Oberlin Partnership Sharpens Focus on Economic Development
Will Oberlin at last become the distinctive suburb of Cleveland
that many have predicted? Will strip malls and traffic congestion
greet visitors to the College? Will population in the City of
Oberlin decline while the surrounding townships sprawl? The
next few years will be critical in deciding whether Oberlin
is able to reap the benefits of growth while enhancing its unique
character, according to Daniel Gardner
'89, director of the Oberlin Partnership.
1970 land use plan in Lorain County predicted a population influx
from neighboring Cuyahoga County that never materialized. The
completion more than a decade ago of a highway spur connecting
Oberlin to Cleveland did not bring the commercial and industrial
development that some wished for and others feared. Oberlin's
population grew by only four people in the last ten years, according
to newly released census figures. So why widen the focus to
include economic and housing development among the concerns
of the College's emerging effort to enhance the town's quality
of life in the Oberlin Partnership? (See "Strategic Alliance"
in the Fall 2000 OAM.)
era of splendid isolation has passed for Oberlin, as it has
for so many small cities," says Gardner. There is evidence
to back his claim. A Cleveland-area developer has an option
on a 125-acre farm just a mile south of Oberlin's downtown.
Neighboring Pittsfield Township will soon decide whether to
rezone the parcel to allow for a 350,000-square-foot retail
development. To gain some perspective on the impact of such
a project, "consider that all of the retail space in downtown
Oberlin combined amounts to less than 200,000 square feet,"
says Kate Reagan, director of the Oberlin Area Chamber of
Commerce and Main Street Program. "Many of our merchants fear
that they just can't compete with a 'big box' retailer."
Meanwhile, New Russia Township, which borders Oberlin to the
north and east, plans to take advantage of a new interchange
between the Ohio Turnpike and State Route 58. A township center
with shops and restaurants--only one mile north of Oberlin's
downtown--is among the ideas incorporated into New Russia's
new land use plan.
Route 58 is Main Street once you get into Oberlin," says Reagan.
"Can this area really support two downtowns, or will Oberlin
suffer?" she asks.
Oberlin Partnership is seeking answers to such questions.
With the backing of President Nancy Dye, the College has set
aside matching funds for a study of the greater Oberlin area's
retail, housing, and industrial markets.
need to know what the land speculators and chain store retailers
know about this area," says Gardner. "That's why we've challenged
the Chamber of Commerce to match our resources to get the
best possible information about what inevitably will happen
in this area. More positively, it allows us to plan for what
we want to have happen."
market study will also provide data on consumer habits and
preferences--information useful to downtown Oberlin's current
retailers. Too, it will help the Chamber of Commerce recruit
more businesses to expand the mix of goods and services downtown.
the study will reinforce other economic development activities
begun thorough the Oberlin Partnership. Under the joint
supervision of Reagan and Gardner, College senior David
Lewis has been studying current and potential links between
the College and area businesses. A survey has revealed a
general willingness on the part of College faculty to engage
with industry if possible.
it is not our mission to support local industries with applied
research. We can, however, hope to create luck by scouting
for those happy accidents which link faculty research with
economic development issues," says Gardner.
students have been active in attempts to stabilize the downtown
retail area. "They bring such idealism," says Reagan, "but
they are willing to get down to the details, too--and the
details of successful Main Street programs are many."
A group of students has formed the Oberlin Design Initiative
(ODI) to focus on the downtown's ecological and economic
sustainability as integrated issues. Having made a favorable
impression in presentations to Oberlin's City Council and
other civic leaders, the students of the ODI will concentrate
on efforts to turn vacant space above downtown stores into
offices or apartments. "As far as maintaining a viable downtown
goes, the more the merrier: more stores, more offices, more
residents, more foot traffic," contends Reagan.
to a 1998 report on the fate of Oberlin's downtown, the
town's prospects can be bright. Few communities have cultural,
historic, and architectural assets that compare favorably
with Oberlin's. Most importantly, notes the report, Oberlin
is a community that genuinely cares about its future.
The challenge lies in rallying various viewpoints to a
got all the parties at the table, but that's not enough.
We need data, expertise, a broadened view," says Gardner,
"and, of course, financial resources. A college such as
Oberlin can access these things, but they are useless
unless we have built a real partnership."
is offering full-tuition scholarships beginning next
fall for qualified graduates of Oberlin High School.
"As part of our commitment to the community, Oberlin
College is contributing its greatest resource--a first-class
education--as an encouragement to all Oberlin students
to pursue excellence and seek a college degree," says
President Nancy Dye.
is the first of several steps that we hope and plan
to take as part of the Schools-College Partnership,"
adds school superintendent James Gray. The scholarship
targets graduates of Oberlin High School who reside
in the school district and meet college admissions requirements.
The Oberlin Scholarship is available to any graduating
senior who has been enrolled continuously at OHS for
four or more years, completes an on-campus interview
with the admissions staff, and meets Oberlin College's
standards for admission. Admission to the Conservatory
of Music will be based on normal evaluation processes,
which include an audition.
College is always willing to talk to prospective students
about their situations and encourages the enrollment
of non-traditional students," says Dye. "If we can help
just one student, that's a success." *
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