Cuyahoga Falls — City Council will vote on March 27 whether to contract with H.R. Gray of Akron to take on a transformation project that would open downtown Front Street to vehicular traffic for the first time in 40 years.

On March 20, Council's public and industrial improvements committee unanimously approved bringing out the ordinance for a vote at the next meeting.

If approved, the ordinance would authorize the city's director of public service to enter into a contract or contracts to reopen the downtown pedestrian mall to vehicular traffic, convert North Front Street, North Second Street and Oakwood Drive to a two-way operation and reconfigure the state Route 8 Interchange, at a cost of $9.9 million.

“I do believe the street needs to be open,” said Council President Mary Ellen Pyke (R-2), who requested Finance Director Bryan Hoffman provide figures on how much money was spent on the project prior to the contract in question for a total cost. “We have a responsibility to ask the financial questions.”

Hoffman said he will provide Council with the figures before the March 27 meeting.

Councilwoman Carol Klinger (R-at large) said the plan is “very comprehensive” and she is “100 percent on board.”

Democratic Councilwoman Mary Nichols-Rhodes, who represents Ward 4 where downtown Front Street is located, said she is in favor of the project. “The business people are on board, the property owners are on board, the people who live here are on board, and I hope Council is on board.”

“Two hundred and five years ago when our great city was founded, the Front Street corridor was the epicenter from which our city grew,” Mayor Don Walters said to the 80-100 people at the committee meeting. “Way back in 1812, the downtown live-work-and-play concept was alive and well, and ironically in 2017 the fascination still exists.”

“We want to capitalize on the market share that exists because we are in the middle of a transportation hub, but that market share is currently unattainable due to a lack of investment, visibility, traffic, and on-street parking,” stated Walters in a press release. “I have reiterated countless times that we have an important question to ask ourselves, and that is whether or not we want a successful downtown? If we think that a thriving downtown which will benefit all of our neighborhoods and all of our residents is important, then opening the street to traffic is what we must do.”

“When we started this project, we knew that we wanted a fully open process to help garner support from residents, businesses, and property owners. We have done our due diligence through countless studies and public input meetings, and have researched successful revitalization efforts of downtown areas that were once struggling for survival so that we could create an experience and sense of place in our downtown that all residents can be proud of,” explained Planning Director Fred Guerra in the press release. “We know that significant investments need to be made to improve our downtown, but by keeping the pedestrian mall open, there is no chance that it will become a successful retail center.”

Studies were conducted early in the process that included information on how to achieve a more pedestrian-friendly area, according to a city press release. In conjunction, a housing and retail market study was completed to identify retail market capability for downtown. The study found, according to the press release, that residents are leaving Cuyahoga Falls to shop elsewhere but would like to shop closer to home. The retail analysis revealed that the area could support roughly 215,350 square feet of retail space. Further, by doing nothing, Cuyahoga Falls is losing an estimated $60.4 million in sales revenues to surrounding municipalities, the release said.

MAKING THE PROJECT POSSIBLE
The project will be funded by general obligation debt, and there will be no increase in taxes, Finance Director Bryan Hoffman said. Hoffman said general obligation debt is a common type of municipal debt that is secured by a city's pledge to use legally available resources, including tax revenues, to make payments. The largest returns on investment will be realized through increases in sales activity, property values, and job creation, he added.

The planning phase of the proposed hotel also remains underway as property owners work to finalize operator and financing agreements, developers have said. More information will be forthcoming as the project evolves. Similarly, efforts to redevelop the Falls Theater are currently underway. Developers of both the Falls Theater and hotel have committed to redeveloping property on Front Street and have done so on the condition that the pedestrian mall is opened to vehicular traffic.

The Ohio Historic Preservation Office stated that they would not recommend the area being placed on the National Register of Historic Places if the street is not opened, the city said in a press release.

“Branding efforts have commenced as we begin to redefine our downtown,” Walters said. “Residents and business owners are working with branding experts to describe what Cuyahoga Falls means to them and what they envision for the future of the riverfront.” This information will be used to tell the story that will market and promote the new downtown, the mayor said.

Consultant Bob Gibbs, who performed a market study for the city, said this is a good time to act on this project because more stores and restaurants, including national chains, are abandoning indoor malls and locating in downtown areas where patrons can drive up, park close and walk in. Gibbs said a historic downtown, which he said Cuyahoga Falls has, offers character.

Gibbs said Amazon is opening 200 brick-and-mortar bookstores in the next four years, but only in urban downtowns. “There's a whole fleet of retailers that will only go on Main Streets, that refuse to go into malls,” he said, adding it will “take awhile” for these retailers to show an interest in locating here. “They are going to want to see the construction and the street open. The trend for new retailers is to locate in new town centers like First and Main or historic downtowns, but they prefer historic downtowns.”

Consultant Stuart Zall, via video from Denver, said urbanization is trending in retail as consumers are “getting away from the regional malls and want to be in downtown walkable communities, and Cuyahoga Falls has got all of those elements.” Zall said once the pedestrian mall is removed and redevelopment gets underway, downtown Cuyahoga Falls is going to be “fantastic.”

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