Despite pandemic, state of Aurora 'strong,' mayor Ann Womer Benjamin says

Bob Gaetjens
Record-Courier
Aurora has continued its trend in recent years as a destination for homebuilders, so much so the city has established one-year moratorium on new residential housing projects. She added Pulte's project at Geauga Lake will not be affected by the moratorium.

Despite the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin said have most difficult of her time as mayor, the “state of Aurora is strong.”

“In my more than seven years as mayor, we have faced some unexpected challenges, but probably the most significant and far-reaching has been the pandemic,” she said. 

Despite its many challenges, Womer Benjamin said the city continued to get work done and remains in stable financial shape. 

“We’re in a good financial position with $18 million in 2021 in new capital projects planned,” she said, adding the city has maintained a balance of at least $9 million as the city’s “unofficial rainy day fund.”

Income tax collections were down 5.4%, she said, but the city was able to maintain all its employees, which she said was her priority above any one capital improvement or project. 

“We are fairly leanly staffed for a city of 16,000 people,” she added.

In addition to establishing a joint economic development district with Bainbridge, which enabled Industrial Commercial Properties to acquire and begin development planning for 377 acres of former Geauga Lake property, she said the city also completed a variety of projects in 2020.

The city continues to be a residential growth hotspot. Since taking office, Womer Benjamin said there have been 536 housing starts including 44 in 2020.

"Our small town charm endures, despite mild growth over the past several years," she said. "I so appreciate that so many of you are supporting our small businesses and restaurants."

In response to the residential growth in town, she said the city passed a one-year moratorium on new housing developments. 

"We are undertaking a density study to evaluate possible changes to our zoning and density requirements," she said. "Previously approved construction, like the Pulte development, Renaissance Park at Geauga Lake, will continue."

The city also has completed a water line and sidewalk project along E. Pioneer Trail, extending to New Hudson Drive. The city also bought 21 acres off E. Garfield Road to help develop a path connecting Hartman Park to other city parks to the south, she said. 

"I am committed to protecting green space and to controlling development where feasible," she added.

Womer Benjamin also outlined a variety of projects slated for 2021, including a $1.6 million road paving plan, among other things.

"We again have many projects and initiatives planned with infrastructure as a continuing focus," she said. 

There also will be a 79% increase in storm water control spending, bringing the total to $850,000. 

"This will include the Geauga Lake ditching and house appraisals as we pursue a potential FEMA grant to purchase flood-prone homes," said the mayor. "We will also develop a citywide storm water model and plan."

As it has been in the past, increasing connectivity will continue as a theme. One of the more visible projects will be sidewalk installation along the west side of a portion of Route 306. 

Aurora Schools adapt to pandemic

Despite the pandemic, Aurora City Schools Superintendent Michael Roberto said the district continued developing students' sense of service to the community in the State of the Schools address, which took place at Aurora High School and was streamed online.

in his first year as superintendent after 20 years in the district, Michael Roberto said the district spent a lot of time adapting to challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A committee met regularly throughout the spring and summer in preparation for adjustments that would be necessary in the fall, and eventually teachers and many others were consulted on the district's plan, he explained. 

"We took these ideas to our staff where they were refined and imporoved before sharing them with parents, community members, clergy, local health officials, board officials, classified staff, unclassified staff and our newly formed COVID-19 advisory committee," he said. 

Aurora City Schools gave students the choice of in-school or digital learning, said Roberto. Seventy-five percent of students returned to school, and 25% opted for online learning. 

"This two-pronged approach certainly challenged our staff and students alike," he added. "How do you teach a 6-year-old how to read virtually?"

Still, he said Newsweek and US News and World Report "consistently rank Aurora High School in the top 1% to 2% in the nation."

Students at the high school continue to distinguish themselves, both as individuals and collectively, added Roberto. 

For example, he said, stand-out diver Victoria Blechschmid is also a stand-out art student. 

Her art portfolio received a gold key and will be sent to New York City to be judged among work from other students around the country. 

Collectively, the high school's academics are strong as measured by Advanced Placement test taking, he added. Last year, 60% of seniors took at least one AP test, and this year students have signed up to take 927 AP tests compared with 817 last year, said Roberto.

At many levels, Roberto also said community service remains value the district works to imbue in students who work with various community organizations on a wide variety of causes. 

Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at bgaetjens@recordpub.com and @bobgaetjens_rc.