STOW: Will the city create a downtown destination site?

The answer is up in the air after City Council on Thursday backed away from plans for a Community Entertainment District but took a substantive step toward exploring development of city-owned land at Darrow and Graham roads.

Council withdrew a plan to create an entertainment district in an area that generally included the City Center property and the land along the Darrow Road corridor from Bryn Mawr Drive to Graham Road.

If the district had been approved, it would have started a process to allow the city to acquire liquor licenses for businesses to use in the designated area.

Creation of the district was seen by some city officials as part of an effort to craft a destination downtown, but critics were concerned about bars dominating the area.

If the council had approved creating the district and received an OK from the state, the city would have received 15 liquor licenses (one per 5 acres, with a ceiling of 15) for businesses in the designated area. Councilman John Pribonic emphasized that the district would not allow bars, but would allow restaurants that serve alcohol.

Development proposal

Kelli Crawford-Smith, a spokeswoman for the neighboring city of Cuyahoga Falls, said community entertainment zones can be vital for the success of business districts.

In 2013, Cuyahoga Falls City Council approved such a zone prior to the development of Portage Crossing.

“Establishing entertainment zones is crucial for the success of business districts because it aids in attracting restaurants to the area,” Crawford-Smith said. “It increases availability of liquor licenses in those designated areas.”

Noting that entertainment district issue would have to go before voters, Stow Councilman Mike Rasor said such a vote would occur before the city would have a concrete plan for downtown. As a result, Rasor noted, residents would have a vision of a “line of bars.”

The city of Stow will ask architectural, engineering and planning firm OHM (Orchard Hiltz and McCliment Inc.) to assemble a request proposal for development of the City Center site, which is found in the northwest quadrant of the Graham and Darrow road intersection, and includes Stow’s City Hall, senior center, police/fire station and the service center.

None of these structures would be moved or demolished in the redevelopment area.

Council will need to approve the package before it’s sent out to prospective vendors. Nick Wren, Stow chief of staff, said he hoped to bring the request for proposal document back to council for approval in September.

Council’s decision

Wren noted Thursday that even though spending $8,700 for OHM’s work was approved by the council last year, he wanted to make sure council wanted to move ahead because of “the scope of the project.”

Wren said the plan to seek development proposals has “nothing to do with the Community Entertainment District at this point.” Wren said he believes if the process yields interest from developers that city officials favor, council could then revisit the entertainment district.

Stow Councilman Bob Adaska said he’s spoken with residents who like the open space near the City Center area and do not want to see businesses built there. He noted he did not “want to entice builders to come and build … when we’re not even sure that residents [or] council wants to utilize this property for that purpose.”

“I haven’t had one person come up to me and say, ‘Bob, you better vote for that,’  ” Adaska said. “What they say to me is ‘why give up a good thing?’  ”

Residents’ opinion

Rasor said a OHM survey of about 750 residents showed it was “important” to two-thirds of the respondents that the city develop the City Center area. Assembling a request for proposals was intended “to test the waters,” Rasor said.

Rasor said if the process yields a “high density” apartment complex with “a few shops,” or something else that officials did not envision, “this [idea] is going to die.”

“I’m hoping we’ll find there’s a good market,” Rasor said, “that we’re going to get a great return on the taxpayers’ values for this valuable land, and that we’ll provide something unique.”

Pribonic said if the city does not start the request for proposal process, “we’ll never know” what development opportunities are available.

“If we put a halt to this right now, we will never know [what can be done],” Pribonic said. “I think the people in the city deserve that right to know.”