by Michele Murphy
Sheffield Village Mayor John Hunter’s grandfather taught him valuable lessons as a youth in West Virginia. In those days, they pumped their water. For the pump to work properly, it needed to be primed before each use. Hunter recalls being told, “The first thing you do is prime the pump.” That meant a jar on a nearby shelf was filled with water and set aside to prime the pump for its next use. You did this first, and always, “and then you get your drink,” he says.
Hunter took this life lesson and applied it to his vision and work for developing Sheffield Village after he was elected mayor in 2007. He knew, as did others in the village, this one-time farming community was changing. He “primed the pump” by developing a master plan for development. It segmented residential from commercial or industrial areas. It covered plans for roads, sewers, waterlines and stormwater retention. Historically, planning had been a bit “hodge-podge,” according to the mayor. He could see what was coming and knew the village needed to plan for its future.
Then he worked with Village Council to create and implement legislation in support of the plan. They also corrected systems installed by some builders that did not prevent flooding. He worked with his neighbors in Avon and North Ridgeville to address water retention issues.
As the mayor and residents watched their community change as families and businesses moved west from Cleveland, Hunter welcomed newcomers but was always mindful of the village’s history, and the importance of retaining that part of its identity.
Burrell House – home to one of Sheffield’s founders, Burrell House served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and for a time, hosted classes for Oberlin College, marking the first time women and African-Americans attended college classes with white male counterparts. (Press photo- Michele Murphy)
Sheffield Village, and its northerly neighbor, Sheffield Lake, celebrated their bicentennial two years ago. Both originally were part of a larger geographic area that encompassed Sheffield Township and South Lorain, but were broken up into their own entities as the years passed.
Shortly after the War of 1812, the families of Capt. Jabez Burrell and Capt. John Day of Sheffield, Mass., became the area’s first settlers. They were impressed with the land’s farming potential and proximity to lakes and streams. Several of their neighbors joined them. They named their new home Sheffield in honor of their former home.
Jabez Burrell was a leader in the new community. He was elected Justice of the Peace in 1819 and 1822. His sons, Robbins and Jabez Lyman, were founders and original trustees of Oberlin College. In 1836, the college established the Sheffield Manual Labor Institute on the Burrell Homestead. Women and African-American students attended college classes alongside white male students, reportedly for the first time in U.S. history.
Prior to the Civil War, Robbins Burrell and neighbor Milton Garfield were active abolitionists and operated stations on the Underground Railroad. The Burrell house was used as the 100th stop on the Underground Railroad, according to documents published by the Sheffield Village Historical Society. Another Sheffield resident, Aaron Root, was a Great Lakes shipmaster, and he hid runaway slaves on his ship and took them to Canada.
During the 1840s and 50s, a large group of immigrants from Bavaria settled in Sheffield. They were responsible for establishing and building St. Teresa Church, which still exists today.
Shortly after the Civil War, a schoolhouse was built on what is now Detroit Road. That property was eventually sold to the village and served as Village Hall for some 65 years, starting in 1935. Next to it is Garfield Cemetery where many of Sheffield’s first settlers and their families are buried. Both were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Old Village Hall still houses operations for the village finance department. The Jabez Burrell House and Milton Garfield House are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to the historical society, more than 30 structures in Sheffield Village have been designated historic.
Then and now – The Village’s first hall (l) was originally a schoolhouse built shortly after the Civil War. The Village’s current municipal complex houses the police and fire departments, council chambers and the Mayor’s offices. (photos – Michele Murphy)
Welcoming progress while honoring its history
Driving through the village, one can’t help but notice how modernity has begun to mix with history. Those historic homes and landmarks are now just around the corner from housing developments and shopping areas.
An example is the area just west off the exit from I-90 at Detroit Road (SR 254). The land where University Hospitals Center for Orthopedics, several car dealerships and restaurants now sit was once part of the Milton Garfield homestead and farm. The home and adjacent out-buildings still stand just a few hundred feet away.
Development is fine with Hunter as long as “the village is developed in a proper way while maintaining its status as a village.”
When Hunter arrives at a meeting to discuss economic development, he is armed with a map, statistics and a deep conviction being “pro-business” helps “keep the village as a village.”
He knows how many businesses are in the village: 284. He also knows “7,000 people come to the village to work every day.” He says “98 percent of residents work outside of the village” and “38 percent of residents work outside of Lorain County.”
From his perspective, residents “are here to live, entertain and shop.”
He is clear tax support from local businesses “supports more than 80 percent of services for residents.”
Needless to say, he is very interested in the success of the village’s businesses — large or small, established or new. “I track by income tax and can see whether or not they are adding. If I see a business falling off that means they are working less. So I go see them to see what we might be able to do to help them.”
He believes in good communication. Some of those stops to businesses help him know a drop “could be simple as a change in product line.”
For his part, he sends emails “to inform them of what is going on” and he requests information back from them as well. At the bottom of those emails -— and all his other correspondence as well as village staff’s – is the village’s tagline — “The Heart of Lorain County.”
The Heart of Lorain County
To Hunter, it is more than a tagline. He uses it as a marketing tool and with effect.
When he pitched a site in the village to house an outpatient clinic for the VA, Hunter repeatedly talked up the village’s central location and proximity to an interstate as good reasons to select the site. That VA outpatient clinic opened last summer — in the heart of Sheffield Village.
It’s interesting to note the VA has neighbors including Northcoast Building Industry Association, Lorain County Medical Society and Ohio Business College, along with retail stores and offices and another new neighbor, Scott Nagy Dental Group (see related story pg. –)
Hunter holds the mayor’s annual Business Council Breakfast each May where he presents a State of the Village speech. It is not only his way of keeping businesses informed. It is also to encourage something he considers part of economic development: networking.
The mayor is happy to help figure out whether local businesses can sell products to each other. As he puts it, “How can I help one business to help another business and keep it local?”
Sheffield Village cares – Volunteers from Village churches (l) are ready to serve a free Thanksgiving dinner to any and all as part of the Annual Community Dinner. Village police officers distribute turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The turkeys are purchased by local business owners. (Press photos – Michele Murphy)
Community culture of caring
People who know John Hunter – business people or residents – are no longer surprised when right after saying, “Hello,” he asks, “How can I help you?”
He does it with business outreach and community outreach. He believes in helping all he can. It’s not unusual in a given conversation to hear him brag about the schools, while promoting an upcoming event, or asking if you know about a particular store or business in the village.
More often than not, he will also talk about the residents. He is like a proud papa reveling over their success and worrying when they struggle. So he works with local churches to put on a free community dinner each year. He makes sure those who need a holiday turkey get one through generous cash donations from local businesses and distribution by members of the police department that is best described as “getting pulled over for a turkey.” (see Go for it – Jimmy Miller pg. –)
With all that Sheffield Village has been through in 202 years, the mayor is practical in saying, “You cannot get everything done overnight.” Then he quickly adds, “But, you gotta have a plan” and smiles.
Drawing from his experience working for Ford and serving as a leader in the UAW, he describes planning this way: “I like the adage about driving a car. Think of the design of a car. It has a great big windshield to look ahead and a smaller rear view mirror so you can see what’s behind.”
“If you see something going awry now, you don’t want to go that way, you want to change it (course).”
Looking ahead, the Preserve at French Creek is now leasing new luxury apartments. The mayor joked the village was having a housing boom with construction of five new homes last year. New businesses are slated to open or are in discussion about opening. The mayor noted he has talked with a number of doctors who are interested in office space in the village.
Right now, the path ahead looks clear, so there’s no need to tap the brake.
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