MANSFIELD – The future of Richland County lies with various business and community leaders coming together to make tangible future plans for the county’s success.

Some of those plans became clear last week through the Richland Community Development Group’s Long Range Planning Strategic Initiatives, focused on improving the quality of Richland County. The Long Range Planning Strategic Initiatives were launched by RCDG in 2015, based upon a plan developed in collaboration with The Ohio State University at Columbus Fisher College of Business Professional Services Division.

The initiatives have five areas of focus: Downtown improvement, campus district development, creating a business friendly regulatory environment, talent development and neighborhood improvement. Each area was tackled by county residents from both the public and private sector, recruited by RCDG.

According to Long Range Planning Chair and Richland County Commissioner Marilyn John, the vision of Long Range Planning is to be the most business-friendly county in Ohio.

“We can achieve this based on our synergies of public and private sectors, our strategic location, and our big-city amenities coupled with a small-town feel,” John said at the Long Range Planning update.

Barrett Thomas, economic development director of the Richland Community Development Group (RCDG), said the collaborative nature of the Long Range Planning initiatives is a rarity.

“The campus district project is actually an economic development project, but we plopped it inside a community development container,” Thomas gave as an example. “So we’ve got participation from all sectors. We can build a consensus that this is a really special thing.”

Campus district development will be a major driver of growth, according to Brian White, program analyst at The Ohio State University Mansfield. The vision of the campus district is to grow a sustainable lifestyle community that attracts and retains talent, increases education attainment and promotes economic growth.

White stated the mission is three-fold: Become a vibrant walk-able community, build a renowned hub of mixed residential, retail, entertainment, health and wellness and recreation centers, and connect to other area amenities and activities.

“There is a demographic and cultural shift going on in this nation,” White said. “How we do business, how we work and how we play is changing. What is the market in this area for that change?”

According to White, there is a demand for a place for living, shopping, and entertainment as well as city and green space that is unfulfilled in Richland County. The initiative has secured a $97,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural business development to begin planning and programming for economic and community development.

“There is also an opportunity in our community to diversify our rental housing stock,” White added.

Residential space was also a topic of conversation with Chuck Hahn, CRP with Lincoln Financial Group and one of a handful of downtown residents. As part of his downtown development initiative, Hahn suggested revisiting the possibility of downtown living.

“That’s something that’s been frustrating,” Hahn said. “I live downtown, and my closest neighbor is across the street above Relax, It’s Just Coffee. We hear from Downtown Mansfield, Inc. that there is a tremendous demand for downtown living space.”

Hahn suggested taking the next step towards downtown living by hosting a seminar with all downtown property owners as well as the city of Mansfield’s codes and permits department. By doing so, Hahn said, this would clear up confusion as to what needs to be done to renovate downtown buildings for living space.

“You hear from people in the real estate industry about the value generated from living space, and there’s a lot of miscommunication and different opinions about what can be done,” Hahn said. “We’re going to identify four or five buildings and start from there, and say it’s time to take another approach at this and see what we can do to start having some living space by the end of the year.”

When it comes to actually obtaining permits, that process will eventually be streamlined thanks to action from the business friendly regulatory system initiative. Jodie Perry, president of the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce, said continued improvement in customer service was the initiative’s biggest goal.

“We want to cut through red tape, make the process of obtaining appropriate permits easier to navigate and understand and leverage technology to make sure we’re streamlining things in most efficient way possible,” Perry said.

Perry said open discussion and soliciting feedback from various stakeholders on what they would like to see changed has moved the process along. The initiative also held discussions about best practices and new ways to encourage departments to be more efficient and customer-friendly.

Of course, none of this development would be possible without first focusing on the county’s residents. The neighborhood development initiative focused on fighting blight and finding redevelopment opportunities, while the talent and workforce development initiatives worked on getting people employed.

The talent development initiative’s Industrial Readiness Training Program helped employ 39 students. A big assist came via Mobile Training Center visiting students at North Central State College, Madison Adult Education and Pioneer Career Technology Center.

Karen Seman, workforce development director with RCDG, also announced $750,000 in grants were received to help wean at least 40 local residents off government assistance.

“Workforce development is not a dash, it’s a marathon, and it has hurdles,” Seman said. “We’ll win some, we’ll lose some, and once in a while we’ll change people’s lives.

“It’s my hope that we will attract good things for ourselves, our businesses and our citizens.”

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