MANSFIELD — Richland County Commissioner Tony Vero was driving to a current industrial success three months ago when a failure from the past again rose into view.
His eyes set on a five-story, decaying failure that has sadly dominated the east end skyline at 200 Fifth Ave. for the past three decades, a structure empty since Westinghouse closed its doors locally in 1990.
For clarity's sake, Vero was looking at the building known as "A" during the company's seven-decade run in Mansfield, positioned snugly against the railroad tracks.
Nearby sits the “H” building at 246 E. 4th St., which still functions as the Mansfield Commerce Center, used for storage, one of 16 buildings over 42 acres Westinghouse operated during its existence here from 1918-1990.
What did the factory mean to Mansfield? At its zenith, Westinghouse employed 8,177 workers in 1955. That means about one-third of the city's wage-earning workers were employed there at the time.
Put simply, at the time, a Mansfield resident likely worked there, had a family member who worked there or knew someone who worked at Westinghouse.
Today, all that's left of "A" is a shell of a building, a hollowed-out, painful and constant reminder of the city's mighty industrial past. It's perhaps the city's longest standing "rustbelt" image.
Vandals have wreaked havoc on its many windows. The roof is dire need of repair or replacement. The interior has been badly damaged due to elements, time and lack of use and occupancy.
Though he has driven past it countless times, something he saw under the gray, overcast skies triggered a thought for Vero.
"I was going to the Edge Plastics ribbon cutting on April 21 and I drove by the former Westinghouse building on the way," Vero recently told Richland Source. "It's obvious to me and everyone else that the building has been in a rough state.
"I looked at the building and I said to myself, 'You know what? I think it's time we start looking at doing some things.' "
Thus began a rapid public/private effort that took a giant step forward Wednesday when the Richland County Land Bank agreed to a contract that could ultimately result in the cleanup of the property, or at least the demolition of a community eyesore.
In the agreement with the property owner, the The Land Bank agreed to hire Mannik Smith Group from Maumee to conduct environmental testing on the site, including soil borings, to determine if there is any contamination.
The agreement doesn't require the Land Bank to accept the property when that testing is complete. But Vero said it will accept it, regardless of the testing, which could result in the site being labeled as a "brownfield," eligible for clean-up funds.
There are apparently four sites in Richland County currently designated as "brownfields."
"We don't have to, but we are going to take the parcel," Vero said, adding the organization will seek federal and/or state funds to remediate any contamination and/or demolish the building if that is the agreed-upon solution. "There is money available (for remediation)."
But the effort is not stopping with "A."
The effort also has the potential to acquire other former Westinghouse properties, including the 13-acre "concrete parcel" just to the east, owned by Mansfield Business Park, LLC, of Richfield, Ohio; and a nearby vacant building, owned by Electrolux, based in North Carolina.
Those efforts are ongoing, Vero said.
WESTINGHOUSE TEAM FORCE
Back in April, Vero said he knew "doing some things" would have to be a group effort, including Mansfield Mayor Tim Theaker.
"The City of Mansfield building and codes has jurisdiction over that building," Vero said. "The county has none. We were always mindful of not getting involved in any area of government that wasn't necessarily ours.
"I'm sure we wouldn't be happy if the city started getting involved in what could be deemed county business. I just started making some calls that night.
"I called (Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development President/CEO) Jodie Perry and a couple of other people and just said, 'I think it's time, with the mayor's acquiescence, to see if there could be any movement with respect to the Westinghouse building,'" Vero said.
"I placed a phone call to Mayor Theaker and asked if he would give permission to form what we jokingly called the 'Westinghouse Team Force Group.' We needed the mayor to be a part of the team, and he agreed.
"The mayor was very cordial. He and I sit on the Land Bank (board) together, so if there was an avenue outside me being a commissioner, it was the Land Bank," Vero said. "We moved fast."
Theaker said the focus now is on the "A" building.
"The owners at one time had great plans to turn that building into condo units," the mayor said. "We talked several times, but the cost to renovate it was way out of the range, around $1.5 million per floor.
"So it's sat empty."
The mayor said Vero approached him "and wanted to work on somehow getting funding from the federal government."
Theaker is more cautious than Vero in his approach.
"A lot of things have to fall into place. There are environmental issues. We don't know (what contamination may be) ... The city wants to make sure things are kosher and the Land Bank does, too," the mayor said.
"If there is contamination, it's going to fall back on the property owner to clean it up," he said, admitting there are "probably" federal and state funds available for such an effort if the Land Bank assumed ownership.
The fear of contamination, especially considering the factory was built long before the EPA came into existence and started issuing rules, has long been a weight on redevelopment concerns.
Richland County Land Bank Director Bart Hamilton, also the county treasurer, echoed this tone for a Richland Source story in 2018.
“The issue with that particular property and others like that is that they have owners,” Hamilton said three years ago.“There’s really no way I’d have anything to do with it unless they wanted to give it to the Land Bank, and even then, I don’t know if I’d take it because of environmental concerns.”
It appears some of those concerns have waned with the the new effort, perhaps given the possibility of federal and state money for such a project.
The "Westinghouse Team Force" group includes Vero; Theaker; Perry; Marc Milliron and Stephen Risser from the city's building and codes department; Amy Hamrick, manager of the land bank; J.R. Rice from the land bank; Dave Remy, the city's public works director; and Jennifer Kime, CEO of Downtown Mansfield Inc.
Vero said Kime and Hamrick helped speak with the Coffman family of Mansfield, which owns the property, and arranged a tour on May 11. The group then had its first meeting on May 12 and the effort proceeded from that point.
It helped that Kime had a prior relationship with the Coffman family, including Chase Coffman, grandson of Ernie Coffman, who purchased the property in 2007.
"I worked with Chase Coffman, who I met a few years back and he had some interesting ideas on historic preservation efforts with some properties the family owned," Kime said. "They are very interested in preserving Mansfield history."
Kime said the Coffmans were interested, when they purchased the building, in revitalizing the structure and bringing it back to life. She said those ideas eventually "took a back seat" and the family was "very receptive" to the idea of donating it to the land bank.
Perry, who came to Mansfield to lead the chamber in 2014, said she was happy to see renewed attention on the site.
"A lot of times in cases like this, it takes people with determination, and working with property owners, to make a big difference," she said.
"It's amazing what we have seen in other communities when they have tackled these old legacy locations and brought new life into them," she said. "We have a long way to go, but we hope to bring life back to this part of town and help everyone see it with a new set of eyes."
The State of Ohio recently included funds for brownfield cleanup and demolition in the recently approved budget, an effort that state Sen. Mark Romanchuk (R-Ontario) helped to shepherd.
"The timing (of the Westinghouse) to do something with state funds is excellent," Perry said. "At the chamber, we have advocated with state officials for brownfield money and this is one of the biggest (potential) sites when we talk about that."
Hamrick said the effort will be significant, especially if the Land Bank can also acquire the adjoining 13-acres that once housed the Westinghouse power plant.
That building was demolished in 2016 and has remained a fenced-in jumble of concrete slabs, surrounded by a fence that is often down in places.
She also pointed to the need to acquire the nearby vacant building owned by Electrolux.
"I think it will be our single largest project to date in terms of size and importance to the community," Hamrick said. "Financially, it's our largest and the impact to the community will probably be our largest, as long as we can get all three parcels.
"If we don't get all three, it worries me what kind of an impact we can make," Hamrick said. "We could be spending more than $1 million on something that is worthless (for redevelopment) if the (Land Bank) doesn't get it all."
Hamrick said the testing process would likely take three months.
To Perry, the key to success is local governments and leaders working together.
"Richland County includes the City of Mansfield. Both the city and the county are trying to get things done. There is always more work than there are people to do it," she said.
"We are making incremental process, but it does take someone to drive it. I was pleased when Commissioner Vero called and said he wanted to start on this. It's beyond what we can do at the chamber, but we can find ways to support it," Perry said.
According to Kime, the first step is to do the environmental analysis and then begin discussing what comes next at the site.
"There are are a ton of ideas ... some rehabilitation and some demolition. I am focused on the next step (testing). And then anything is possible with this building," Kime said. "What's really leading this is the really valuable community partnerships we have formed. All of us are working on projects together.
"It allows us to be more flexible and when these kinds of projects come up, we can move forward very quickly.
"Without the Coffmans being interested (in donating the land), thus wouldn't have worked," she said. "Everyone wants what is best for the community and this space. There is a lot of work ahead of us."
Westinghouse has "a place" in Kime's heart since her grandparents both worked and met while working there.
"I think this has the possibility of being one of the biggest things to happen in that neighborhood in the last 40 years," she said. "Westinghouse has played such a huge role in our city's history and it's ready for the next step.
"It's exciting to think what the next 10 years could be like."