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CUYAHOGA FALLS -- Mayor Don Walters hopes to see digging start soon on a $13 million city project to open up the Front Street Pedestrian Mall that has been closed off for 40 years and make it a two-way street.
Walters on Jan. 31 hosted a forum at the Natatorium to update the public on what his administration has learned in the past two years as it has studied and planned for -- with Council's approval -- the Downtown Transformation Project. Approximately 200 people were on hand for the meeting.
Walters said he works for the residents and he wants the downtown to be a "vibrant" place where people can go to shop, eat, enjoy entertainment and find employment. "Something you can be proud of," he said. Walters said his plan to transform downtown would increase property values and give the economy a boost.
"We have an average of 85,000 cars a day drive right through our downtown on Route 8," Walters said. " we need to give them a reason to get off the highway and spend some money."
Walters emphasized even though City Council approved 40 percent of the engineering, the opening-up of Front Street will not happen without its final approval. The mayor said he didn't want speak for Council " and I'd never want to pressure them."
Last year, the city gathered information from residents, downtown property owners, business owners, developers, potential investors, government officials, retailers, festival committees, and other communities. Walters said many of the things the public asked for are being included in the city's plan.
"We heard you and now we'd like to show you," he said. The downtown transformation would include on-street parking, trees, landscaping, benches, bicycle racks and repair stations and places where dogs can get a drink of water.
Walters said Cuyahoga Falls, like many cities across the country, believed closing off its downtown to vehicular traffic would bring back shoppers who abandoned the stores there for indoor malls and newer shopping plazas. That proved successful for only a handful of cities down south.
Walters said there is currently not enough foot traffic in downtown Cuyahoga Falls to support traditional retail stores. "And that's why they're not there," he said.
"Unfortunately, you've seen in the newspaper, Chapel Hill Mall is not doing well," Walters said. "People are buying a lot of things online now. They don't want to go to a big indoor shopping mall." The mayor said retail demands two things: visibility and accessibility. "A big indoor shopping mall offers neither. A pedestrian mall offers neither because you don't know what's there."
Walters said most people are not going to want to park their car in a parking deck in February and walk two blocks to a pedestrian mall on a weekly basis to see what's new. Front Street south of the Sheraton is "exploding with development," the mayor said, because "they have a road To the north, there is no road."
Among the speakers at the forum was City Engineer Tony Demasi who said plans for the project do not call for the relocation of the city's clock tower on Falls River Square. Demasi said moving it was considered but that would have involved too many issues.
"I personally would have liked to have seen that moved just because it's engineering and it'd be kind of neat to see," Demasi said with a grin, "but I'm OK with keeping it there I'll see something else moved some other time in my career."
City Finance Director Bryan Hoffman explained the project is a "$13 million investment into the community." He compared its price tag to other projects: the $27 million Natatorium and $20 million Portage Crossing. Hoffman said the potential returns on the $13 million investment are "exciting."
Hoffman said the city would borrow the money to fund the project, adding this is a good time to borrow because money is "cheap" and the city can get a locked-in, low interest rate on a long-term loan. He also said the city currently has a low debt burden and some of that debt is going to fall off and the city will use those funds to pay the majority of this new debt.
"We're not going to increase any taxes and there's going to be no levies that we're going to ask for," Hoffman said.
The city's planning director, Fred Guerra, also addressed the crowd. Planners from City Architecture and Osborn Engineering spoke as well as consultants from The Zall Company, Gibbs Planning Group and a5 Branding & Digital.
Lauren Pinney Burge spoke on her plans to renovate and repurpose the historic Falls Theater building on Front Street. Local ad firm TRIAD Communications was also on hand to help gather public input following presentations.
Jason Rice of Aventis Development assured the crowd a proposed boutique hotel will be built on Front Street at Portage Trail. "We are excited to be downtown," said Rice, noting his firm went through a change in operators. He said financing is being finalized and ground will be broken this summer and doors will open in summer 2018.
Attendees offer thoughts
Reactions following the forum were positive. Leslie Franks, a resident of Cuyahoga Falls for 37 years, said she is "very excited" about the project. "I've been hearing about it for several years and I'm really excited about them opening it up to traffic." Franks said she was glad to hear the plans include installing an elevator in the Green Deck parking garage.
"I think the whole idea is exciting," said Tom Sullivan of Cuyahoga Falls. "It's obviously not working the way it is. It's something positive in a time where there are a lot of negatives."
City resident Bob Gruber said he thinks the idea of opening Front Street is "fantastic," adding, "I couldn't get over the crowd tonight and how enthusiastic they are about the whole thing "
"I was most impressed by the number of people who turned out," said Keith Saffles of Peninsula. "I think there is a lot of community support. I grew up in Cuyahoga Falls and I think it would be great for the community."
Kathy Hummel of Falls said she is "very enthusiastic" about the project. Hummel is a former Front Street business owner who remembers when Front Street was closed to traffic. And she is a member of the city's Historic Design and Review Board. "I think the branding will be very interesting," she said. "[The project] will be a wonderful enhancement to the community."
Local historian Al McCaulley said he supports the project primarily because its planners intend to preserve the historic buildings and character of the old downtown. "They're not going to tear down the old to make way for the new, that's what I heard tonight."