The past year has been one of many challenges and, in some areas, growth in the Portage County business community.
There are quite a few signs that the Portage County economy is alive and well at the end of 2021, with property sales, new businesses, new housing starts in different areas and a variety of industrial development around the county.
But there are also challenges that were either born of the COVID-19 pandemic or exacerbated by it.
Chief among those challenges is the workforce shortage, which many businesses and business leaders cite, including Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin.
“Companies have had challenges in talent supply, and we have been working with them aggressively to assist them in addressing that issue,” she said. “To that end, in collaboration with OhioMeansJobs, Aurora is hosting a talent recruitment training session on Thursday, Jan. 13 at 9 a.m. at the Aurora Fire Department training room, at 65 W. Pioneer Trail.”
Ravenna Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Ryann Kuchenbecker echoed the concern with workforce availability, framing it as the chief business challenge facing companies in 2021 and probably in 2022, as well.
“I like to be positive, but, unfortunately, I don’t think once the clock strikes midnight, this is all going to be fixed,” she said.
She said she has posted a survey where businesses can share their input on the matter.
She said she hopes to host business roundtables to help businesses solve the workforce problem and other business challenges in the new year, one of which are the continuing supply chain issues businesses in many industries face.
Despite the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic on workforce and the supply chain, Portage County did have industrial and commercial expansion in 2021.
In Suffield, Old Castle Lawn & Garden announced plans to open up shop at the former Trelleborg site on Route 43 in Suffield, bringing 40 jobs over the next three years to the township, as well as $2.2 million in improvements to the facility. Total investment is about $5.5 million. The company also received a 50%, 10-year Community Reinvestment Act agreement on the $2.2 investment in improvements.
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Streetsboro is home to the Geis Co.’s 434,000-square-foot industrial spec building, which was completed this year, but no tenants have been announced.
The city also granted the company a tax abatement, which required reinvestment in the community in the form of scholarship money, more money for the schools and a new park located off Aurora-Hudson Road near Joseph Industries.
For that effort, the city received an economic development award at the Mid-American Competitiveness Conference in Chicago.
“We took care of the schools, got some new money and got some money for our bicentennial celebration,” said Patrick O’Malia, Streetsboro’s economic development director. “I know they’ve had a lot of interest and offers, but I don’t know if any of them have been accepted yet.”
O’Malia said it’s understandable that Geis Co. is particular about who leases the space because, per the terms of the agreement, the company must generate around 180 or so jobs and a significant payroll.
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Streetsboro also is the North American headquarters of Gebhardt International, a company that produces internal logistics systems for businesses, mechanisms for moving supplies and products within industrial facilities, said O’Malia. The company has moved into Ferguson HVAC Supply’s former facility at 10040 Aurora-Hudson Road.
“I think they just moved in Dec. 15,” he added.
In Ravenna, planning continues for a new Menards store on Route 88 north of Route 14, and LG Chem America has plans to build two facilities at Chestnut Commerce Center, Ray Harner’s industrial park off Chestnut Street just south of Route 14.
LG Chem America Inc. expects to create 72 full-time positions, generating $4.7 million in new annual payroll as a result of a proposed project in Ravenna. The state’s budget include $367,000 for roadwork related to LG Chem. The grant dollars will fund Rayann Parkway, a new street within Chestnut Commerce Center which will provide access to the new business, Mayor Frank Seman said recently.
A 15-year, 100-percent tax abatement for LG Chem was recently approved by the Ravenna Board of Education and Ravenna City Council. Approval by the Portage County Commissioners is pending.
Dennis West, Ravenna’s economic development director, said the redevelopment of the former Oak Rubber building at 228 S. Sycamore St. is pending. The project, he said, will include seven retail storefronts and 20 apartments, plus other space for offices or retail. Another downtown redevelopment project, the renovation of Riddle Block 9, continues, and building owners recently opened the city’s first AirBnB in the building.
On the south end of town, demolition continues on a former Oak Rubber factory on South Chestnut Street, as well as a former mill on Lake Street that more recently housed Progressive Polymers. Both are expected to be demolished by this summer, West said.
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In Aurora, Womer Benjamin said several industrial businesses with plans to expand tapped the brakes in 2021.
“The businesses in the industrial park with expansion plans generally put those plans on hold in 2021, waiting to see the further impact of the pandemic on business,” she said.
One exception is CabMat, which completed a 22,750-square-foot addition which will enable the Gentry Road company to bring in new equipment and become more efficient.
“Our growth in this business has been fairly steady,” said CabMat vice president Matt Lanzinger in October 2020. “The recent shutdowns and all that were a bit of a slowdown for us, but we stay very lean as far as what we’re able to do to respond to the demands in the industry.”
Womer Benjamin said she believes several companies may move forward with expansions in 2022 that were delayed in 2021.
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Kent Economic Development Director Tom Wilke said the biggest investments in the city are taking place at Kent State University, which plans to build Crawford Hall, a $71 million building that will house the Ambassador Crawford College and Business and Entrepreneurship, and The Davey Tree Expert Co., which is building a large addition on to its N. Mantua Street headquarters.
“They’re actually a little bit ahead of schedule,” he said of Davey Tree. “They’ve beaten the odds as far as some of the supply chain issues. They should open their addition in late 2022.”
Wilke said one significant recent change that has helped downtown Kent businesses and restaurants — the Downtown Outdoor Refreshment Area — will likely remain for the foreseeable future.
“I think the DORA’s here to stay,” he said. “It adds as much help to downtown businesses as it is an amenity to residents and visitors downtown. It just adds to the environment and makes downtown Kent that much more desirable.”
He said he’s less sure City Council will continue to sporadically shut down a section of Franklin Avenue to permit outdoor dining in the city’s downtown.
“Obviously, the direction the pandemic takes is going to have an effect on people’s desire to take advantage of outdoor dining, and that will affect the decision making process,” he said.
The closure of Treno Ristorante has made room for OverEasy Morning Café to move in to the historic Franklin Avenue building.
For the most part, Wilke said, downtown businesses managed to weather the second year of the pandemic.
“The only closures I’m aware of in 2021 is Empire, which was right on East Main Street, and … Circle K closed out by Taco Bell,” he said, adding that building would reopen in 2022 as a convenience store.
He also said 2021 was a good year for beer in the city of Kent with the opening in late 2020 of North Water Brewing Co. and the Bell Tower Brewing Co. this fall.
Another large project completed in 2021 was the addition and renovations at Mazda of Kent, a nearly $4 million project that completely changed the showroom and service area.
In Streetsboro, there weren’t too many retail closures, but O’Malia said there are plans for new businesses, including a couple that opened in 2021: Buckeye Quality Meats, which is located at 9356 Route 14 and Norm’s Finishes.
The Buckeye Meats location had been the site of the former TrueNorth gas station, which has been closed for several years, said O’Malia.
Norm’s Finishes is the first of two businesses to move into the former Kmart building, which also had been empty for years. NorthCoast Auto is opening a detailing center in what’s left of the 9059 Route 14 building.
O’Malia also said Mode of Expressions is moving into the former Dairy Queen store at 9391 Route 14 in Streetsboro.
Streetsboro city leaders are also focused on setting the table for the redevelopment of Market Square Plaza and the surrounding area.
O’Malia said City Council may place a zoning issue before voters in November which would create zoning supporting the city’s Core Concept Plan, a reimagining of the area around the plaza as a downtown district.
“City Council has approved the plan, but they’ve not approved the zoning,” he said, adding an issue will likely be on the ballot in the fall. “I guess if you’re happy with the way things are, vote ‘No;’ if you want things to be better, vote ‘Yes,’” he said.
Womer Benjamin said progress continued at the former Geauga Lake and Sea World properties in 2021.
“The water and sewer infrastructure is already in place in the JEDD on the Bainbridge side of Geauga Lake,” she said. “As developments and businesses come in, laterals will have to be installed to tie in to the existing lines.”
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She said Industrial Commercial Properties has not submitted plans for the Aurora side of its property, but she believes two big box businesses, apartments and high-end single-family homes are planned on the Bainbridge side.
She said Ace Hardware has plans to move into the former Doogan’s property, which has been empty for several years, and there are plans in the works to update the entire Barrington Square Plaza, including the former Cinemark theater.
Womer Benjamin said Evexia Café recently opened, and several businesses at the Aurora Farms Premium Outlets recently opened, including a Columbia store and Hibachi restaurant. Also, former City Council member Amy McDougald Eckhard opened a real estate business in the city’s former post office.
Kuchenbecker said one of downtown’s newest businesses, Ravenna Nutrition, is doing well on East Main Street.
“They’ve been a huge asset to the community,” she said. “They’ve helped out at football games and have been extremely creative as far as their marketing is concerned.”
Vance’s Carriage House Creamery is another new business she said is doing well.
“They’re opening a whole new branch store,” she said
She also said the Ravenna 7 movie theater, which is owned by Neighborhood Development Services, seems to be doing well, particularly with the opening of the new Spider-Man film.
“People were commenting that the first coulpe nights it was nice to see the parking lot full,” she said, adding she believes director of theater operations Jeff Davis made the right choice by not reopening as soon as possible after the business shutdown in spring 2020.
Do you have a business or healthcare story you’d like to share? Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, firstname.lastname@example.org and @bobgaetjens_rc.