MANSFIELD -- Mayors from the four largest cities in Ashland and Richland Counties all shared positive outlooks Friday morning when speaking with the business community at the regular Regional Manufacturing Coalition meeting in Mansfield.
During the hour-long session, the mayors from Ashland, Mansfield, Shelby and Ontario highlighted their respective city’s recent efforts to promote development opportunities and to clean up their communities. They answered questions from the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development’s Barrett Thomas as well as the audience.
“It’s an exciting time to be in this area. There seems to be a new energy in Ashland,” said Ashland Mayor Matt Miller, pointing to recent leadership transitions in numerous Ashland area organizations.
Within the past few years, new leaders took the reigns at Ashland University, Ashland Community Foundation and the United Way of Ashland County.
“It’s clear the people rising to those leadership positions are coming to the table with no other agenda but to move the community forward,” Miller said.
Miller too is a new to the mayoral office. He formerly served as an Ashland County Commissioner, but was elected mayor in 2017.
Friday he highlighted how the city is working to make expansion and new development easier.
“None of us are creating jobs. Our jobs are to make it easier for you to create jobs,” he said. “We’re trying to lay the infrastructure down to make as many developable sites as possible.”
He shared the city is currently in the “design phase” for two projects. The first would open up inaccessible property near Wells Road for potential development. The other would extend city utilities under Interstate-71, creating developable land on east of the highway.
Similar efforts are also ongoing in nearby Richland County, where the three mayors with cities of 5,000 or more residents called economic development a “priority” or “top concern.”
About a year ago, Ontario Mayor Randy Hutchinson recalls urging council to allow the city of Ontario to purchase the former General Motors property. Ontario City Council approved this unanimously.
“(The former owners) were never, ever going to do anything at that property, and (I didn’t want) to let it sit there for the next 20, 30 years, the way it was looking and become a jungle,” Hutchinson said.
Since then the city has approved bringing or repairing utilities -- water, sewer and electricity -- to the site. Further, two city employees have been working to cleanup and maintain the property.
“I took a big risk … but I did it because we want to get it cleaned up,” Hutchinson said.
Shelby Mayor Steve Schag considers it his job to “get out of the way” for potential business expansions and new development. He anticipates breaking down barriers within the northern Richland County city.
“We don’t want to be in the way. We want to pave the way for economic development. And I think we can do that by minimizing the bureaucratic impediments that are inherently in government … and maximizing local incentives for development,” he said.
He highlighted an upcoming groundbreaking on a 14-acre, 2.5-megawatt solar field, which will offer a renewable energy resource to Shelby and be the first of its kind in Richland County.
He’s proud of Shelby’s history and optimistic for its potential.
Like Schag, Mansfield mayor Tim Theaker says he looks for ways to reduce barriers to development. He recalls changing the planning review process when getting complaints that it was “taking too long.”
He sees benefit in projects that make Mansfield a “nicer place” to live. In recent years, he reports more than 800 blighted structures have been razed, improving the city’s appearance.
He also pointed to the Final Friday concert series, which draws thousands of people into downtown Mansfield on the last Friday of the month from May to September. The last event of the season is planned for Sept. 27.
In Ashland, Mayor Miller says the city’s “great cleanup” begins at the former F.E. Myers Pump Company. The five-story concrete building is currently being demolished. The mayor said the location will become a space for mixed-use properties and primarily market-rate apartments.
The apartments, he hopes, will help fill a need for workforce in Ashland.
He said if the focus is on “making Ashland more livable,” other problems may just solve themselves.
“We won’t have to worry about expansions or companies moving into our backyards,” he said.
Those companies would simply want to come to Ashland and their workforce would want to live there.