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Rising From Rust

Downtown success feeds economic development

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part II of a 4-part series within the "Rising from Rust" project looking at strategies for success in Hamilton, Ohio and how they could apply to Richland County.

When it comes to revitalizing a city, it’s natural to start at the center and work your way outward.

Yes, downtown development is not the only initiative in the works for CORE, Hamilton’s Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment – according to Executive Director Mike Dingeldein, the organization currently has at least eight initiatives in the works.

However, downtown revitalization has to be first.

“If you don’t start with your downtown, it’s the nucleus,” Dingeldein said. “Our downtown revitalization changed the entire 60,000-person population’s opinion on everything. They realize now the city’s credibility is off the charts.”

The city of Mansfield has taken a page from Hamilton’s book with a new motor vehicle registration fee that will generate funds directly towards downtown improvements. The legislation passed at Mansfield City Council on May 15.

The idea behind creating a fund specifically for downtown Mansfield development came from a group of 15 local people traveling to Austin, Texas for the city’s annual South By Southwest conference in March. The trip was sponsored by the Richland County Foundation, with the goal of infusing new energy into local revitalization efforts.

“Their single charge is to come back to the community foundation by the end of this year with an investment strategy to improve downtown,” said Brady Groves, president of the Foundation.

The $5 increase in registration fees is estimated to generate $220,000 per year over the next 12 years. A newly-formed advisory committee will guide strategic thinking and provide recommendations for use of the funds.

In addition, the city will have the ability to leverage the funding to apply for competitive state and federal grants and generate even more dollars towards downtown development.

“Downtown should, and can be, a very thriving area,” said Mansfield Mayor Tim Theaker. “So if you can make improvements that keeps it safe and brings more businesses and people downtown, that’s what you need to do.”

Bringing businesses is the sole focus of Tim Bowersock, Mansfield’s economic development director. Bowersock is officially responsible for industrial retention, expansion and relocation efforts, as well as establishing economic development programs and marketing plans.

When a new business is thinking about coming to Mansfield, Bowersock is one of their first contacts. Usually that comes in the form of a request for information that resembles a book.

“And when we get these leads, they want a response within two or three days,” Bowersock said. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything, they just want all that information to start weeding out who they want to see.”

Typically that information includes workforce availability, affordability of land, infrastructure and utilities, and access to transportation if needed. Quality of life also comes into play, which according to Bowersock can mean anything from good schools, good healthcare availability and low crime rates, to access to food, entertainment and shopping.

But more often than not, site consultants for larger companies learn the most by immersing themselves in everyday life.

“They’ll eat at restaurants, not necessarily with us, and they’ll just sit there and talk to people,” Bowersock said. “You can get a lot of knowledge sitting in a restaurant talking to the help or the guy sitting next to you, and sometimes that can make or break a project.”

While Bowersock focuses heavily on economic development, he realizes that community development goes hand-in-hand with his responsibilities. For example, if there are no jobs, there is no one to buy houses, and a community's housing stock starts to deteriorate.

“If you don’t have quality of place – quality housing, retail, restaurants – then it’s very hard for a company looking at the area to want to open up here,” Bowersock said. “They have to ask, are we going to take care of their people and have the amenities they need to be a happy employee?”

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