Gina Mace
Ohio.com correspondent


Editorís note: CuyahogaFalls.Ohio.com correspondent had a one-on-one interview with Mayor Don Robart to get his thoughts on his accomplishments over his 28-year tenure, what challenges the city faces and whatís next. Earlier this month, Mace featured his challenger, Democratic candidate and City Council President Don Walters, who outlined his 10-point plan for the city if voted mayor. That story is also attached. Take a look at both stories to get a better idea about each candidate on the Nov. 5 ballot.††



CUYAHOGA FALLS: For 28 years, Mayor Donald L. Robart has been the top elected official in Cuyahoga Falls.



He isn't ready to quit.



"I'm passionate about this city, its future and people," he said. "I'm really looking forward to the next four years."



Robart will square off against Falls Council President Don Walters, a Democrat, in the Nov. 5 election.



Portage Crossing



Since he last faced an opponent eight years ago, Robart has nursed the city through a sluggish economy and led the charge to purchase and demolish the blighted State Road Shopping Center.



In 2009, he created the committee that chose Stark Enterprises to redevelop the State Road property. The public-private project, at $60 million, is the largest of Robart's career.



After several years of lost revenue, the mayor said he can't wait for Portage Crossing to be finished and hiring.



Getting the city through the lean years while creating a new tax base for the future with Portage Crossing are two accomplishments of which he is most proud.



However, a tough economic climate continues to challenge the city, he said.



Beginning this year, Robart expects an annual loss of about $2.9 million in state revenue. Added to that is a $1.9 million loss from a drop in interest rates and another $500,000 reduction in revenue because of decreased property values.



"That's why I'm so ambitious about going out and getting jobs," Robart said.



Robart said many of the people who are upset that the retail development isn't up and running don't understand the complexity of the project.



Portage Crossing was on track to break ground this year until the former owner of State Road Shopping Center went back on a deal to sell one of the outlots for a new Menards.



Because the home improvement store is so large, its loss as an anchor sent Stark scrambling to find not only another anchor, but also tenants for at least three new outlots.



It also resulted in an amendment to the sales contract with new incentives, including an annual electric rebate of $50,000.



"Portage Crossing will bring in $450,000 in new revenue to our city-run utility." Robart said. "I don't mind giving them back $50,000."



Just because Menards won't be on the Portage Crossing property doesn't mean it won't be in Cuyahoga Falls.



Robart said he has a meeting scheduled with Menards this month to discuss bringing the store to the Giant Eagle property on Graham Road once it is vacated.



When plans for Portage Crossing were unveiled in 2008, it was expected to bring an estimated 400 jobs to the city.



"With the upgrade to Giant Eagle Market District, that's 150 additional jobs," Robart said. "Menards will bring 110 jobs. That will exceed the estimated number of jobs."



Riverfront renovations



Portage Crossing isn't the only addition to the city that excites Robart.



"Things are exploding on the river front," he said.



Two small dams were removed this year, and cleanup continues to reclaim a healthier river. Plans are in the works to build an area for kayakers to access the Class 4 to 5 rapids that are expected as a result, once workers are out of the water and it is fully flowing again.



Earlier this year, Robart was on hand at the Pavilion on the Riverfront Mall to unveil the Gorge Terrace plan, a South Front Street development that he hopes will turn the riverfront, from Chestnut Boulevard to the Akron border and Second Street north to the Front Street intersection, into a walkable area to live and play, with upscale townhouses, a hike-and-bike trail connecting to Gorge Metro Park and, possibly, a zip line, he said.



The Development Department is working with Thrasher Group, GPD Group architects, planners and engineers and Alpine Coasters to create the recreational area.



Plans are in the works for Front Street north of Portage Trail as well, Robart said.



Burntwood Tavern is already open and doing well, and there are plans for a seafood restaurant to join it and Habachi Japan, he said.



Asked about opening Front Street to traffic as Walters suggests, Robart said he isn't opposed.



"I can't do it just to satisfy [businesses] that are there now," Robart said. "It would cost $2 million to $3 million. It has to be done in conjunction with a master [development] plan, or we'll never get a payback."



Education challenge



Robart favors development that will attract young families to the area. But even if the shopping and housing are in line with that goal, there is still work to do with the schools.



"The schools are antiquated," Robart said. "They're updating by bringing in the interest based smaller learning communities."



A levy that would have provided much needed money for technology and curriculum upgrades failed in May.



"Clearly we've got to do something for the schools to attract young couples with children," he said.



Robart favors a plan to build a campus on the Bolich Middle School site that would include the middle and high schools.



Housing concerns



He wants to continue to keep property values up by rehabilitating those vacant homes worth saving and tearing down those that are not.



"There are 179 vacant homes in Cuyahoga Falls," he said. "If you live next to one, it's an issue."



The federal stimulus money the city received from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program in 2010 rehabbed and sold nine homes to owner-occupants. The County kicked in money to demolish homes, with the land going into a land bank for future development.



Money made from the home sales went back into the project.



Robart said they have nearly $200,000 in the project fund.



"We wrote a letter to HUD (U.S. Housing and Urban Development) asking if we can continue the program," Robart said. "We would like to do three homes a year."



In the past four years, utility costs were raised, although residents still pay considerably less than other communities for the city-owned electric, water and sewer.



The electric utility, through AMP Ohio, has invested in a hydroelectric plant on the Ohio River and a wind farm in Bowling Green, providing cleaner fuel to its customers.



A program to encourage businesses and residences to "go green" has given discounts for buying energy-efficient appliances and lighting. And the recycling program is in its 25th year. In that time, the city has saved $9.5 million.



Robart said he still awakens every morning excited to go to work.



"I want my constituents to know that in 28 years, I have not made a decision yet that is not in the best interest of this city," Robart said. "I would never do anything in my mind, my heart, that would hurt this city. That's been my mantra from day one."