Following Decades Of Inertia, Downtown Kent Experiences Rebirth

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Working behind thick plastic sheets to keep the wind out, construction crews slave away in a four-block area in downtown Kent. Cranes and excavators circle the new $16 million Kent State University hotel and conference center. University spokesman Eric Mansfield says the 80,000 square foot facility will open in June.

“98 beds, 300 people for conferences," says Mansfield. "And that’s a real anchor, because of the different things that it can now bring to the community.”

Mansfield also points out a couple commercial buildings housing two of Kent’s largest and most recognized private employers.

“AMETEK, and Davey Tree…and all of this is new here, but the buildings are designed in such a way, y’know, that it ties in to older buildings as…you know, you’ve got this Mediterranean, classy place here on the corner. You’re not seeing a McDonalds, you’re not seeing a Burger King…”

Locals say this is the most expansive and aggressive development ever in Kent’s 200-year history. Guenveur Burnell, a retiree who’s lived here since 1959, says until recently, residents had long-regarded the downtown with resignation.

“My daughter called it Potterville,” she laughs.

Burnell says over the decades, college kids largely stuck to campus, or joined locals wandering off to the malls and night life of Akron and Cleveland.

“Two to three years ago, you would have seen restaurants and bars, and…tattoo parlors! And an abandoned hotel sitting on a corner. The theater was viable. I think a record shop of some kind. But not a whole lot of retail. And somebody would come in from outside and say, “Oh my God, how many tattoo parlors does a town need anymore?”

Redevelopment plans came and went between the 70s and new millennium. Ron Burbick – a retired executive and private investor – says agreement, leadership, and financing never coincided until a few years ago. He himself has plonked down more than $20 million to create Acorn Alleys I and II: walking areas lined with restaurants, shops, book stores, cleaners, and other attractions.

“I started out with the idea of making it more the home town I was used to when I grew up, instead of just a city full of bars and tattoo parlors," says Burbick. "And it’s worked out pretty well. I kinda got the ball rolling, but I couldn’t have done it without a lot of support from the city and the university and others in town, so it’s really been a community effort.”

“We jokingly call this a 30-year, overnight success,” says Kent City Manager, Dave Ruller. He and Kent State University President, Lester Lefton, are credited with wrangling in investors, developers, and lawmakers to get the downtown revitalization off the planning table and into action. The city and university have cobbled together about $40 million in public or federal transit money, and garnered nearly $70 million in private funds. Ruller says getting support came easier once they made their case.

“The trajectory of our city finances was not heading in a favorable direction, despite the fact we had this amazing university, which is really an economic engine in our community," explains Ruller. "It wasn’t by itself, able to sustain the losses that where happening around us in the manufacturing area. So we pitched to council that it was time to get in the game, really.”

Lefton, while acknowledging the university’s place at the center of this new development, says it was Ruller’s vision that got the ball rolling.

“I have 30,000 students and faculty on campus walking around with credit cards, all looking to spend money," says Lefton. "He (Ruller) recognized that the impact to the business community, tax revenues of the city and the state could be enormous, if we do this right.”

Today, the hotel and conference center, and a transit center are nearing completion, while a groundbreaking ceremony was held for a new apartment complex last Friday. An estimated 700 permanent new jobs are projected in a downtown that’s been stagnant for decades.

That’s certainly Jenny Arthur’s take. She co-owns “The Works”…a gift shop that’s been right on Main Street for 25 years.

“It’s incredible. And it’s a noticeable difference," says Arthur. "I think we’ve had our best holiday season ever, just a lot more people from all different areas, too. Not just Kent people coming downtown, but Akron, Cleveland, a lot of Hudson, y’know, that type of shopping.”

And when it’s all finished, you’ll still be able to get a tattoo.

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