From ‘no,no,no’ to ‘grow, grow, grow,’ Avon is an economic juggernaut

Avon

By Michele Murphy

Before 1960, Avon was a village of fewer than 5,000 residents. When it became a city in 1961, it struggled with issues that included residents fighting about installation of sanitary sewers and the construction of Interstate 90.

According to a history written by long-time Avon resident Taylor Smith, published in 2005, the state had imposed a building freeze on Avon in 1968. Smith wrote, “Many citizens welcomed the building freeze because they thought it would stop Avon’s growth. A substantial minority had voted for sewers in the past because of problems with their septic tanks and the stink in their backyards. The building freeze convinced some of these people they could preserve green space in Avon by voting against sewers.”

Change came, however. Sewers were installed and Interstate 90 was built.

That history seems almost unimaginable as one looks around Avon today.

Avon Mayor Bryan Jensen is quick to credit his predecessor, Jim Smith, with laying the groundwork that has turned the city into an economic development juggernaut. He admits, “When the foundation is so strong, you are always afraid of messing it up.”

He then grins broadly and adds Avon’s continuing upward trajectory has to do with a promise he made to Smith to “not screw it up.”

So Jensen, a longtime Avon resident whose business acumen grew along with the plants and shrubs at his family’s greenhouse business, makes himself “available,” as he says, to talk up the city he loves and its assets.

He admits the job is somewhat easier thanks to Avon’s prime location on a major interstate and three interchanges giving people and businesses easy access to the east, center and west sides of the city.
He believes it also is his job to convince businesses to think, “I can develop the business I need with everything right here.” Here he cites the city’s efforts to build a sturdy infrastructure as key. In the past year alone, Avon widened Chester and Jaycox roads, added a turn lane to I-90 at Center Road
(SR 83) and resurfaced the entire length of Center Road.

While location and a sturdy infrastructure are strong assets, Jensen says great schools and safety forces are additional factors businesses consider when selecting a community in which to build their business.
He also says he helps businesses develop confidence the city’s direction “will keep their business strong,” adding this is another big factor in their selection decisions.

Jensen says “after setting the table” that leads to a decision to come to Avon, his job is to make the process easy.

“We don’t do a lot of tax abatement, so making their process as easy as possible is key.” He also has to help “calm fears.” As an example, he meets with and discusses issues some businesses face as they work through EPA challenges about wetlands. Jensen says there is little the city can do about those issues, but believes it is his role to help ease them through these processes, where possible.

Pam Fechter, Avon’s planning director whose responsibilities include economic development, might characterize Jensen’s description of being “available,” as a bit of an understatement. She says the mayor’s love for the city has him selling its benefits to anyone, any place, all the time.

She adds the fact Jensen was raised in Avon means he knows what is going on and often is able to point her to possible opportunities for the city to pursue.

Avon has grown — some may say exploded — over recent decades. Fechter says the city has more than 600 businesses. They are very diverse and range from small retail concerns with just a few employees to large manufacturing businesses with hundreds of employees.

In the past year, dozens of businesses as well as large nonprofits threw open their doors. While the opening of the Cleveland Clinic Avon Hospital at the east end of the city drew great attention, given its position as the city’s largest employer with 1,000 jobs, smaller businesses continue to flourish.

During 2016, Avon welcomed Cabella’s along with 21 more retail businesses ranging from restaurants to hair salons, gyms or car washes.

This year, they look forward to the opening of a Home Goods store at Avon Commons, restaurants, including Frisch’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, and more clothing stores.

Shop ‘til you drop – Avon Commons

It’s hard to imagine Avon today without Avon Commons and its diverse array of retailers and restaurants. However, when the center was first proposed in 1997, it was met with great opposition.

Some residents felt the center would damage the quaintness of Avon. The biggest resistance came from another developer keen on building a shopping center on property he owned.

Mitchell Schneider, CEO of First Interstate Properties, LTD., who proposed Avon Commons to city officials, recalls hearing people say back then they had to drive into Avon Lake for a cup of coffee before attending meetings at City Hall to discuss the project.

Zoning became an issue, so Schneider initiated a petition to place the matter of a shopping center in voters’ hands. It was defeated by 47 votes. Things changed when (then) Avon Schools Superintendent Robert Barnhart led an effort to get the issue back on the ballot, arguing “Avon Commons would give residents convenient shopping while also providing the schools and the city an improved tax base,” according to Taylor Smith’s history of Avon.

Opposing forces mounted a campaign against the shopping center. Ultimately, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled petitions to place the issue on the ballot were legal and ordered the Lorain County Board of Elections to release results of the vote which had been sealed following a special election. The
initiative passed by 60 percent.

Avon Commons is anchored by Costco, Home Depot, Target, Kohl’s and Heinen’s. It has a range of 30 more specialty retailers, including newcomer Mathnasium, as well as restaurants serving everything from pancakes to burgers, soup, pizza or Chinese food.

Despite the bumpy start, Schneider says, in the end, “people are pretty happy.” He believes Avon Commons was viewed as an asset by companies that moved to Avon more recently, particularly industrial companies to the north of I-90, noting the convenience of quality retail and restaurants at Avon Commons.

“We feel great about building a center that is a vibrant part of a strong community,” he states, citing the center’s design, architectural appeal, landscaping and use of green space as important features in addition to what he calls “a fantastic retail mix.”

Health care hub

The Cleveland Clinic has become a dominant player in the city. After acquiring considerable acreage along Nagel Road from the Richard E. Jacobs Group, the clinic moved to build three state-of-the-art facilities there. The first to open was a medical center bearing Jacobs’ name. In addition to advanced specialty and primary care, services include an outpatient surgery center, infusion suite for chemotherapy, full-scale imaging center, retail optometry and pharmacy. The facility also offers a large physical therapy area with two pools for aquatic therapy and a 24/7 emergency room. Cleveland Clinic officials report 450,000 people visited the center during 2016.

Last fall, the clinic opened a 126-bed hospital, the first regional hospital it has built from the ground up. In addition to additional surgery suites, it has an intensive care unit and is one of the most technologically advanced medical facilities of its kind in Northeast Ohio.

Nearby is an inpatient rehabilitation hospital, in affiliation with Select Medical. A Residence Inn and the Emerald Conference Center are located immediately in front of the hospital.

The clinic also maintains physician practices ranging from pediatrics to orthopedics at two locations off Chester Road.

Avon also is home to University Hospitals (UH). UH operates the Avon Health Center on Detroit Road just west of St. Rte. 83. It offers specialty practices, lab and imaging services, outpatient rehab and a fitness center. UH’s newly opened Avon Rehabilitation Hospital is an acute inpatient rehabilitation hospital located on Chester just east of Moore Rd. Mercy Health maintains a primary care practice that includes walk-in services for unexpected health issues. It is located at the intersections of Chester and Center roads.

Fechter noted she is receiving calls from a significant number of doctors who wish to establish their practices in Avon. For some, it could be a solo practice moving into an existing office space. However, others wish to build their own buildings to support several doctors and their staffs.

When asked whether Avon had become a health care hub given the presence of three major medical entities and increasing interest among doctors to establish practices in Avon, Jensen seemed reflective, rather than boastful. He clearly understands the city’s good fortune, and seems pleased Avon is the only westside community to serve as home to three major health care institutions.

Sports hub, too

While the clinic facilities dominate space on the east side of the city, there’s a significant sports hub on its west side. Avon can boast it is home of The Lake Erie Crushers, a professional baseball team
associated with the Frontier League.

The team’s home field was renamed Sprenger Stadium last year following sale of the team to local owners Tom and Jacqueline Kramig of Blue Dog Baseball LLC. Jackie Kramig says, “The community and fans are incredibly dedicated, loyal and generous in their ongoing support.” She added the fan experience will be enhanced this year and promised a “big reveal” next month.

Close by, the YMCA operates its French Creek branch. It features a wellness center equipped with treadmills, ellipticals, recumbent bikes, stair climbers and more; an aquatics center featuring an eight-lane competition pool, 25-yard lap pool, recreation pool, hot tub and sauna; an indoor cycling studio, a full basketball court and an array of programs from yoga or Pilates to fine arts and sports for children ages 3-12. They also have licensed childcare including on-site preschool for ages 3 and 4.

T3 Performance is currently constructing a new building in that area. Fechter says T3 has outgrown its current Avon facility due to expansion of the company’s athletic training programs. The construction is
expected to be completed this summer.

Managing growth

Jensen says the city’s biggest challenge over the next 10 years will be to manage its growth. He admits the fast pace of many business openings at the same time was cause for some concern given his desire to grow “in a controlled manner where we can watch over everything.”

Fechter agrees with her boss, noting, “We don’t want to grow overnight.” She says it is important to keep growth “steady” to keep “a good handle on infrastructure.”

Fechter says she also needs to make sure businesses feel the city is treating all of them equally. “Consistency is key,” she says, “even though you have one employee.” She says it is important to her all businesses know she is there to help.

Asked whether he foresees any “game changers” that could impact the city’s economic development efforts, the mayor says, “Truth is, I only see positives.”

He added he needs to remain focused on keeping existing businesses satisfied while encouraging new ones to come to Avon.

Success brings its challenges

Both Jensen and Fechter acknowledge, with tremendous growth during the past 20 years, a few challenges materialized. Perhaps the one affecting most Avon residents is traffic. According to Jensen, “Retail(ers) love traffic, but it does bother residents.”

So the mayor and city staff work through the issue as described by the mayor, “How do you provide all the amenities residents want and still be able to get around?”

Fechter explains each year the city budgets for and prioritizes road projects. She says it can be tricky because some residents either do not understand or agree with the way the city prioritizes. “We try to tackle the infrastructure needs that affect the most residents,” she explains, but adds, if a resident does not live or drive near and around the prioritized projects, they may feel unheard.

In addition to widening, resurfacing and adding turn lanes in heavily trafficked areas, the city is also dealing with sewer installation and replacing deep ditches that run along the side of roads, remnants of Avon’s past.

Like other neighboring communities, Avon has a fair amount of wetlands. This has slowed some development projects. One example is Bendix on Chester Road. The company is planning to build a
facility to house its 500 employees, but has not yet broken ground as they work through
wetlands issues with the EPA.

What’s next

The city updated its land use plan late last year. Fechter explains this is “the bible” for development as it lays out “corridors of business” in the city. She stresses the city has been and remains committed to keeping its manufacturing businesses away from residential areas. Looking broadly at the map, residential areas tend to be south of Detroit, buffeted by consumer retail and restaurants along Detroit, while manufacturing or light industrial is north of the interstate.

Fechter says the city is taking a hard look at how to develop the area west of SR 83, generally referred to as “old Downtown Avon.”

The city is planning an all-inclusive playground near the new municipal pool. She explains it is part of thinking about developing “something for people to do after dinner, a family destination built on what is already in place.”

Fechter says she hopes the pool and playground will generate interest from family-focused businesses and retailers to open nearby.

Jensen agrees and says, as the city considers its future, “We are trying to consider Avon as a whole as we make decisions considering old Avon and new Avon.”

Contact Michele Murphy at news@2presspapers.com

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