AURORA — An uptick in the city’s economic fortunes began about five years ago and has continued into 2018, Economic Development Director Jack Burge told the Economic and Entrepreneurial Development Board July 31.

He said city businesses have added or retained about 1,300 jobs, there have been several major construction projects and withholding taxes have risen from about $7.5 million to $9.1 million.

The board meets semi-annually to hear updates about business progress and city projects. Members are Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin, Burge, Councilman George Horvat, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Karen Bosley, Julie Messing, James Cossler, Craig Conley, Rich Wanders and Brad Ehrhart.

The latter is president of the Portage Development Board.

"Economic success does not just happen, and it’s certainly not the responsibility of one person," said Burge. "It takes the mayor, department heads, city council and the Portage Development Board to make it happen."

Burge mentioned a number of new businesses and expansions of existing ones in the last five years, such as the Aurora School of Music, 1815 Tavern, Aurora Commons, the Aurora Inn, Philpott Solutions Group, Orazen Extruded Polymers, R.P. Gatta, McMaster Carr and Tire Max.

Some of the most recent projects are large, new facilities for McMaster Carr and Trelleborg Sealing Solutions, Natural Essentials moving into the former Eaton complex, Piping Rock moving in behind PartsSource and the opening of the Liberty Ford dealership.

Burge said McMaster Carr employs about 650 people, and the new 409,000-square-foot building on South Chillicothe Road likely will add 30 more initially, with the potential for 50 to 60. Natural Essentials could add 125 jobs to the city’s economy.

In the food sector, Burge said Delciello’s Ristorante & Lounge has moved into the former Doogan’s and George’s Donuts into space at Route 43 and East Boulevard.

He added Aurora Farms continues to employ dozens of people, and attracts some 3 million customers a year. As for Liberty Ford, he said, "We hope it will open up interest for businesses to locate on the former Geauga Lake property."

About the former Geauga Lake land, Burge said, "We believe it provides the city with the greatest potential for business growth. There’s a lot of available property there. We just have to keep our fingers crossed."

Womer Benjamin said the city continues to work with Cedar Fair and consultant Jennifer Six to market the 500-plus acres at Geauga Lake, and the city has put in a bid to land the new Swaglock global headquarters there, which plans to move from Solon.

She added Bainbridge also is seeking to land the firm on its portion of the former amusement park land. She said Aurora might be better suited for the project since it can offer water and sewer hookups.

In a news release earlier this year, Swaglock said it plans to invest $30 million to $50 million in the complex, with 300 to 350 employees initially, and room for future job growth.

The mayor said the Geauga Lake land has been a tough sell so far, with one reason being that Cedar Fair has left the infrastructure intact, thus meaning a developer would be burdened with additional costs to prepare the site.

Burge also reported the city’s building department has increased inspections from 4,000 to 5,874.

Womer Benjamin said Philpott Solutions Group is relocating its operations to Aurora from Stow, China and West Virginia, and its CEO told her one reason is "because the city has been very easy to work with."

Another area the mayor updated the board on is city projects. She said she has been very satisfied with department heads Harry Stark (service) and Laura Holman (parks and recreation), who came on board earlier this year.

Among projects that have been completed, are under way or in the works are two culvert replacements, road repaving, the Hurd Road waterline, Route 43-East Pioneer Trail widening, the Hartman farm athletic complex, sidewalk repairs and a $4.9 million traffic signalization upgrade.

The traffic signalization project is targeted for 2021. She also said restroom upgrades at the library are in the works, as is an upgrade of the wastewater treatment facilities in the next five to 10 years. 

The mayor emphasized the city’s commitment to take over the Norfolk Southern rail line through town, which NS has sought to abandon. "We’re being very aggressive in our efforts to gain ownership of the right-of-way," she said, noting First Energy also is seeking the ROW to place new transmission lines.

Bosley reported the Chamber of Commerce recently conducted a successful Drive-It-Yourself tour, and there have been four new business ribbon cuttings so far this year, with a couple more likely in the near future.

Ehrhart reported Portage County’s work force now numbers about 88,000. The county was at the 92,000 mark in 2008, then dropped to 80,000 in 2016, but has recovered in the past two years.

He said there are a lot of job openings in the county for which firms cannot find applicants. He attributed that to a lot of people retiring, some going on disability and the drug problem eliminating potential workers.

Ehrhart said many businesses have occupied new buildings in recent years, and although there are several available old industrial buildings, there is a shortage of newer, adequate structures to house industries.

Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400 Ext. 4189 or klahmers@recordpub.com