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McKee Group holds forum— Villagers debate CBE funding

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About 100 villagers turned out last Thursday evening to discuss whether the Village should fund the Center for Business and Education, or CBE. The community forum was sponsored by the James A. McKee Association and took place at the First Presbyterian Church, with Jalyn Roe serving as moderator.

The evening began with three representatives of Community Resources, the creator of the CBE, discussing the CBE’s history, present situation and future possibilities. Speaking for the group were former CR board member Carol Gasho, current CR vice-president Jerry Sutton and former CR board chair Lisa Abel.

The event then featured speakers who support the Village funding the CBE, and some who questioned the move. While McKee Group president Harry Lipsitt said the group sought an even number of speakers from each perspective, the event tipped in favor of the CBE, with six featured speakers speaking in favor of funding the project and two speaking against it. The imbalance occurred because those opposed to the project did not respond to a request for speakers, Lipsitt said. Following the speakers, audience members had opportunities to raise questions or comment.

Speakers for funding the CBE stated that it’s the best way to bring more jobs to the village, both by attracting new businesses and by providing space for existing businesses to grow.

“If we don’t build this, we’ll have no place for businesses to come to,” said CR President Kathryn Van der Heiden. “This will take some energy, hope, dedication and willingness to talk to each other constructively.”

But taking on more debt by funding the project is the wrong way to attract new businesses, which are looking for financially viable towns in which to locate, according to Dawn Johnson, a city planner who works as a GIS coordinator for Warren County.

“It’s not financially prudent to assume more debt,” said Johnson, stating that in her experience in Lebanon, businesses seek visibility from a major highway and sufficient broadband capacity, both lacking at the CBE.

Speaking for the CBE, Glen Courtright, head of EnviroFlight, identified the reasons that Yellow Springs drew his new business here five years ago. The community offered access to an educated workforce, a commitment to sustainability, a desirable location, easy access and a “high quality life,” Courtright said, stating that, “If the CBE were here today, I would go.”

However, Courtright said he needs to move to a larger space within six months, and is considering Antioch College and the Creative Memories building as possible locations.

The second speaker raising objections to the CBE, Christine Roberts, stated her disappointment that CR leaders were not open to a proposal from Yellow Springs Renewable Energy to locate a solar farm on 10 acres of the CBE land. The backers of the solar farm offered to pay $500,000 for 20 years’ rent, Roberts said, but CR turned them down as a potential occupant, and now the group is coming to the Village to use taxpayers’ money for funding.

“This gives me pause,” Roberts said. “We need to be asking, what is the appropriate role of government in economic development?”

In explaining the CBE history, former CR board member Carol Gasho stated that Community Resources began in 1998 to promote economic development in the village. Currently, the group’s members are Sutton, Van der Heiden, Karl Zalar, Megan Bachman, Roi Qualls, Rick Kristensen, Dave Boyer, Trent Fisher, Bill Short, Elizabeth DeForest, Christine Monroe-Beard and Sue Abendroth.

“One of our first actions was to commission a commerce park feasibility study,” Gasho said. The group later identified 46 acres on the western edge of Yellow Springs, then owned by Vernay Laboratories, as a likely spot for the park. A Cooperative Economic Development Agreement, or CEDA, between the Village and the Township Trustees, paved the way for the Village annexing the land.

In 2004 the Village granted CR an interest-free loan of $300,000 (with monies from the Revolving Economic Development Loan Fund) to purchase the land, with the understanding that the loan be repaid when the lots were sold. The Yellow Springs Community Foundation added a $100,000 grant to the project. CR then purchased the land, later giving 11 acres to Antioch University for the new AU Midwest building.

In 2005 Community Resources won two grants (written by CR member Ellen Hoover) for the project, with $594,000 coming from the Ohio Department of Transportation, or ODOT, for the design and infrastructure construction, and $596,000 from the US Army Corps of Engineers for water-related infrastructure. However, the granting agencies needed a local authority to administer the grants, and the Village signed on to do so.

“Community Resources and the Village have been in this together from the get-go,” Sutton said.

While the CBE design project moved ahead with the Village taking the lead on the project, it did so slowly, with ODOT requesting many design revisions. Finally, a year ago, the unused part of the ODOT grant was rescinded due to the many delays. In September, Sutton, representing CR, came to the Village to seek about $700,000 to finish the infrastructure, a project estimated to cost about $1.4 million altogether.

“We want to provide a sizable shovel-ready greenfield space in which to develop businesses,” Sutton said, stating the group’s overall goal is to promote local economic development in order to expand the tax base in the Village. According to a fiscal analysis Sutton created, the CBE, once fully occupied, would generate about $800,000 yearly to local entities (the Village, the Township and the school district.)

Speaking on the potential of the CBE, Lisa Abel identified a list of companies that have moved out of Yellow Springs, including Klein Associates, Vernay Laboratories, LaserLinc and Servlet, which plans to move soon.

“There’s a pattern every three to five years of another business leaving,” she said.

Regarding potential businesses for the CBE, Abel stated that EnviroFlight and Yellow Springs Brewery are examples of existing businesses that might locate there, and she imagined it as a potential site for hypothetical businesses that could grow within Yellow Springs, such as one developed around the school district’s interest in project-based learning.

The CBE’s development model assumes a developer would secure loans based on long-term leases signed by credit-worthy businesses in order to construct the buildings, Abel said.

Others who spoke for the CBE were CR board members Christine Monroe-Beard and Roi Qualls, former CR board member Dan Young and Township Trustee Chris Mucher, an ex officio CR board member.

During questions and comments from audience members, local landlord Bob Baldwin stated that “the elephant in the house” is the recent sale of the Creative Memories building, whose new owners stated they have about 30,000 square feet of office, production or warehouse space to rent, which would be competing with the CBE. And as a long-term landlord, Baldwin said, “I’ve been renting buildings and have lost businesses but not because the space is not there.”

Rather, he said. businesses have left to go to less expensive localities.

“If you really want businesses, spend the $700,000 to offer incentives like tax abatements,” Baldwin said. “Every other community offers this.”

Thor Sage of the Miami Valley Educational Computer Association, or MVECA, also encouraged the Village to be competitive with other communities, such as Springfield.

In response to a question from Patti Dallas about whether CR could have businesses committed to the CBE before moving forward, MillWorks co-owner Ellen Hoover said that when businesses need to move, they need to do so quickly.

“No one says they want something two years from now,” she said. “When a business is looking for space, they need it now.”

Andrew Kline of Green Generation Builders encouraged the Village to move ahead with the CBE, in order to make the village more affordable and therefore attractive to young people.

“The time is now to begin,” Kline said.

Isaac Delamatre, the chef at Antioch College, questioned using the CBE land for commercial uses rather than for farming.

“Are we concerned about building sustainable food systems in the community?” he said. “By paving over valuable farmland you’re eliminating that possibility forever.”

While the land is used currently for growing soybeans, it is zoned as a commercial property, Sutton said, stating that “industry comes in waves” and the Village needs to act now to be ready to attract business in 15 years.

“If we wait and don’t build, we’ll miss the next wave, and it will pass,” Sutton said.

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