The halfway point of the three-year downtown construction project brings enthusiasm, anticipation and frustration to those in the city center.
The enthusiasm comes from a record amount of interest and investment in a downtown undergoing unprecedented improvements.
The anticipation is the result of the southern half of the project taking shape, as South Park Place, South Third Street and East Main Street near completion.
The frustration comes from shop owners losing business and customers confused by construction detours and parking availability.
“It’s going to be an adventure around here for another year,” said Steve Layman, co-owner of Anderson Layman Company, a commercial real estate firm in downtown Newark since 1983.
“Most people are optimistic and are willing to go through this. I think everybody buys the outcome. You can just visualize it — a little community down here.”
The city’s $19 million sewer separation and streetscape project started in March 2015 and is scheduled for completion in early 2018.
The city opted to make street and sidewalk improvements on and around the Courthouse Square in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency-mandated separation of storm and sanitary sewers.
In addition, the upcoming opening of the Canal Market Plaza, the building of a Licking Memorial Hospital urgent care center, the planned conversion of the former West Main Intermediate School into housing, the cleaning of the historic county jail, renovations to the Licking County Courthouse and next year’s widening of the Mount Vernon Road bridge combine for a level of downtown activity few can remember.
“I’m 78, and there’s more going on in downtown Newark than I’ve ever seen,” said Jerry McClain, a builder and developer who started the transformation by tearing down rundown houses near the Ohio 16 exit to downtown.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” McClain said of his efforts. “I just wanted to clean that up and make a better first impression.
“As we’ve seen it unfold, it’s even coming out nicer than I thought it’d be. I’m really pleased with what I see.”
It’s not just local business owners and residents who have taken notice.
“A lot of money is being spent down here,” Layman said. “We’re getting calls from out of town people interested in downtown.
“It started happening about a year ago. It’s the first time since we’ve been around, and it’s continuing. People are looking and making offers on things.”
Attracting people to live downtown is one piece to the downtown puzzle Layman said. The former school building will have 30 apartments and house 40 to 60 people, he said.
“It’s always been important to have people live downtown,” Layman said. “It’s slowly starting to happen.”
Layman said he expects to have architectural drawings of the apartment complex in May, put it out for bid in June and start the renovation in the fall.
Sweet 23 owner Cindy Birtcher and Kicks Mix co-owner Diana Shannon said downtown business has suffered.
“Our business has definitely taken a hit,” Shannon said. “Foot traffic has been next to nothing.
“Some customers have been very loyal, traipsed in the mud and walk several blocks to get to us. People don’t even know we’re there because we’re hidden behind the fence.”
Shannon said customers tell her they’re frustrated by the construction, the new roundabout and detours. They’re afraid of walking through construction at night on darkened sidewalks, and people hanging out at night around the courthouse.
“We’re still getting customers coming in and saying they don’t understand the whole construction thing,” Shannon said. “Lots of frustration being expressed.”
Neighboring businesses Sweet 23 and Wild Things have helped Kicks Mix, Shannon said. And, collaboration of business is a key for downtown during construction, she said.
“It’s been great having them there,” Shannon said. “Otherwise, I don’t know if we’d survive.
“If you’re going to one place, it’s insane. If you’re going to several places and there’s options to eat and shop and the ability to walk, who wouldn’t want to do that?”
Birtcher agreed construction has hurt business and customers are upset with the detours, but the gravel parking lot across South Third has been a big help.
“We’re getting close (to opening South Third Street) and just have to look at it as every day is one day closer to getting it done.
“When it’s all done I think everybody is going to want to come downtown. I think it’s going to put Newark back on the map. A fun place to walk around.”
City Councilman Jeremy Blake, D-2nd Ward, said some business owners met with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, seeking assistance, such as no-interest loans.
“They’re very concerned about the loss of revenue. The concern is people hear downtown is under construction and people just avoid downtown.
“It’s going to be nice when done, but are these small business going to survive until it’s done?”
Parking a problem?
Is parking a problem downtown? It depends on who you ask.
Some have said the problem is people just aren’t willing to walk a little bit. Others say the problem is the lack of enforcement of parking time limits. And others say the city needs more parking spaces.
The Downtown Newark Association asked its members to pledge not to park in front of their building, leaving it for customers. They got 35 signatures.
The DNA had 25 sign a petition to ask the city for increased enforcement.
“The city doesn’t want enforcement to upset merchants and wanted to know if merchants are for it or against it,” DNA President James Hostetter said. “We were just trying to reinforce that we’re on the same page.”
The city has not had consistent enforcement since budget cuts forced the layoff of two parking enforcement attendants in 2010.
“I don’t know we’re quite there yet,” Mayor Jeff Hall said of increased enforcement. “There’s people for it and people against it. It’s something we’ll look at. Might be some random type inspection.”
McClain said parking is an issue that needs to be addressed. He said courthouse and downtown business employees should park in outer lots.
“We definitely need parking down here and enforce the parking (regulations) we’ve got,” McClain said. “I’m afraid people will come to a beautiful town and not find a place to park and never come back.”
Others, however, have said concerns about parking show people are coming downtown, which is a good problem to have.