city, according to Adam Branscomb, a project manager at Fairmount. Next to the Landmark, the KSU Foundation and a private partner developed the $15.4 million Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center, a 94-room facility that helps strengthen the connection between downtown and KSU.
Another critical element of Kent’s transformation is KSU’s new Lefton Esplanade, named for KSU’s immediate past president, who helped improve relations between the university and city. The 1,000-foot-long walkway opened in fall 2013 and mitigates the Route 59 barrier that had existed between Kent and KSU. To create the esplanade, KSU spent $8 million to purchase 40 parcels, mostly vacant lots and blighted single-family homes, restoring some and razing others. One of the houses, the May Prentice House, where the first female member of KSU’s faculty once lived, was relocated to front on the esplanade. Now the Wick Poetry Center, the historic building is home to university and public programs, including a new literacy project with Akron Public Schools, further integrating KSU into the community. Also strengthening the esplanade as a place where the town and the university come together will be KSU’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design, a $47.8 million, 107,000-square-foot building slated to open in 2016.
The development partners drew on several sources of federal, private, university, and municipal funding to pay for these developments. The city put $3 million toward the redevelopment and enacted a $10 million tax increment finance district. Fairmount Properties put $30 million toward the project, and the federal government provided a $20 million TIGER grant. The remaining funds came from the Kent State Foundation, the New Markets Tax Credit program, and private sources.
Higher Tax Base and Better Recruitment
The public-private partnership has generated a number of positive results for the city, including several hundred full-time jobs and a tax base that has risen to from $39,000 to $215,000. Just as important, the initiatives have infused new life into Kent’s downtown. Specifically, the partnership has generated additional private investment, including construction of the Acorn Alley II retail and office development and renovation of the historic Franklin Hotel, which now houses a restaurant, the chamber of commerce, offices, and a handful of apartments. Fairmount is also currently in predevelopment on another $5.5 million residential building near the Landmark that will house between 40 and 45 micro apartments targeted to graduate students and young professionals. The partnership’s efforts have also brought outside attention to Kent, winning the 2013 Best Public/Private Partnership Award from Heritage Ohio and the Ohio Economic Development Association’s Best Project Award for 2012.
The recent developments have brought a new level of economic activity to the downtown. Jason Merlene, who has operated Last Exit Books for 11 years, plans to expand, noting "We get a lot more traffic than we used to," including students and people from outside of Kent, "which we hardly ever got before." Adam Nopper agrees; the assistant manager of The Exchange, a downtown shop selling games, DVDs, music, and memorabilia, also observes that customers now spend more time downtown rather than buy something quickly and leave.
Although the university does not yet have metrics, Ruller and Gregg Floyd, senior vice president of KSU, say that faculty and staff report that the revitalized city has helped the university recruit and retain top students and student athletes. Perhaps most important, the cooperative relationship between KSU and the city of Kent has helped reconcile longstanding divisions between the two. “Downtown Kent wasn’t a place you wanted to go,” says Claudia Amrhein, PARTA’s general manager and a KSU alumna who has lived in the city for more than 30 years. Now, she says, “it’s fresh, vibrant, and walkable — the community is embracing the fact that it’s a university town.”
Foluke Omosun. 2013. “Community Event Will Celebrate Successful Partnership Between Kent State and City of Kent,” eInside, 30 September. Accessed 23 February 2015; U.S. Census Bureau, “Quick Facts.” Accessed 16 January 2015; Kent State University. 2015. “Facts and Figures.” Accessed 16 January 2015; City of Kent. 2004. “City of Kent Bicentennial Plan.” Accessed 16 January 2015; Group interview with Kelvin Berry, project manager, Kent State University; Adam Branscomb, project manager, Fairmount Properties; Gregg Floyd, senior vice president for finance and administration, Kent State University; Dave Ruller; and Bridget Susel, director, Community Development Team, city of Kent, 21 January 2015.×
Kent State University Library and Media Services. n.d. Chronology of Events, May 1–4, 1970. Accessed 12 January 2015; City of Kent. 2004. City of Kent Bicentennial Plan, 128, 134. Accessed 12 January 2015.×
University Economic Development Association. 2015. “College Town Kent.” Accessed 12 January 2015; Group interview with Kelvin Berry, project manager, Kent State University; Adam Branscomb, project manager, Fairmount Properties; Gregg Floyd, senior vice president for finance and administration, Kent State University; Dave Ruller; and Bridget Susel, director, Community Development Team, city of Kent, 21 January 2015.×
Group interview with Kelvin Berry, project manager, Kent State University; Adam Branscomb, project manager, Fairmount Properties; Gregg Floyd, senior vice president for finance and administration, Kent State University; Dave Ruller; and Bridget Susel, director, Community Development Team, city of Kent, 21 January 2015.×
Interview with Claudia Amrhein, general manager, Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority, 12 February 2015; Group interview with Kelvin Berry, project manager, Kent State University; Adam Branscomb, project manager, Fairmount Properties; Gregg Floyd, senior vice president for finance and administration, Kent State University; Dave Ruller; and Bridget Susel, 21 January; Documents provided by Claudia Amrhein; Paul Griffo. 2011. “Kent, Ohio Officials Break Ground on Central Gateway Multimodal Transit Facility to Serve as centerpiece for Economic Redevelopment,” press release, 4 April. Accessed 13 February 2015; Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority. 2009. “TIGER Discretionary Grant Application, U.S. Department of Transportation: Funding for the Proposed Kent Central Gateway Multimodal Transit Facility.” Accessed 23 February 2015.×
Interview with Claudia Amrhein, general manager, Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority, 12 February 2015; Group interview with Kelvin Berry, project manager, Kent State University; Adam Branscomb, project manager, Fairmount Properties; Gregg Floyd, senior vice president for finance and administration, Kent State University; Dave Ruller; and Bridget Susel, 21 January 2015.×
Interview with Adam Branscomb, 10 February 2015; Fairmont Properties. n.d. “The Landmark at Kent.” Accessed 23 February 2015. Ohio Development Services Agency. n.d. “Recipients of the Fourth Round of Ohio New Markets Tax Credits.” Accessed 23 February 2015; Danielle DeBord. 2013. “Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center Opens June 14,” eInside, 10 June. Accessed 25 February 2015.×
Kent State University. 2013. “Kent State Esplanade to be Named in Honor of University President Lefton,” eInside, 14 October. Accessed 5 February 2015; Foluke Omosun. 2012. “Kent State University Preserves Historical Building Owned by First Female Faculty Member,” eInside, 27 February. Accessed 5 February 2015; Kent State University. 2014. “Kent State Dedicates the New Home of the Wick Poetry Center and Poetry Park,” eInside, 22 September. Accessed 5 February 2015.×
Interview with Dave Ruller and Gregg Floyd, senior vice president for finance and administration, Kent State University, 19 February 2015; Kent State University. 2014. “Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center Receives Grant to Conduct Outreach with Akron Public Schools,” press release, 15 August. Accessed 5 February 2015; Katie Smith. 2014. “Groundbreaking Scheduled for Kent State’s New Center for Architecture and Environmental Design on Oct. 3,” eInside, 29 September. Accessed 5 February 2015.×
Interview with Dave Ruller and Gregg Floyd, senior vice president for finance and administration, Kent State University, 19 February 2015; Interview with Adam Branscomb, 10 February 2015; Joyce Barrett. 2014. “Downtown Kent Revitalization Project wins ‘Best Public/Private Partnership’ Award at Heritage Ohio’s Annual Awards Ceremony," press release, 23 September. Accessed 5 February 2015; Mady Etzel and Nicole Winkleman. 2012. “Downtown Kent Revitalization Project Wins Best Project Award," eInside, 3 December. Accessed 25 March 2015.×
Correspondence from Jason Merlene, 13 April 2015; Correspondence from Adam Nopper, 9 April 2015.×
Group interview with Kelvin Berry, project manager, Kent State University; Adam Branscomb; Gregg Floyd; Dave Ruller; and Bridget Susel, 21 January 2015; Interview with Claudia Amrhein, 10 February 2015.×