Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership Sharpens Focus on Economic Development
by Melissa Ray '01

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.

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A 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.)

"The 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.

"Remember, 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.

The 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.

"We 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."

The 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.

Finally, 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.

"Obviously, 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.

College 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.

According 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 consensus vision.

"We've 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."

Town-Gown Scholars
Oberlin 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.

"This 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.

"The 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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