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Multiple options considered for economic advisory body— Community Resources role discussed

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Looking for economic development leadership in Yellow Springs, Village Council is considering multiple options, including using Community Resources as the village’s official community improvement corporation (CIC) if that group chooses to do so, establishing a more broad-based economic sustainability committee, or some combination of the two. As part of this discussion, questions have been raised about the appropriateness of Community Resources as the sole advisory body, given some villagers’ concerns about that group’s past projects. At the heart of these questions is a conversation about what sort of economic development is best for the village.

From the perspective of past and current Community Resources board members, the group’s efforts have been motivated purely by the caring conviction that the village needs a dedicated and consistent force focused on attracting and maintaining local economic vitality.

Unofficially, Community Resources has served like the village’s CIC for almost a decade. The group’s founders established the organization in 1999 because of their perception that the village needed to proactively pursue business growth. Members conducted a business survey and a village-wide economic assessment, and in 2003 engaged Antioch University McGregor as the anchor for the commerce park at the west edge of town.

But from the perspectives of some others, the group has promoted a style of growth that can easily morph into sprawl, a vision that makes some villagers uncomfortable.

While several community members said recently that they are doing their best to keep an open mind, the disappointment with past outcomes is difficult to move past. Expanding Village limits for a commerce park for big business was a decision that threatened to initiate sprawl and instigated the near development of an additional 40 acres on the Fogg farm, villager Rick Donahoe said. Subsidizing McGregor in the park was perceived by some as unnecessary and potentially harmful to Antioch College, village resident Dimi Reber said. And the talking that led to those actions took place in mostly closed meetings, Donahoe said, with a board that did not achieve broad representation of the village. Reber and Donahoe are both involved in the Smart Growth Task Force that supports infill growth over expansion of borders.

Through the CR lens
From the beginning, Community Resources’ goal has been to implement community decisions with the flexibility afforded a private nonprofit entity, Community Resources current secretary Megan Quinn Bachman said in an interview last month.

“The interest of Community Resources has always been to support business and help them to succeed in the village,” she said. “It’s not our role to make decisions, that’s done at the Village level, but rather to help implement what’s been decided.”

In the 1990 community visioning process, according to Community Resources co-founder Fred Bartenstein in an interview last month, villagers concluded that they wanted to boost the economic health of the village. And when then-local attorney Craig Matthews presented the idea of creating a CIC to pursue that goal, he and Bartenstein, who was then part of Village Mediation, started by talking to Village Council and as many local groups as possible to assemble a broad-based board that represented local government, large and small businesses, community organizations and the community at large.

“We tried to make it as much of a U.N. model board as possible,” Bartenstein said.

While that initial board held 12–15 members, in recent years the board — which is also the membership — shrunk to about half that size. This year, a largely new, expanded board took office.

Through its early business retention visits, the desire for a commerce park in Yellow Springs emerged, echoing a goal from the 1990 visioning, and Community Resources found it had the legal flexibility as a private, nonprofit group to lead the task.

This type of business support was crucial for Yellow Springs, former Community Resources Board member Marianne MacQueen said two weeks ago. In the tradition of Yellow Springs visionary Arthur Morgan, the village needs to be sustained by more than just the arts, she believes.

“As businesses here shrink and divest themselves of their Yellow Springs branch, we could decide to be just a little arts community,” she said. “But Morgan wasn’t just about that. The arts are great, but I want us to be bigger than an arts community — we need good science too.”

Community Resources made the conscious decision early on to have closed meetings due to the nature of discussions that could include, for instance, businesses’ financial difficulties and needs, which businesses were not likely to share openly if the information was to be public, Bartenstein said. Some group members also felt that closed meetings would facilitate more efficient decision making, since development issues can easily get politicized and seize up.

As a step toward developing the park, in 2002 Village Council and Miami Township Trustees designated the Fogg farm, the Pitstick farm and the Vernay property west of East Enon Road as potential development sites and began negotiating the purchase of one of them.

Looking for property inside town was very difficult, said MacQueen, who has spent the past 10 years scouring the village for properties large and small for Home, Inc. affordable housing. Growth through infill is also difficult due to zoning complications, she said.

As Community Resources worked to acquire property, McGregor’s President Barbara Gellman-Danley announced she was looking for a new home for her school, and it became clear that the two entities could serve each other’s needs. As a nonprofit group, a legal entity separate from the Village, Community Resources in 2004 negotiated a $300,000 interest-free loan from the Village Revolving Loan Fund, plus a $100,000 grant from YSCF, to purchase the Vernay property. The group then gave McGregor 10 acres to build on and be the anchor for the commerce park known as the Center for Business and Education (CBE). The loan will be repaid after the CBE opens for business, probably in 2011.

According to board member Jerry Sutton, CR negotiated a loan agreement with the Village like any other business that has used money from the revolving loan fund has done. As the official property owner, CR “holds the burden of the mortgage,” he said, and the Village has influence over it through the zoning laws that apply to a planned unit development.

According to Bartenstein, choosing McGregor was a confluence of opportunities. McGregor was a local employer who served the larger region, its mission was education, and it found a way to finance its $15 million building, all of which seemed to Community Resources to be a boon to the village, he said.

Helping a local business was Community Resources role, said Bachman, who joined the CR board almost a year ago.

“Even if it feels like it should be a community decision, that’s a private business decision,” she said. “Our mission is to help local businesses, not to make decisions for them.”

Questions for CR
Before considering CR as a significant economic advisor to the Village, some villagers want to know that the group perceives limits to the kind and amount of growth that is good for the village. From Donahoe’s perspective, when infrastructure is brought to the commerce park and if the current proposal to widen Dayton-Yellow Springs Road is approved, there will be more pressure for additional development in that area. That was the reason, he feels, the Fogg farm so nearly got developed along with the CBE.

“Once sewer and roads are there, where do they go from there? If people were assured that the CBE was it, that might settle some wounds,” he said.

Some villagers also prefer that any group that guides the sensitive issue of development in the village be representative of all villagers. In order to do that, its core decision-making activities should be as public as possible so that villagers can let their representatives know how they feel. Some feel the commerce park decision, for example, was neither open nor representative.

“They say it was open — if you knew it was going on,” Donahoe said. “But much of it was done behind closed doors, and all of a sudden we were busting out on the west end of the village, which has been our Achilles heel,” he said.

If a development group aims to represent the community, it seems to local resident Benji Maruyama that villagers would be invited to attend those meetings (as long as they aren’t addressing proprietary business information). The group should represent not just the business community but the community at large, and it should probably include a member of the Antioch College community, he said.

When CR decided to support McGregor at the center of the park, according to Reber, the move was inconsiderate of the effect it could have on Antioch College, which closed its doors five years later in 2008.

Though according to Bartenstein, the help the group gave McGregor was just a fraction of the unflappable support the village has always given to the college.

“At every moment we saw and see the college as a critical economic driver of this village,” he said. “Helping McGregor did not mean favoring them over the college. The village has always done its best to support both.”

A matter of ideology
Fundamentally, perhaps one of the bigger questions is about what kind of growth is best for the village. Because a group whose only goal is to create a big business park in the open space at the edge of town, it will never be representative of those who feel that business should locate inside village borders.

One contingent of villagers prefers the “smart growth” approach that embraces growth from the inside out based on walk/bikeability, community values and businesses that care about the environment, fair treatment in the workplace, and serving existing needs in the community, Reber said. She was talking about developing the types of business the community wants, not developing the type of community that businesses want.

“Maybe it’s a thing about whether the dollar is at the bottom of it all or whether it’s something else,” such as quality of life, and living in a tolerant community that provides meaningful work for people, she said.

And economic development should extend to outlets other than the commerce park, which is far from the center of town, Maruyama pointed out. Development efforts should include a wider range of activities, such as a business incubator at the college, sharing facilities and infrastructure to support the existing business network, and considering the use of tax incentives and loan guarantees to attract new businesses and support existing ones, he said.

The question of development can also be guided by how immediate the need is perceived to be. Some perceive that the ship has a few leaks, while for others, it’s already sinking. From Donahoe’s perspective, the commerce park endeavor was partly a “knee-jerk” reaction to fill the void after Vernay Laboratories closed its manufacturing facility on Dayton Street, without anticipating consequences that often lead to more development.

Donahoe does share some concern that the economic situation in the village is challenged, but he prefers to resolve it through a more modest approach within the village limits. That was Arthur Morgan’s theory, according to former Antioch College faculty member Al Denman.

“Morgan’s idea was that people do well and grow well in small communities when there is a rich, cultural foundation, and that can only take place if there is economic support for it — which comes through development within your boundaries,” Denman said. “The trick is how to stay small at the same time you’re developing economically.”

Yet for some villagers, it is the difference between an idealistic solution and a realistic one. Development is an immediate need for the village, according to MacQueen, and if that results in a less than completely perfect solution, perhaps the imperfections can be used to create something new and positive for the community.

“There are always unintended consequences, and then we just have to move on from that — we can’t stay stuck,” she said.

Roads to consensus
Community Resources does pursue goals outside of the commerce park. Currently the group is updating the 2002 business retention study and helping to create an economic development portal on the Web. The group’s 2009 goals include working toward infill development, Bachman said.

“While our main focus for some time will be on the business park, we can look at other economic development opportunities if the community determines that’s what’s needed,” she said.

And the group is open to considering changing some of its practices, which could result in holding open meetings or making its past and future meeting minutes available to the public, Bachman said.

“This board is committed to addressing openness,” she said.

To become the officially designated CIC for the Village, Community Resources would have to allow 40 percent of its board to be appointed by municipalities, rather than being self-selecting, as it is now. It also must hold open meetings except when discussing proprietary business information. The group is currently deciding whether it has an interest in taking on this role, its president, Lisa Abel, has said.

Before CR considers becoming the Village’s CIC, Jerry Sutton feels the Village should specify what that group’s charge would be. Would a Village CIC be asked to make an overall development plan for the village? Would it write grants, get loans to purchase property, or engage in building speculation? Any mandate should also be funded, he added.

The Chamber of Commerce and residents interested in Smart Growth have also addressed growth in the village. All of these groups could pursue development and business retention simultaneously, perhaps synchronized by a central figure such as the Village economic development coordinator, Sutton suggested.

Village Council will consider the use of an economic advisory group and/or Community Resources to help Council with growth-related issues at its meeting Monday, Oct. 19.

Al Denman recalled a time when the leaders of major organizations and businesses in town met regularly in Community Council, an influential body that advised Village Council on the welfare of the village and talked out controversial issues.

“They had only the power of sound thought and deliberation, and they encouraged civil talk with one another about community problems,” he said. “For a small community, it’s important that decisions are made through community consensus, that [decisions] are arrived at by people being friends with each other and getting to know each other.”

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