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What is the best strategy for economic development in Yellow Springs? What role, if any, should the nonprofit group Community Resources play in advising the Village on development? What stands in the way of Community Resources and Village Council working together?

Those topics were discussed by members of Council and Community Resources last Wednesday, Jan. 13, at a joint meeting facilitated by Janet Mueller of Village Mediation. The long-planned meeting was aimed at furthering understanding between the two groups. While some citizens attended the meeting, they were present as observers only, and dialogue with the public was not part of the meeting format.

The Jan. 13 meeting was discussion only, with no conclusions reached, although some participants suggested that the discussion continue. Several areas of commonality emerged, including both groups’ desire to see the Village prosper economically, see the Center for Business and Education succeed and find ways to lessen distrust. However, there were also differences, especially regarding the best strategies for economic prosperity and the value of open meetings.

Council members Lori Askeland, John Booth, Karen Wintrow, Rick Walkey and Judith Hempfling were present. Representing Community Resources were its president, Lisa Abel of YSI Incorporated; treasurer Jerry Sutton, retired from WPAFB; Kathryn Van der Heiden; Mark Crockett of Rita Caz and Miami Township Trustee; Karl Zalar of Friends Care Community; Rick Kristensen of Re/Max Resources; and Megan Quinn Bachman of Community Solutions. Community Resources member Michael Fishbein, president of Antioch University McGregor, was traveling and could not attend.

The meeting was sparked by ongoing Council discussions on economic development that began last spring. In those discussions former Council member Van der Heiden urged Council to use Community Resources as an advisory body rather than create a new advisory group, as suggested by Council President Judith Hempfling. Hempfling has suggested that Council create a new economic sustainability commission that holds open meetings and is inclusive to all who wish to join.

Community Resources, which began in 1999 to promote local economic development, initiated the 2004 purchase of 40 acres on the western edge of Yellow Springs for the Center for Business and Education, or CBE. That project, which was mainly funded with a $300,000 no-interest loan from the Village and is currently overseen by Village staff, has seen many delays and is expected to be ready for business next year. Its first occupant, since 2007, is Antioch University McGregor.

Community Resources is the appropriate advisory body to Council, Van der Heiden previously said, because it has been involved in economic development for a decade and spearheaded the commerce park, and because that group and Council already work together on the CBE.

However, several Council members have cited discomfort with some Community Resources practices, including its closed meetings and self-selected board. Several Council members have encouraged Community Resources to become a designated community improvement corporation, or CIC. To gain that status, a group needs to hold open meetings, except when discussing proprietary business information, and to allow at least 40 percent of its board to be appointed by a municipality.

The Jan. 13 meeting was intended to allow Council and Community Resources to consider their respective preferred strategies for economic development, and what differences stand in the way of their working together. It was also intended to allow Council to understand where Community Resources members stand on becoming a designated CIC.

How best to develop

Regarding preferred strategies for development, Council members Askeland, Hempfling and Walkey spoke of their interest in localization, which means meeting local needs locally.

“The idea is that a dollar spent locally can reinvigorate the community many times over,” Askeland said.

Localization also provides meaningful work because local jobs allow people to do their work in a more environmentally sustainable way, according to Hempfling, who said her views on economic development have been influenced by Arthur Morgan’s emphasis on “meeting the needs of the human community.”

“We think about businesses, but we also need to think about people,” she said.

Meaningful work also means offering jobs that pay liveable wages, according to Council member John Booth, who stated his concern that the village has a shortage of jobs at the lower end of the income scale.

However, believing that the village can meet its needs locally is not realistic, according to several members of Community Resources, including Van der Heiden.

“It’s an idealistic and quite lovely belief,” Van der Heiden said of the desire to focus on localization. “But I don’t believe we can,” citing the lack of jobs in the village.

Community Resources Treasurer Jerry Sutton agreed with Van der Heiden.

“We can’t support ourselves selling each other pizzas and pots,” he said. “We need to figure out how to get additional revenues.”

For instance, he said, the 45387 zip code receives “about $15 million a year” from Wright Patterson, including residents’ wages and retirement benefits. “We have to recognize that and be open to it,” he said.

Rather than focusing exclusively on Yellow Springs businesses, Council needs to look to the region for economic growth, according to Van der Heiden. Council member Karen Wintrow agreed, citing meetings she attended that day on economic development in Dayton, Springfield and Beavercreek.

“To me, localization is about the Miami Valley,” Wintrow said, citing the local business Rita Caz, the jewelry store owned by Crockett. “A lot of Mark’s customers are not from Yellow Springs.”

Hempfling agreed that the village can also “look to the region” for economic growth.

Community Resources members are especially concerned with addressing the Village’s recent loss of income tax and property tax revenues, according to Sutton, who cited the Vernay shutdown as one example of tax loss. The Village’s priorities should be providing utilities, maintaining infrastructure and order and staying solvent, Sutton said, and staying solvent means attracting and retaining businesses.

Sutton also stated that the Village needs an enterprise zone, and to keep abreast of state and regional development tools.

Other job losses include, in the past few years, 50 jobs lost at Millworks and downsizing at Creative Memories, according to Community Resources President Lisa Abel. Community Resources members see the CBE as a significant way to address these losses, she said.

However, the competition for luring new business to town is fierce, according to Wintrow, who said “the entire region is fighting for the same piece of the pie.”

“Do we really believe we can compete head-to-head with businesses looking at Fairborn or Springfield?” she said. “Or should we create a different model of economic development?”

Yellow Springs can go head-to-head with larger towns when it comes to quality of life issues in attracting new business, according to Crockett, who with Wintrow last year traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to talk with Air Force personnel moving to the area for Wright Patterson jobs. Those he met were very interested in quality of life issues, he said.

“Quality of life is what we have to sell,” Crockett said. “It’s our strong point.”

The most promising recent development opportunity in Yellow Springs is the recent revival of Antioch College, Hempfling said.

One of the main accomplishments of Community Resources has been keeping McGregor in the village, according to Sutton, who said that the group “has seen success.”

Former Antioch University McGregor President Barbara Gellman-Danley in 2004 had expressed an interest in moving that school, which was previously located on the Antioch College campus, away from the village, sparking Community Resources to secure the CBE land and provide McGregor with the new location.

Trust issues

Trust between the two groups remains an issue, according to members of both Community Resources and Council. According to Hempfling, some distrust was sparked by the appearance that Community Resources was aligned with Antioch University in the recent shutdown of Antioch College and the struggle to revive the college.

“Community Resources stood on the sidelines,” Hempfling said of that issue. “That didn’t seem the best approach for a group promoting the health of the village.”

The suggestion that Community Resources should have done something differently regarding the college closure is “a gross allegation,” according to Sutton, who said that the group acted appropriately in “not intervening in a corporate internal struggle to define its future. For you to say that, to me shows you don’t understand the integrity of a corporation.”

Abel asked if the presence on the Community Resources board of former Antioch University Chief Financial Officer Glenn Watts, who is no longer with the group due to term limits, created a public perception of that group’s alignment with Antioch University.

“It did look that way to me and to some others in the village,” Hempfling said, identifying the situation as “not a personal criticism but a structural problem.”

The closed nature of Community Resources meetings can be difficult for Council and contribute to communication problems, according to Hempfling. While Village government currently has oversight over the CBE infrastructure development, due to grant requirements, Council is not always privy to discussions of Community Resources, which oversees the total project.

“The CBE is in many ways a public project,” she said. “I had hoped that Community Resources would open up. It feels to me that would be helpful.”

Walkey agreed that the perception that Community Resources is not transparent furthers distrust.

Having open meetings “would go a long way toward smoothing out the ripples that still remain,” he said.

In the past Community Resources members have stated that they do not have meetings open to the public because they often discuss confidential business information.

It seems unfair that Council has different standards for Community Resources than it has for other village organizations that don’t have public meetings, Crockett said. However, according to Askeland, those other groups have not received $300,000 in public funds.

In response, Crockett said, “My irritation is that Council could have said no and not given the money. I’m not going to sit here as a member of Community Resources and say because we put that money to use that I’ve signed a contract that says you can tell us what to do.”

The 2004 Council that approved loaning the money to Community Resources was a different group, Wintrow said.

“That Council had common goals with Community Resources,” she said. “We haven’t had that working relationship.”

Van der Heiden suggested that more openness between Community Resources and Council might resolve the differences, and she invited Council members to suggest names for the Community Resources board, which is currently seeking new members. She also suggested that Community Resources could hold a meeting open to the public every three months.

The perceived distrust from the community makes Community Resources less likely to hold public meetings, according to Zalar.

“Why have open meetings if no one trusts you anyway?” he said. “Someone has to trust that Community Resources is telling them the truth.”

The issue isn’t a matter of distrusting individuals but of process, Hempfling said.

“I trust what you’re telling me. I don’t think anything is hidden,” she said.

Future relationship?

Community Resources members emphasized that they feel they could play a helpful role in partnering with Council to work on economic development.

“Each of us has a role,” Sutton said. “Government is one and corporate is another. It’s a different tool, and the community needs all the tools it can get.”

Community Resources sees itself as bigger than just managing the CBE, Abel said, and shares with Council its interest in both attracting new businesses and retaining current ones.

“It’s a good match for Council,” she said, also stating that Community Resources has “a nimbleness and flexibility in creating jobs.”

Community Resources can play a critical role by networking to promote economic development, according to Van der Heiden. “We’re able to see the big picture,” said Van der Heiden. “We can engage with Council and with other organizations. We can be the interface to make that happen.”

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