ASHLAND -- Among all the changes the city of Ashland has seen over the past years, the most important is the improvement in city spirit, Mayor Matt Miller said during his state of the city address Thursday evening at the Ashland High School's Archer Auditorium.
While blighted structures were demolished, renovations began, recreation improved and streets were paved, perhaps its the attitude in Ashland that's driving the city forward.
"We're no longer talking in our conversations, lamenting how we lost this business years ago or that the best days were back yonder. Today, we hear people talking about all the good things that are happening now for you and your family," Mayor Miller said.
The Great Cleanup
It started by clearing out the old. Miller called 2019 "the year of the great cleanup."
The demolition of the Pump House property began in 2019. The final wall at the site came down in late October, and cleanup of the rubble has been ongoing since.
The site should be converted into green space within the first half of 2020, but it will only be for the interim. The long-term intention is to make the space into an urban meadow -- a space for the community to enjoy.
"In some ways you could say we're cleaning up the old, the deteriorated, that that has grown out of date, and we're sweeping it away," Miller said. "And in its place we're building new. We're freshening things up, and we're bringing things back to life."
The city formally acquired both the Pump House property, the former Hess and Clark factory and an abandoned Eagle gas station in 2020.
Though some have expressed a desire to see the Hess and Clark factory saved, Miller explained, all the contractors and developers who have toured the structure say it can't be saved for any reasonable amount of money. An asbestos analysis is currently underway.
The cleanup of the gas station is dependent on a grant, which the city hopes to receive in 2020.
"We have no desire to be in the real estate business, but the fact is this is a step that's nessacary for us to finally get these messes cleaned up, and the truth is if we're going to put the dollars into cleaning it up, we want to be able to recoup some of those dollars when those sites become developable," Miller said.
Along Center Street, Miller highlighted a renovation project led by the Schrine's Theatre board. The group is working to restore the former theatre and possibly re-open it by no later than Dec. 31, 2020.
The exterior renovation, which included rebuilding the unique marquee, was completed in 2019. The interior renovation will continue throughout 2020. Those interested in supporting the project may soon have a chance to do so with a local campaign.
In 2019, the city made progress on its Center Run Trail project by acquiring all the properties it needed between the Sunoco and Dairy Queen.
Already this year, cleanup efforts have continued. The most recent cleanup to begin is at 16 East Main Street, which Miller calls perhaps the last major eyesore in the historic downtown.
Following concerns about falling debris, scaffolding was added around the building's Main Street entrance in 2019. The building's exterior renovation began Jan. 15 and is expected to be complete by July 31, 2020.
The space could eventually house the Ashland Area Economic Development Office, the Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce and Ashland Main Street.
The city also took ownership of the building that currently houses the Revivals Thrift Store on Orange Street. In an agreement where the outstanding taxes were covered by donors, Pump House Ministries agreed to transfer the property to the City of Ashland. This was made official at city council's Jan. 21 meeting.
Jobs and a Growing Economy
The largest challenge facing Ashland area employers is same one that's affecting the entire region, state and many other places across the country.
There's a lack of employees to fill jobs.
Still, Ashland has brought in business and seen existing employers expand.
Charles River Laboratories is now the city's largest employer with 1,000 plus employees. Miler said the majority of the drugs approved by the FDA have been tested by Charles River.
In late 2019, Central Ohio Medical Textiles (COMTEX) opened its new Ashland location. The $20 million facility began operations in early November to test its equipment, hire and train staff and receive product deliveries, and since then is meeting the needs of two customers with its new 55 full-time employees.
If a recession would hit, Miller said, Ashland is in a good place. He describes the industrial park as "happening" and "diverse." The latter could be especially crucial to Ashland during any potential economic downturn.
Additionally, city utilities were expanded beyond Interstate 71 in 2019.
Also, a road extension is planned for the industrial park.
Housing and Recreation
The past year, Miller says, laid the groundwork for apartments to come to Ashland.
Union Lofts are expected to offer affordable, one, two and three bedroom apartments near Home Depot, and behind Buehler's, a Columbus company has been approved to add about 50 apartments.
Upscale apartments are planned for Commerce Parkway, and a developer bought the property at the corner of Fourth and Union streets with intentions to construct 32 two-story apartments.
To encourage development, the city of Ashland passed legislation allowing a 10 year, 100 percent tax abatement for qualifying housing projects.
Improvements in recreation included six new tennis courts at Brookside Park, the new Brookside dog park and new pickle ball courts at another city park.
Mayor Miller reminded residents that on the March 2020 ballot, Ashland residents will be asked to vote on a five-year, 0.25 percent levy renewal for road repair and maintenance.
Since 2016, the levy has generated $4.8 million and allowed the city to leverage for even more in state funding. Mayor Matt Miller estimates the city has spent $6.3 million on road repairs to pave 56.25 of the city's 220 lane miles and more than 85 streets.
If the levy is renewed, he feels confident the city could create a cycle for road repairs that would allow timely repairs to all its roadways.
In the more distance future, Miller mentioned a one-lane roundabout could come to the industrial park. The roundabout would be designed to accommodate tractor trailers. It could be implemented in 2022 or 2023.
Also in 2022, Miller shared that the pavement on Claremont Avenue will be torn out and replaced. At the same time, new sidewalks will be added. An approximately $2 million grant funds this project.
Comparatively Low Crime Rates
The city of Ashland's crime rate is 68 percent lower than the state average, according to the mayor's address.
Currently, he said, the Ashland Police Department only has 28 officers while 32 positions are available. The city hopes to launch a campaign soon to show "how much we value local police officers."
"We want to recruit the biggest hearts and the sharpest minds," Miller said.
The construction of a satellite station for the Ashland Fire Department at the intersection of State Route 42 and Mifflin could begin in August.
Miller added that Ashland Police Department's Chief David Marcelli is the president of the Ohio Chief's Association. Chief Rick Anderson of the Ashland Fire Department is to become the president of a similar organization for firefighters in the coming year.