By Carol Biliczky
Beacon Journal staff writer
KENT: For decades Kent State has been cut off from downtown thanks to a four-lane bypass lined with chain-link fence. But that's poised to change.
The university has bought up enough properties to extend its esplanade or walkway from campus into the heart of a $100 million redevelopment project that aims to turn downtown Kent into a mecca for students, residents and visitors.
''The university needs to have a point of connectivity to the city,'' said Gregg Floyd, KSU vice president for finance. ''Both sides are anxious for that to happen.''
The massive face-lift, as city officials call it, is the first cooperative venture of this magnitude between the city and university.
Both sides expect to reap financial awards from the redevelopment the city in taxes and the university in student, faculty and staff recruitment.
''Our goal is to make Kent the Ann Arbor of Portage County,'' KSU President Lester Lefton said in April 2010 of the home of the University of Michigan.
''We agreed that our best is dependent on each other,'' City Manager Dave Ruller said. ''We want everything to work seamlessly together.''
City and university officials visited Bloomington, Ind.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and other communities to see how others created a town-gown atmosphere.
They credit U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, for securing a $20 million federal grant to build a parking and transportation hub for PARTA that will be the linchpin of the redevelopment.
City officials have state permission to change the bypass, a leg of state Route 59 that skirts downtown, into an unlimited access highway.
As the project proceeds, the fencing around
Haymaker Parkway will be taken down and a light installed to help pedestrians cross from the business district into neighborhoods that cater to students and lead to campus.
Meanwhile Kent developer Ron Burbick has invested $6.5 million in downtown retail and office projects and is working on a new venture. Private developer Fairmount Properties is building office space that will house corporate, retail and restaurant space in the same area.
As for KSU, officials were especially eager to build a hotel and conference center near campus. Trustees agreed to invest up to $3 million in the project as a part owner.
When KSU officials learned they were not permitted by state law to invest in the hotel, the university's not-for-profit arm, the KSU Foundation, stepped in, foundation spokeswoman Nora Jacobs said.
Over the last two years, the foundation has bought three properties on Erie and Depeyster streets that will be the site of the hotel complex. The foundation paid $512,000 for the properties, according to Gene Finn, KSU vice president for institutional advancement.
The foundation also has agreed to underwrite virtually the entire cost of the hotel, the first such project it has tackled. City officials peg the price tag at $13 million, but the details are in flux, Jacobs said.
The Pizzuti Co. of Columbus, owned by KSU alumnus and former trustee Ron Pizzuti, is investing money in the hotel complex as well, she said.
Foundation officials are negotiating for a hotelier to manage the complex of 90 to 95 rooms, a 14,000-square-foot conference center, indoor pool, small fitness facility and lounge/cafe.
Path to campus
Cathy Hemming, chairwoman of the foundation board of trustees, said by email that the facility would bolster KSU's vitality by providing ''close-in, convenient lodging for parents, prospective students, visiting lecturers and alumni,'' plus space for business and academic meetings.
She said the project ''will create cash flows that the foundation will be able to reinvest in the university and its students.''
Officials hope that by the start of the fall 2012 semester, hotel visitors will step out the door and onto the KSU contribution to the development: the one-eighth-mile esplanade that will lead to Rockwell and Franklin halls on campus.
KSU has spent $3.3 million to acquire 16 properties to extend the walkway of stamped concrete and brick pavers through a residential neighborhood catering to student rentals.
The university is negotiating for three other properties to complete a buffer between the walkway and housing, Floyd said.
Starting next spring, the university will spend another $3.28 million, $700,000 of which is coming from the state, to finish the project.
That will include demolition of the homes it has purchased and installing the esplanade, a gateway entrance to campus, trees, shrubs and gardens, lighting, furniture and emergency phones.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.