Lorain Seeking New Strategies For Economic Development

Volunteers prepare FireFish on a Saturday afternoon in Downtown Lorain. [photo: Matt Richmond / ideastream]
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On Lorain’s commercial center, 642 Broadway is a hive of activity on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Teenagers loaded a giant cardboard fish onto a wooden platform sitting on the side of the road. The kids are helping build the centerpiece of the second annual FireFish Festival, launched by James Levin, founder of the Cleveland Public Theatre and Ingenuity Fest. He says the idea is to bring people into Downtown Lorain even if it’s just for a night.

“We're going to be putting performers on fire escapes and balconies, people just have a glow when they see that kind of stuff. It's a different experience than putting a rock band on a stage in a middle of a field,” says Levin.

The City of Lorain has struggled for years as manufacturing there has steadily shrunk and residents moved away. On Wednesday, city officials will hold a public meeting to map the future of the lakeside community and they’ve already begun changing the way economic development is done here.

The festival’s ambitions have also grown in its second year. The cardboard fish that’s being moved out for a test run will be lit on fire in the Black River. Levin’s also looking to buy a building or two along Broadway. Among the shuttered storefronts and neglected buildings, he sees a regional arts destination in this struggling city.

“Assuming that there are cafes and boutiques and theatre and dance here, I think it will draw people eventually,” says Levin.

Others share his ambition for the city, but it’s been an especially rough year for Lorain. The Republic Steel mill shut down. US Steel is down to a staff of a few hundred. A budget shortfall led to layoffs. Standing on a corner downtown, Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer says this has been the toughest year in his public service career.

“So you try to inch your way, you try to get these small victories to get it to where we ultimately want it to be. There's no magic solution to any of this,” says Ritenauer.

And the city has had to be creative. Its community development department was shuttered in 2013. Its director was sent to federal prison. The non-profit Lorain Development Corporation, which had for years administered federal loan programs, was investigated by the FBI and disbanded. So the city has changed how it handles economic development. To do that, it’s turned to the city’s Port Authority. Director Rick Novak says, like the city, the Port Authority had to shift its focus from the industries that long defined Lorain.

“We deal with both the maritime industry, we deal with public accessibility and we deal with economic development as well. And we work hand in hand with the city on trying to revitalize the city as a whole,” says Novak.

The Port Authority can do things the city can’t do, like turn over control of a property to a developer without a public bidding process. Ritenauer says the city took over properties during economic downturns with often unrealistic hopes of developing them when the economy improved.

 “We own dozens and dozens of buildings and it’s not just commercial. I would like to see us sell those to individuals or companies that are going to bring positive to the downtown area,” says Ritenauer.

He says partnering with the port authority, instead of restarting the city’s community development office, was an intentional decision. It’s a public agency, collects a tax levy of about $800,000 a year and has a board of directors appointed by the mayor. It can issue bonds to finance projects and offer tax breaks to developers.

The 530 Shop on Broadway has been in the Oehlke family since 1927. It’s an antique and collectibles shop, the kind you can find in any old town – a surprising collection of furniture, jewelry and old-fashioned signs. Its current owner, Jane Oehlke, worked in manufacturing before going back to school. She’s optimistic about where the city’s headed now.

“It's a turning point. I think we've had enough of how it's been. We're doing what we can, not just me, but the other business owners, to take it forward,” says Oehlke.

The city’s calling its public hearing on a new comprehensive plan A Big Ideas Meeting. It’ll be held Wednesday night at the Palace Theatre in Downtown Lorain.


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