CR holds on to CBE property
- Published: September 24, 2015
Since last fall’s referendum that blocked the public funding of a local business park, the Village hasn’t spoken much about economic development. But the topic resurfaced last month when Assistant Manager John Yung presented an outline of economic strategies for the village. Included in a short list of properties potentially available for commercial use in the village was the 35-acre Center for Business and Education.
Like most of the properties with business potential, including the Vernay site on Dayton Street, Wright State’s former clinic site, and Antioch College’s Eco-Village site, the CBE is not owned by the Village. The land is owned by Education Village Inc., a subsidiary of Community Resources, Inc., whose members still feel that the best use of the property is to provide a home for new and growing businesses in the community.
“We would love to work together and make this happen — we want to see that land being used for the benefit of tax revenues to the Village,” CR President Christine Monroe-Beard said in an interview earlier this month.
CR has continued to meet over the nine months since the election. But the group has lost some of its momentum. Three of the board members resigned, including former President David Boyer, who said in a recent interview that he was “taken aback” last November when two of every three voters denied the spending of $1 million for infrastructure at the CBE. The group told its ex-officio members from Village Council and Miami Township not to bother attending their meetings because they needed to regroup, Monroe-Beard said. And the group’s blog domain name expired in March.
“We were all so deflated after that vote,” Monroe-Beard said. “It’s 20 years of work for nothing,” she said, referring back to the 1990s when village leaders first articulated that a key obstacle to attracting and retaining local businesses was the lack of business space available in town.
As an all-volunteer, nonprofit community improvement corporation, Community Resources didn’t ask for public funds as a private favor. Rather, its members felt that they had been tasked to partner with the Village to complete the CBE. And they remained faithful to that goal.
“We did exactly what was asked of us every time,” Monroe-Beard said. “Then Village Council gave it over to the people, and the people said, ‘we don’t want it.’”
Monroe-Beard believes many villagers had unfounded fears that the CBE would become a “strip mall,” “urban sprawl,” or replace downtown Yellow Springs as the village’s retail center. She also wonders if villagers understand that high financial risks are both inherent to any business venture and also necessary in order to make gains.
“To the general citizen, $1 million is a lot of money,” she said, adding that the payoff would have happened over time and was critical to making the village more affordable. “You have to make money in order to pay for things.”
The CBE project had been long in the works. CR incorporated in 1998 and undertook as one of its first tasks a commerce park feasibility study. In 2002 the Village and Miami Township agreed to allow the land to be annexed for mutual economic benefit, and in 2003 the Village entered into a development agreement with CR allowing that group to borrow $300,000 from the Village Revolving Loan Fund (nearly depleting that fund) to help purchase the property, which CR did in 2004. About 11 acres were donated to Antioch University for their new campus, with 35 reserved for the park.
From 2006 to 2008 CR procured two municipal grants from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Ohio Department of Transportation totaling about $1.2 million for water, sewer and road infrastructure through the park. Due to delays and inaction, ODOT pulled its funds in 2012. To date, the group still has about $400,000 committed from Army Corps, but according to CR’s defunct Web page, the funds are “considered vulnerable to a federal ‘use it or lose it’ action.”
Though the Village — which was the official grant recipient — has lost most of its infrastructure funding, CR still hopes to use the remaining Army Corps funds, before they too get pulled, to bring the utilities as far west toward the park as possible. According to Monroe-Beard, the group is currently working with Village Manager Patti Bates to get that done.
“There is no expiration, but the funds could be pulled at any time, and we want to fulfill the plans to get the utilities to the entrance to the park,” Monroe-Beard said.
Some options for the use of the land are still on the table, including selling the property and using the proceeds to fulfill the Village loan, an option that was discussed at the last CR meeting Village Council member Gerry Simms attended last winter, he said in an interview this month. Simms couldn’t speak to future plans, as he hasn’t attended CR meetings for six months. But according to Monroe-Beard, CR doesn’t want to just sell the property to the highest bidder, because the village would lose control of it. Likewise, even if the infrastructure had been installed, CR always aimed to work with developers and businesses who wanted to locate in Yellow Springs because of the local values and culture.
“We don’t want to be forced to sell to a developer to build what nobody wants there anyway — that would go against [CR’s] mission,” she said, referring to housing or retail or even Christmas trees. “We want businesses like EnviroFlight, businesses that want to be here,” and businesses that are clean and will generate revenue for the village, she said.
CR member Jerry Sutton declined to comment, preferring that Monroe-Beard speak for the group.
ED, the big picture
While CR continues to brainstorm and weigh its options, the Village is in no particular rush to make plans for the CBE, according to Village Council member Brian Housh. As the liaison to the Village Economic Sustainability Commission, which is now reconvening after some years of stagnancy, Housh believes that the community has given leaders a good deal of direction through the visioning process and most recently through the referendum on the CBE property.
“The referendum was citizens saying we need a fresh start — we need to regroup and think about what makes sense now,” he said in an interview this month. “What’s really important is following the model in the vision plan, thinking about the issues in a holistic way” and building on the village’s strengths.
A few key principles are leveraging the village’s highly skilled/educated work force and maintaining destination visitors to town, through activities such as Darren Gilley’s idea to bring musicians from West Africa here to offer classes. Housh also suggested thinking creatively about land use, such as the possibility of using the CBE for a community solar array or expanding agricultural businesses. Some key actions that have previously been identified include reviving the revolving loan fund, going forward on a villagewide fiber-optic network, and more discrete tasks such as compiling marketing data about the village’s vacant properties, as suggested by Village staff last month. There is a lot to be done, and any group is welcome to take any role it wishes, Housh said.
“We have plenty to do, and there’s a place for all the different groups if they want to be at the table,” he said.
Springs-Net, the Village Community Access Panel, the Yellow Springs Resilience Network, Environmental Commission, Community Resources and the ESC, which is currently looking for members, are all involved in economic development at some level, Housh said.
“We don’t need a million new groups, but I’d like to see coordination among existing groups — coalitions working together,” he said.
Of course the Village would like to know the status of the CBE property — such as who is responsible for marketing it and how to do so. If CR returned the land to the Village, for instance, Housh said, the Village would start highlighting it as available property on its website. But CR should take the lead.
“There has to be a decision on the part of Community Resources about what they’re going to do — what their energy as a group is,” he said. “Once the brakes were put on the CBE, we never agreed on next steps.”
The original mission of Community Resources is the retention and expansion of business in the Yellow Springs area. According to its former website, CR formed “to provide leadership in the creation and implementation of strategies to address the needs for economic development that are congruent with the values of the community.” However, since its inception the group has focused almost exclusively on the commerce park goal, said Boyer, who resigned partly because after the CBE, the group didn’t have “a lot going forward.”
And since the group has no income streams and, as a nonprofit, no investors, it would be difficult for its members to make any commercial purchases or initiate start-up activity, Monroe-Beard said. Their only resource currently is the CBE land, which they feel is best kept under local control.
“Keeping the land means keeping a little village control over it,” she said, which is why CR wanted to develop it in the first place — to maintain some influence (through zoning and covenants) over which businesses could locate there.
So for now CR is still discussing its plans. And despite its recent difficulties, Monroe-Beard feels hopeful that an idea will come along.
“Something will come up — something good will happen,” she said. “Timing is everything, and maybe this wasn’t our time … when things don’t go through, it usually means something better is coming up.”
The current CR board includes members Monroe-Beard, Karl Zalar, Rick Christiansen, Jerry Sutton, Kathryn Van der Heiden, newest member Dean Palotta, and ex-officio members Karen Wintrow and Jerry Simms from Village Council and a vacant Miami Township seat.