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.

Council President Mike Rasor, who introduced the ordinance, told the Stow Sentry before the meeting that he is unsure how long it would take for OHM to do its work, but "my guess is a couple of months."

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.

"We have businesses who come to Stow that are big national chains and I've heard from hundreds of people, 'We don't want that. We have enough of it,'" said Rasor. "But our [City Council] hands are tied because it's zoned that way so all we can vote is 'yes.' My initial idea, even approaching this back four or five months ago, was use whatever leverage we do have, which is on property we own, to dictate the uses of that land."

He said he wants it to be a "walkable entertainment district" with "fun things" to do that have yet to be specified. The city would, he said, have input on the type of tenants, the architectural look, parking, as well as public green space.

"A place you would want to go on a Saturday night with your wife and kids," said Rasor.

In a press release, Rasor said input he has received includes a Facebook poll he began conducting March 1 in which he asked respondents how they felt about such a development. He said he estimates there was a 90 percent favorability result from the hundreds of responses he received. "In my seven years on City Council, no other issue has generated so much excitement," Rasor said.

Mayor Sara Kline and her administration have been involved with early deliberations, as well.

"I think this is a very exciting process, filled with possibilities," said Kline on May 11. But she cautioned it will be "a long process" and not something to happen quickly.

One plan from the Community Foundation

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.

Rasor said he wants a public area, but is doubtful that it could be as large as 8.5 acres and still accommodate commercial development, which would be essential if the development is to be funded without taxpayer dollars.

"[The foundation has] done a service by taking an interest in this land," said Rasor.

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.

Councilor Brian Lowermilk, during the Council committee meeting, said he saw the potential development as "economically viable . . . it will actually bring revenue and people into the city and not be a burden, a cost."

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."

Martin Tass, president of the Community Foundation's board, agreed. "To be a home run, we need the open space, the gathering space and we will need the stores, nice shops."

Pribonic said the gathering place would be "a very, very nice place for people to come and enjoy."

"This is something the residents have been asking for for a long time," he said.

Rasor said he wishes the foundation well. "If they're able to come up with that kind of money, more power to them and hopefully we can use them as part of this solution," he said.

Rasor, an attorney who has experience in real estate, said there are a number of arrangements that the city could make with a suitable developer for the land. This includes deeding it to the developer, a 99-year lease, transfer the land but take an ownership interest in the development or sell it outright.

"There are a million different ways we could do it," he said.

In his press release, Rasor said the idea of such a development is not new. Since 2006, the city's comprehensive plan has envisioned a walkable retail development at the City Center complex.

What might attract developers and retailers, says the release, is that an estimated 20,000 vehicles pass through the Graham/Darrow intersection daily, making it one of the 10 busiest intersections in Summit County. Another potential attraction is that since the city owns the land, a developer could avoid the substantial cost of assembling parcels.

"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."

Email: jsaunders@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9431

Facebook: Jeff Saunders Record

Twitter: /JeffSaunders_RP