Avon Lake clears path to advance economic development agenda


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Making the rounds – Avon Lake’s economic development Director Ted Esborn has visited more than 200 local businesses in just over six months. When not visiting existing businesses, he is working with those that would like to come to Avon Lake (Press photo – Michele Murphy)

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Open for business – Avon Lake officials are actively seeking to bring new business to the city, while supporting those already there. (Press photo – Michele Murphy)

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Staying? Going? The power plant on Avon Lake’s lakeshore has been cause for consternation, having gone recently through several owners and rumors about closing. Current owner NRG says the plant is here to stay. (Press file photo)

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Not as hoped for  – Pin Oak Parkway still has plenty of land available for development. Officials have struggled for years finding ways to attract companies to that location. (Press photo — Michele Murphy)

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Ready and willing – Avon Lake Towne Center in the middle of the city has tried unsuccessfully to fill the large space once occupied by Tops grocery store, despite numerous proposals and “a cooperative owner,” according to Mayor Greg Zilka. (Press photo — Michele Murphy)

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Innovative renovation  – The former Wendy’s fast food restaurant on SR 83 just north of Walker Road could be the future home for Goddard School. Officials have been working with a buyer who would renovate the existing space and build a large addition.  (Press photo — Michele Murphy)

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“Ted Talk” -Avon Lake City Council authorized creation of an economic development department led by a full-time director last year. Pictured here economic development Director Ted Esborn presents to council. (Press file photo)

Avon Lake

by Michele Murphy

Economic development has been a hot topic in Avon Lake in recent years. Some talk was prompted by the up-and-down uncertainty over operations of the power plant occupying lakefront property east of the city’s Miller Road Park. Considerable fretting occurs every time Ford announces a line change for its Avon Lake facility. Right now, things look bright.

The list gets longer when considering how to fill existing retail and office space shuttered by large and small former tenants, the disappointment over a hoped-for light industrial-manufacturing boom on Pin Oak Parkway, two shopping centers in the center and west ends of town that struggle, and head-shaking over how this could have happened.

Critics of the current and previous administrations say not enough work was done to attract business when things were going well, and it now takes more time and effort to bring new businesses into the city, despite several incentive programs to attract them.

Some, including Mayor Greg Zilka, say the growth in Avon has been to Avon Lake’s detriment. Others say city officials simply did not prioritize business attraction, particularly manufacturing which brings jobs and income taxes to support city operations.

Council pushes for creation of economic development department

Last year, Councilman Dan Bucci, who had advocated for a more robust economic development program for years, proposed legislation to create an economic development department led by a full-time director. Zilka supported maintaining an existing part-time business liaison position citing concerns the increased expense of a full-time director would not yield hoped-for results. Council passed the legislation. Zilka vetoed it. Council overrode his veto.

Ted Esborn was hired last summer fully aware of the debate that preceded his hiring. As of now, he has impressed many — including some frustrated local business leaders — with the energy he exudes during visits to nearly 200 of the city’s 350-plus businesses to listen to their needs and interests, and yes, their complaints.

The way he sees it, he has three main tasks: bring new businesses to Avon Lake; work with existing businesses so they stay in the city; and support their efforts to expand. When not visiting businesses, he’s meeting with prospects about moving here.

As if that isn’t enough to fill his plate, he also spearheads two large annual events favored by Mayor Greg Zilka. One is a business expo to which he needs to recruit business participants. The other is “Shop Local, Shop Avon Lake,” held the Saturday after Thanksgiving as a means to urge residents to make purchases in their home community. He admits both are extremely time-consuming, although he seems pleased at the number of businesses which initially stepped up to participate. He says his goal now is to ensure it is worth their while to do so.

He is focused on filling existing retail/commercial space across the city. As an example, he cites his efforts to help The Goddard School purchase property on Avon Belden Road and secure incentives for refurbishing and adding on to the existing structure that was formerly a Wendy’s fast food restaurant. He is also working with a doctor who intends to open an urgent care center in The Landings.

He is clearly prepared to serve as Avon Lake “business cheerleader-in-chief.” When asked about the city’s assets, he easily recites a long list.

NRG – staying? going? staying, but…

In the past decade, ownership of the power plant changed multiple times. When NRG acquired the plant from GenOn, they initially said the plant would be closed. Eventually, they reversed this decision. However, the initial decision about closure prompted city officials, led by Bucci, to establish a commission to create a development plan for the west end of the city.

The West End Commission hired a consultant and rolled out a plan for a mixed-use development. Then NRG reversed themselves, decided to remain open and stalled the commission’s work.

David Gaier, who handles media relation for NRG’s eastern region, says the company has no plans to close. He adds, for now, it will remain a coal-burning facility. However, he adds NRG is working on obtaining permits as well as easements for properties should they pursue installing a gas pipeline to the plant.

He states the plant’s 75 or so employees contribute to the economic well-being of Avon Lake through payroll taxes and the “downstream” purchasing power of their paychecks. He says the plant itself purchases items from local businesses and pays property taxes to support local government and schools. The property tax issue is divisive because the company has fought to have its valuation reduced for years. Each time they were successful in winning a reduction, the city, schools and library suffered lost revenue. NRG continues to fight for further reductions and it is possible this dispute could even reach the Ohio Supreme Court this year.

Bedroom community or manufacturing hub for cars and plastics?

The Ford Motor Co. Avon Lake plant is the city’s largest employer, despite a financial sharing agreement with Sheffield Lake and Sheffield Village. Zilka states he has spent an enormous amount of his time lobbying Ford to stay during down times and grow during up times. As a matter of fact, he says the relationship with Ford is the thing he considers the biggest economic development success of his two terms. “They know we will come through with services, infrastructure and support their presence here,” he says. “They have room for other product lines and we will continue to encourage them to bring more here.”

Zilka and Esborn say plastics producers Poly One, Mexichem, and Lubrizol are incredibly important to the city’s economic vitality.

Critics worry the city is too dependent on too few companies for payroll taxes that support the city’s operations. They say the next economic downturn or a company’s change in business strategy could be catastrophic for the city. Some have suggested Avon Lake has become like Bay Village, which has a minimal business presence, thereby foisting considerable pressure onto residential homeowners to pay for city services through high property taxes. Zilka strongly argues Avon Lake is not like Bay Village, citing the presence of the large manufacturers on the southwest end of the city.

What about the shopping centers?

Avon Lake has three shopping areas and two are struggling. Towne Center at Walker and Avon Belden took a major hit when the Tops grocery store closed a decade ago. Zilka says despite a “cooperative owner,” the space is a challenge. He says he believes it is no longer attractive for a similarly sized grocery. Numerous proposals to fill the space have not panned out.

Zilka adds the construction of I-90, which pulled considerable traffic off Lake Road, had a terrible impact on Artstown Plaza at the far west end of the city.

While able to explain why the centers are suffering, no solutions to improve their prospects are in play currently.

The Lake – kiss and kick

For nearly a decade, starting with meetings organized by Bucci, business owners and city officials have debated the advantages and disadvantages of the city’s location on the lakeshore. Some reported they lost potential deals over the location. Zilka says retail businesses seek locations in the middle of a potential market. The lake limits reach for some. Others are annoyed by the “fish don’t shop” line Zilka is known to use, saying it is high time to be more positive about what Avon Lake has to offer instead of what it doesn’t have.

On the other hand, residential lakefront properties are constantly being upgraded or even torn down and rebuilt. Diverse and desirable housing stock is a plus for Avon Lake, according to Zilka, who adds the city’s wide range suits first-time homeowners, career professionals with families and retirees. He added housing stock is a factor when large companies are looking to relocate their operations – and their employees.

How far from I-90?

Some, including Zilka, believe Pin Oak Parkway would have more business activity if it were closer and a straight shot to I-90. Others suggest the city should pursue businesses that are not so reliant on trucking to transport materials and products thereby rendering inconsequential discussion about an extra mile to I-90 on a crooked SR-83 through Avon.

The plan going forward

Zilka says he wants the city to review its land use plan this year. It was last updated in 2010. He believes some areas could be “re-thought.” He added the downside to opening some new areas to business will not fill existing empty space in other areas.

On the brighter side, he notes Giant Eagle on the city’s east side is renovating to incorporate a Starbucks in the center of its facility. He also says Kopf Construction is planning to build 150 new housing units on the far west side of the city. Zilka hopes that addition, which will add 200-300 residents, might spur commercial development such as a convenient store.

Esborn notes there is a lot of work with small business that is part of his job. “People don’t always see that, particularly if they are not retail-oriented, so they may not recognize their value to the city.” As examples, he says three new small businesses had opened on the west end of town since the beginning of the new year, just a few weeks ago.

Esborn is expected to have a plan developed and approved later this year.

Editor’s note: Karl “KC” Zuber, former Avon Lake mayor and current council candidate, was contacted multiple times to provide input to this story. He did not return those calls. 

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