Economic development since 2000— Ideas abound, actions lag behind
- Published: April 24, 2014
EYE ON OUR ECONOMY This is the fifth in a series of articles examining the economic landscape of Yellow Springs.
Around 1998 local attorney Craig Matthews was representing a Dayton company that worked with that city to boost the economy in depressed neighborhoods. Around the same time, he found, in an old box in his office above Star Bank, a copy of Arthur Morgan’s book, Industries for Small Communities, with Morgan’s philosophy that vibrant small towns need diverse, vibrant businesses.
In Yellow Springs, people were also worried about the economy, as the town’s largest employer, Vernay Laboratories, had announced its intention to leave town.
“In Dayton I was working with these movers and shakers and wondered if we could do something like this in our town,” Matthews said this week from his Centerville office. “And reading Morgan’s book, it all came together.”
So Matthews, then living in the village, organized people representing a diversity of Yellow Springs interests, including large companies and small, plus the schools and Village government, and launched the first group in town dedicated to improving the village economy. That group, Community Resources, or CR, continues today.
Membership has changed several times in the past 15 years, but the group’s vision has remained constant: creating a local commerce park, the Center for Business and Education, on 34 acres the group owns on the western edge of town. Last fall the project became controversial when CR asked the Village to kick in almost $1 million to fund the CBE infrastructure, which, due to a series of delays, remains undeveloped.
While the CBE has taken far longer than anyone anticipated, CR members remain sure that Yellow Springs needs it more than ever, especially since, with the Vernay move, the town lost 400 jobs in the past 14 years.
“This is not only the best idea” for local economic development, according to founding CR member Sam Bachtell in a recent interview. “It’s the only idea.”
But while the CBE may be the only economic development idea to have held steady for the past decade, there have been an abundance of ideas floated for how to boost the local economy. Here are a few:
Establish a local co-op commercial loan fund. Launch a local venture partners firm to fund technology startups. Form a business incubator and learning center. Create a local discount card. Sell stock to create a general store.
These were some of the strategies that emerged from the January 2007 “Going Local in Yellow Springs Weekend,” a series of events led by economist Michael Shuman. Shuman came to the village for the workshop attended by more than 80 villagers, who heard Shuman speak on how to focus on local solutions for a stronger economy.
The Shuman event was only one of several community efforts since 2000 focused on strengthening the economy. Others were the 2004 and 2005 Men’s Group-sponsored Community Forums and the 2009 Yellow Springs Visioning Project.
But ideas are a dime a dozen and Yellow Springs has suffered from an inability to move forward to turn these notions into reality, according to Richard Lapedes, who took part in both the Community Forums and the visioning project:
“The results were vision, not strategy,” Lapedes said. “We’re good at vision and you can dream on and on.”
And yet, progress has been made. Last year, Village government completed a long-awaited zoning code update, aimed at making local zoning more flexible and business-friendly. Using funds from the 2006 property tax levy, the Village employed for a year and a half an economic sustainability coordinator, who helped to keep at least one local business from leaving the village. And the Village also created the Economic Sustainability Commission, where for almost two years a group of citizens worked to create an economic sustainability plan.
“A lot of energy went into that plan and a lot of smart people thought about it,” former Village Economic Sustainability Coordinator Sarah Wildman said in a recent interview. “It’s still a viable plan that at some point should be re-examined and refreshed. It can still be effective.”
And while Dimi Reber, one of the organizers of the Shuman workshop, has sometimes felt discouraged regarding the lack of follow-through, she also finds reason for hope. For instance, the Shuman workshop, along with other efforts, seemed to change the conversation regarding economic development, leading to a greater consensus toward more locally-focused solutions.
“It wasn’t just the Shuman event but the whole sweep of things led to consciousness-raising,” Reber said last week, stating that “a kind of evolution” in thinking had occurred.
And ultimately, the ideas are only as good as those who want to make them happen. Reflecting on the local economy, Reber said she was struck by the impact of a single person who grabs an idea and runs with it. For instance, several small organic farms now offer CSAs, or community supported agriculture. And the owners of the Emporium, especially Kurt Miyazaki, created an important community gathering space that sponsors events along with selling good food.
“It’s about who steps forward to actually make something happen,” Reber said.
What’s worked recently
In recent interviews, two Village leaders, former Village Council President Judith Hempfling and current Council President Karen Wintrow, reflected on local development efforts during their terms on Council. Hempfling left her position in November 2013 after eight years, and Wintrow is beginning her third four-year Council term.
To Hempfling, the most effective way to boost the economy is to maintain local services and quality of life.
“The best strategy is to make sure there’s a good quality of life here so that Yellow Springs is a place people want to live and work,” she said.
The most significant economic development victory in recent years was the re-opening in 2009 of Antioch College, Hempfling said. After having been closed by Antioch University for a year, the college has in the five years since re-opening grown to its current $19 million budget and 119 employees, and is now the third-largest contributor, behind YSI and Antioch University, to the Village income tax revenues.
But Hempfling also sees the college closure as having been Village government’s single largest economic development misstep.
“The Village made a huge mistake in initially aligning with the university, staying silent, seeing the college closure as an internal matter,” Hempfling said, stating that having Antioch University officials among the Chamber of Commerce and Community Resources leadership contributed to Village government’s initial stance. “People sided with what was in the best interest of the university rather than the best interest of the community.”
While a different Council, with two new members, soon took a strong stand in support of the college revival, Hempfling believes earlier Village government support of the college could have prevented its closure.
The Economic Sustainability Commission, a Village citizen group tasked with creating an economic development plan, was initially Hempfling’s idea, and she pushed for a citizen group because at the time there was no public venue for economic development discussion, she said. The group met for a year and a half, presenting its plan to Council in the spring of 2012. (See the June 4, 2012 Council packet for a copy of the plan.)
However, Hempfling gives the commission a mixed review. She appreciates the considerable time and energy that villagers put into creating the plan, but feels the commission lacked leadership, she said. Council members at the time were too busy with other issues, including Village staff turnover, to help out, Hempfling believes.
But Wintrow sees the Economic Sustainability Commission as having made a significant contribution to the village, she said recently, and its plan offers a way forward.
“I think the document forms the basis for a great economic development plan,” Wintrow said. “It just needs to be fleshed out.”
Wintrow also emphasized the role that staff turnover — the Village lost Manager Mark Cundiff in Feb. 2012, then quickly hired Laura Curliss, who was let go a year and a half later — had on delaying Council’s embrace of the plan.
“Council didn’t have the time or the opportunity to take a deep dive into the plan then, to say, ‘we’ll do this,’” Wintrow said.
Wintrow sees keeping eHealth Data Solutions, or EDHS, in town, as a recent economic development victory. That effort cost the Village only $30,000 (for the construction of a demising wall at the former Creative Memories site) and saved about 50 local jobs, Wintrow said, since along with the 20 EHDS employees, the Village kept the 30 employees of Antioch University, which later moved to the same site.
Wintrow gives credit for that success to former Economic Sustainability Coordinator Wildman, who did a good job staying in contact with local businesses, and having an ear to the ground regarding their needs, Wintrow said.
“Putting money toward an economic development director was a good investment,” she said.
In general, Wintrow believes that effective economic development comes down to good communication between Village government and local businesses, along with continual work on building and maintaining relationships. And while Wintrow acknowledges that large economic development efforts haven’t progressed, she sees, in her role as executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, that small victories continue.
“I know there’s the sense that energy has dissipated and people want to see something happen. It seems there’s been a spinning of wheels,” she said. “But in my job I see small wins happening every day.”
Community Resources begins
In 1998, after Craig Matthews got the ball rolling, the first Community Resources board included Sam Bachtell, Fred Bartenstein, Lehr Dircks, Marilyn Dowdell, Ellen Hoover, Barry Hoskins, Joe Lewis, Marianne MacQueen, Barbara McQuiston, Alicia Peters Pagan, Jeff Singleton, Glenn Watts and Dan Young. Matthews didn’t continue in the group, as he moved away from the village in 1999.
After being asked to join, Young, the owner of Young’s Jersey Dairy, signed on.
“There was a general sense that something needed to be done,” he said in an interview last week, referring to the impending loss of Vernay Laboratories.
The vision of creating a new commerce park in Yellow Springs emerged early on, according to Bartenstein. Local inventor and business owner Chuck Colbert had worked with Village government in the mid-1980s to create such a park, but had not succeeded.
“Chuck used to come and lecture us on how sad it was that that park didn’t happen,” Bartenstein said. “He said if you don’t do anything else, get that back on the table.”
The group hired Wright State’s University’s Center for Public and Urban Affairs to conduct a demographic study of local business needs, and later considered potential commerce park sites. And in about 2003, the group became aware that Antioch University McGregor President Barbara Gellman-Danley was talking about moving the school out of the village. Suddenly, its effort took on new meaning.
“That all of a sudden put a face on it, and it wasn’t just a vague notion,” Young said. “Here was an organization that employed people that we might lose.”
The group scrambled to meet Gellman-Danley’s needs, and CR representatives traveled to an Antioch University board meeting in Seattle to pitch the idea of McGregor (now Midwest) being the anchor of a new commerce park. The board agreed, and the CR representatives returned to the village newly energized, but needing to work fast: they didn’t actually own any land.
But 46 acres of land owned by Vernay on the western edge of town was available, and Village Council at the time was on board as well. So the Village used its Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund to make a no-interest $300,000 loan to CR, with the idea that the loan would be paid back after the occupants bought space in the park. With a $100,000 grant from the Yellow Springs Foundation, the group bought the land in summer 2004. Community Resources then gifted 11 acres to McGregor.
Then came the hard work of trying to find funding for the commerce park infrastructure. Hoover wrote grant proposals and the park won funding from the Ohio Department of Transportation, or ODOT, and the Army Corps of Engineers, for almost $1 million altogether.
“There was a whole lot of work done to get to this point,” Young said, estimating that he, along with others, spent “hundreds of hours” in volunteer time to move the project along.
“Someone said it would take four or five years to get this done, and I said, how could it possibly take that long?”
Now 10 years have passed, and the project is still lacking its infrastructure. The main holdup was working with ODOT, according to former CR member Carol Gasho. Because the grants needed to be awarded to a government entity, the Village served as the pass-through organization, and Village employees were tasked with the CBE project. The back-and-forth between ODOT and the Village in the design phase of the project took about five years, with ODOT rejecting several designs submitted by Jacobs Engineering, the Village’s consultant engineer. Finally, ODOT rescinded its grant due to the delays.
In August 2013 CR member Jerry Sutton requested that the Village kick in the amount needed to complete the CBE infrastructure, which later became about $1 million. Council voted 3–2 to move ahead with the CBE funding, but a process mistake was discovered that took the issue off Council’s plate. Currently, it is moving through Planning Commission and will return to Council in May. A citizens’ group has stated it plans to mount a referendum on the issue for the November election.
CR founding member Sam Bachtell describes himself as only an observer now, but one with a passionate belief in the need for the CBE. At the beginning, “it was exciting. We thought we were really getting somewhere. We didn’t think it would take 10 years.”