Traditional values; new development
Business View Magazine interviews Matt Miller, Mayor of Ashland, OH, as part of our focus on best practices of American cities.
Ashland is a city in, and the county seat of, Ashland County, Ohio, located 66 miles southwest of Cleveland and 82 miles northeast of Columbus. It was named after the estate of Henry Clay, an American statesman who represented Kentucky in both the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives, and served as the ninth U.S. Secretary of State.
A year ago, Business View Magazine interviewed Kathy Goon, Executive Director of Grow Ashland, the comprehensive economic development arm for the City of Ashland and Ashland County. Operating under a public-private partnership structure, Grow Ashland’ mandate is to strengthen the local economy in the primary areas of business retention, expansion, attraction, and entrepreneurship – in addition to working with the region’s economic base and networking with prospective investors.
Recently, we interviewed Matt Miller, Ashland’s mayor, to follow up on some of the information provided by Ms. Goon, as well as to find out more about the city’s plans for further development. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
BVM: When we talked with Kathy, she mentioned a film company that was planning to relocate from Los Angeles to Ashland, and that Scott Donnelly, owner of Ashland’s Donnelly Ford, purchased and restored a historical downtown building for his movie company, Good Deed Entertainment. Has that occurred?
Miller: “The renovation of the building downtown for the movie studio is complete and they are operating out of their new location on Main St., here in Ashland. The owner of the company, Scott Donnelly, is now the President of the Schine’s Theater organization. Schine’s Theater is an old historical theater that is also located in our downtown. Over the years, the theater was used for live performances; it was turned into a movie theater featuring three screens; and then, for the last two decades, it has been deteriorating, becoming both an eyesore and a public -safety hazard. Scott, along with his wife, Rosemarie, are not only taking over that non-profit organization that oversees Schine’s Theater, they are also embarking on a $3-millon fundraising campaign to renovate the theater. With the help of the State of Ohio, which provided a grant of $800,000 to complete the roof repairs and the installation of a new HVAC system, they have been able to renovate the entire exterior of the building. This year, the goal is to have the interior renovation of the theater complete by December 31, and, wherever possible, take the theater back to its origins with renovations that will match the way it looked many years ago.
“Now, the neat thing about that is, once that project is complete, not only will it serve as sort of a community arts center for the performing and visual arts, but it will also be able to premier some of the films that are produced by the local film company’s production studio. So, we think that, not only will it generate more economic activity downtown, it will also serve as a new venue for various cultural activities related to the arts. So that’s the theater.”
BVM: She also talked about another new addition to the community, Central Ohio Medical Textiles, or COMTEX, which is constructing a $20-million facility that will bring 75 jobs in the first three years and 100 by year five. Any progress there?
Miller: “COMTEX is a state-of-the-art medical laundry facility that chose to be in Ashland, so they could be close to the northeast and central Ohio healthcare systems markets. They did open and they are now up and running and, at this point, have 55 employees, and things are going very well. We’re so pleased that they chose to locate here and, certainly, they are in an industry that is not going away. There are more and more hospitals and healthcare facilities springing up all across our state and nation and there will always be a market for the work they do at COMTEX. So, we believe that place will grow.”
BVM: She also mentioned the Ashland Business Park.
Miller: “We’ve had a number of company expansions in our industrial park. One is Ohio Electric Controls; they are expanding their facility to accommodate additional contracts they have received to produce electric panels, and we also have Lippert Enterprises, which is also looking to purchase additional land at the industrial park, as well as expand their facility, there.”
BVM: Finally, Kathy talked about the establishment of an Entertainment District, where people can enjoy themselves, dine, and shop.”
Miller: “The first major project, believe it or not, that is being developed along the entertainment corridor is a brand new emergency hospital. It is being constructed by Ohio Health – a $14 million project that will bring another hospital type facility to our city. Currently, we have University Hospital; now we will have a hospital brought to us by Ohio Health. And in the area surrounding that, although the construction has not yet begun, we are working with developers to add additional housing, as well as chain restaurants and several retail outlets.”
BVM: So, now that we’re up to date, what else has been going on since last year?
Miller: “What has changed significantly since Kathy Goon spoke to you is we are seeing a dramatic uptick in the development of apartment housing. I’m talking about affordable housing, as well as high-end apartment housing. Currently, we have a 148-unit workforce housing project being constructed within that entertainment corridor. They expect to open this year. We have a second project that is also considered workforce housing – market rate apartments – that is expected to include 60 additional units. We also have a local entrepreneur who is building a project – for the very first time of its kind in our city – a very high-end apartment housing complex. It is designed to cater to the executive individual and it will include apartments in the range of 1,100-1,400 square feet, floor-to-ceiling glass, in-house laundry service, and other amenities. It is one step we are taking to try to keep executives, managers, and supervisors of our local companies living here in our community, rather than travelling in from outside areas.
“One of the reasons that is taking place is because the city council recently approved a new tax incentive for individuals to create new housing subdivisions and apartments here in our community. And here are the parameters: If you’re a developer and you want to build a new housing subdivision in the city of Ashland, and you are going to have 12 or more buildable lots in your subdivision, and you are not receiving any other tax incentive from the state, federal, or local government, the city will give you a 100-percent abatement on your property taxes for the first ten years. If you are building an apartment complex with 12 or more units, and you are not receiving any other tax credits from any other government entity, you will also qualify for a 100-percent abatement on your property tax for the first ten years. And we are already seeing those incentives generate interest and activity in the community.”
BVM: A lot of municipalities that we talk to say that they are implementing strategies to attract the younger generation of workers to their communities. Is Ashland on the same page?
Miller: “The biggest employer in the City of Ashland is Charles River Laboratories. They are a pharmaceutical test company. More than 85 percent of the drugs approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration, last year, were tested, at some point, by Charles River Laboratories. So, they are a very successful and prominent company in that industry, and we’re so glad they call Ashland home. They have more than a thousand employees and when we met with their executive leadership team and asked what our city can do to help them be successful, the first thing they said was, ‘We need more apartment housing and condo living.’ The young folks working at their facility do not want the hassle of home ownership; they want the convenience of being able to go home to a nice, professional environment, and not have the worries that many have with home ownership. That’s why that apartment housing is so important to us.
“Number two: We’re also a university town, and Ashland University, a small, Midwestern, private college is located just several blocks away from our downtown. And one thing that we repeatedly hear is that the college professors and university staff are interested in living closer to downtown, where they can walk to a coffee shop, walk to a restaurant, bike easily to work every day, and that is why, for us, this Pump House project is so important, because they will be mixed-use properties, hopefully featuring office space and retail on the first floor and, perhaps, housing on the second floor. And we’re very excited because at our last official council meeting of last year, we sold the first portion of land in the Pump House District to a local developer who’s planning to construct 32, two-story townhouse apartments at that location. And we really think that that will be the catalyst for more activity.
“Another project that we’re working on: in the geographic center of our downtown there used to stand the world headquarters of the Myers Pump Company that used to manufacture those old pumps that people had on their farms. Obviously, over time, things change and that company was bought and sold, and bought and sold. And even though it still has a presence here under the name of Pentair, that Myers foundry that existed there for so many years – a five-story brick building – was left vacant and deteriorating over the last two decades. And, unfortunately, it was the site of a fire that destroyed much of it, but the rubble remained. At one point, a local non-profit tried cleaning it up, but it ran out of money and willpower, so it remained sitting in our center. Not only was it a terrible eyesore, but it was also a public-safety hazard. This past year, the city took the project by the reins and we have moved forward with the demolition and the clearing of that site. And we are planning to develop that entire area into what will be known as the Pump House District. The Pump House District totals about 15 acres, separated by a street. And we are working with developers to construct additional housing and multi-use properties within that District, just about two blocks north of our downtown.”
“Our population is roughly 22,000 people and each year, we continue to grow by several hundred. Now that we will have this additional housing, we are excited about the possibility of growing even faster and bringing more individuals with diverse backgrounds to our community.”
BVM: Any other recent items concerning development?
Miller: “One major step we took this past year to encourage more economic development in our community, and around our county, is we brought, in-house, the enforcement of the non-residential building code, or, in other words, the commercial building code, so that, when a developer or business wants to build, or expand, or renovate here in the City or County of Ashland, now the only call they have to make is right here to City Hall. Our engineering staff and our inspectors have all the certifications they need to review the plan, and to do the plumbing, electrical, and safety inspections. And what this did for us is turn our plan-review time and approval process around; what was taking more than several months, we are now completing in two weeks. And we are getting widespread accolades from the contractors and developers who do business here because things move so quickly and efficiently throughout the construction process.
“Many times you read stories about a downtown’s turnaround; how investors have poured millions of dollars into the renovation or construction of a downtown building. Last year, in our city, we had eight dumpsters sitting out on Main St. in front of different, old buildings, and I have to confess I have never been more pleased to see a dumpster in my life because every one of those dumpsters represented another renovation project going on. And the great thing is these are not great big, outside developers coming in and doing these projects. In many instances, it’s our own, lone, local citizens and entrepreneurs that are putting their hard-earned dollars into bringing this community back to life. Now the great part is, as that’s happening, outside developers are taking notice and they’re finding that this is a very affordable place to do business; it’s on the beginning of something great and different and maybe they should get involved. And that’s why we’re seeing these big apartment projects and business expansions, and so on.”
BVM: Any last thoughts that you would like to leave with our readers?
Miller: “I have lived in the city of Ashland and the Ashland area all my life, and it’s been incredible, these last two years, to see what is enfolding in this community. We are cleaning up the old and sweeping it away, and in its place we are bringing things that are exciting and new. And everyone who has lived here, even those who are much older than I am, comment that it’s truly remarkable to see the transformation that is happening and happening so quickly in this city.
“And I believe that it’s due to a number of factors, including the fact that we are located halfway between Cleveland and Columbus on a major interstate. But, we are also a peaceful community, a safe community, with a cost of living that is ranked 7th lowest for a city our size in the Midwest. And it is a community where all of the traditional American values that people appreciate are still alive and well. And by that, I mean: duty, honor, and personal responsibility. And I think that’s becoming more and more attractive to folks as they look for a place to raise their families.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Ashland, Ohio
WHAT: A city of 20,500
WHERE: In Ashland County between Cleveland and Columbus