STOW -- The city could be on its way to developing what some other communities take for granted: an area that residents identify as a downtown that draws people in.

City Council unanimously approved legislation May 11 to enter into a professional services contract not to exceed $55,000 with architectural, engineering and planning firm Orchard Hiltz & McCliment Inc. to perform a market study and develop a plan for approximately 12 acres of vacant land within the City Center.

The contract costs would come out of the lodging tax, which is dedicated to economic development, said John Earle, budget and management director for the city.

The City Center complex, which is northwest of the Darrow and Graham road's intersection, also includes City Hall, the safety building, the service department building, a salt bin and a water tower.

The Stow-Munroe Falls Community Foundation recently commissioned site plans from OHM for a "community gathering place" on 8.5 acres of City Center property. This is within the vacant land the ordinance commissions OHM to look at and would include an area now occupied by SKiP, the aging wooden playground built in the early 1990s that has become more high maintenance in recent years.

Rasor said the idea is to create a town center, along the lines of what Kent and Hudson have, although not copying them. He said it is "early" in the process and he wants to seek ideas from the community, but his idea is to "open [the land] all up to a developer and work with the developer to hopefully carve out some of that 12 acres that can be used for public land like a park; green space, amphitheater, something we just don't know where the discussion might lead so I don't want to tie us into any position."

He said his idea for the commercial aspect would be businesses such as small, independent, locally owned shops and restaurants.

The community foundation's plan could include, for an estimated cost of $2.5 million to $3 million: A flexible event lawn, for events and an area for food trucks; a splash pad runway; an expanded pavilion and event space, which would have seating; forested play trails with playground equipment but not "one huge playground"; native pollinator gardens; and a.group fitness area.

Councilor John Pribonic, who serves on the foundation's board and is chairman of Council's planning committee, said the foundation is looking at seeking funding through grants and donations, including corporate and from civic organizations. "We would not be going out and asking for taxpayer dollars," said Pribonic.

Pribonic said he does not believe that the foundation's concept and a commercial development are mutually exclusive. "We're still looking to go ahead to make this community gathering place," he said. "In my opinion, it's not an either/or situation. It would marry the two things together."

"There are too many variables at this point to explain how Downtown Stow will eventually look," Rasor said. "This stage is all about discovering what's possible. But I'd be lying if I said I'm not excited."

See the May 14 issue of the Stow Sentry for more on the story.