Heroes of East College
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Three grads put their degrees to non-Ironic use
Alli Katz, editor in chief
Ben Ezinga and Josh Rosen sit comfortably in their small house. It’s a nice place on a quiet street, tastefully decorated with large, colorful canvases hung with an eye for design. Only its neatness and behind-the-hospital location distinguish it from students’ rentals – except, of course, that this house on Hollywood is central command (sort of) for the Sustainable Community Associates.
A multimillion dollar corporation, the SCA is dedicated to improving downtown Oberlin through an ambitious renewal project that will bring affordable apartments, new retail and restaurants to the three acres currently inhabited by Rax, Jack Knight Dry Cleaners and the Buick dealership. The project, scheduled to break ground this August, has taken ideas about community building and economic viability out of the classroom, and into the real world. Ben and Josh make up two thirds of the executive – Josh as President/Commander-in-Chief and Ben as Chairman of the Board – along with Naomi Sabel as CEO. Their titles, the result of careful analysis and a hard-fought game of rock-paper-scissors, reflect the easygoing nature of these Oberlin grads.
But these guys certainly aren’t stereotypical “Failures-to-Launch” – a term the men loath. “It’s unfortunate. Nancy Dye was quoted a few years ago in the New York Times using it,” says Josh, shaking his head. “Many small towns similar to Oberlin have become more vibrant, prosperous places because the college graduates are sticking around and doing things like opening businesses, working at non-profits, and shopping at farmer’s markets. Keeping college graduates around is an economic development strategy.” The three founders all worked in the community as volunteers while students, and decided to stay because they wanted to make the town a better place. Their plan was originally conceived as a community center; possible locations floated around until they settled on the abandoned Buick dealership (what is fondly referred to by many students as “that place that had those great parties”). But with the new space came a new, more complicated idea: a way to encourage economic growth, environmentally-sound building techniques and new opportunities for median-income housing. And so the East College Street Project was born. “We couldn’t have done this in New York, Chicago or L.A. We couldn’t have done this anywhere else.”
It might be hard to imagine an Oberlin five, ten or fifteen years into the future. Most current students will be gone by then – their time at the college remembered for many as a brief experience in small town America. But part of the suggestion of the East College Street Project is that it doesn’t have to be that way. The plans call for unique retail and dining options: no chains, just small stores, coffee shops and galleries; the types of businesses that attract 20- and 30-somethings. “They’re engines of economy,” says Josh. Ben expands, “They start new companies, make new jobs, make their lives here.” As examples they can list a half-dozen or so local business started by alumni – some of the most successful in town – like Black River, the Feve and Weia Teia, not to mention agriculture projects and the Farmer’s Market.
The members of SCA argue that the downtown revival needn’t be based completely on the idea of younger people moving in or even staying after they graduate. The success of their plan is based on a combination of what students and residents of the town need now: a broad range of stores for a variety of consumers. They’ve had little trouble attracting possible businesses. Josh claims, “People think this is a nice place. They like they idea of moving here, running their businesses. The town itself has been a recruiting asset.” So far an Indian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant and a gourmet grocer have picked up spots in the retail areas. Other businesses, like another coffee shop and a bike store have become priorities for the SCA, as well as a number of galleries. Current students have created serious business propositions for some of the spaces. The apartments, too, are attracting interest, especially among faculty members.
Perhaps secondary but not forgotten is the SCA’s commitment to using “green” methods in the new complex (building on some of the features of the Environmental Science building, but more applicable to the average citizen). “Most features of green building are in an institutional context, or in million plus dollar homes.” They argue that making green living part of median-income housing can change the way people see things. “We hope to show people simple things in their everyday lives that can improve the way they live,” says Josh. Ben adds excitedly, “Before people of modest income pay rent, buy clothes or food, 14% of their earnings go toward utilities. Saving a couple hundred dollars on a gas bill is huge. This is a real thing for real people.”
But to get all this done the team had to attract money from a variety of donors, investors, non-profits and the government, learning a lot along the way about getting funding for such programs. “One donor offered us a million, but we wanted $1.5 million,” Josh said, addressing a politics class. “We emailed back and said we were hoping for more, and they upped it to the full amount.” Ben followed, “I never expected that I’d have to ask for government pork – less that I’d get some.” They also note that District Representative Marcia Kaptur, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, has been a lot of help.
Despite all the optimism surrounding the project, there have been some strong concerns – namely, Wal-Mart and its dark forces. Considered a huge threat to current local businesses, the big-box chains have destroyed hundreds of small towns, and where there is Wal-Mart, other superstores are sure to follow. “Have you ever seen Wal-Mart in the middle of a cornfield?” Ben asks. He points out that signs of a further sprawl to the south are all there – land just a few miles to the north of Route 20 is optioned by major developers, who according to Ben “don’t option what they don’t buy.”
These doomsday feelings have got many people in town scared – and the new retail space might dislodge some current stores from their niche. But Ben and Josh argue that the only way to battle Wal-Mart and its successors is to create a vibrant, separate economy downtown that offers alternatives and supplements for shoppers on their way to the big stores. They claim that by making Oberlin a destination in and of itself, a more sustainable economy can form. “In the past, it used to be ‘build an industrial park and the businesses will come,’ but now, the industrial parks are closed. It’s not effective or enough to promote an economic development strategy that is similar to Elyria or Lorain. It’s about the unique aspect of the place itself.” And Oberlin is ripe for the pickin’. “Marketing the arts and the cultural aspects of the community are the best ways to stay economically viable,” says Josh. “If Oberlin did a better job of promoting what’s going on now, there’d be huge amounts of money coming in from Cleveland and the rest of the region.” He suggests possible package deals, where someone could come in to see a performance at the Con, have dinner at one of the new restaurants and then get a deal staying at the Oberlin Inn. “As much as there is a demand for Wal-Mart and cheap tube socks, there is a demand for unique things, like the bead store and locally grown produce.”
As for fears that a development like this might hurt current business, Josh suggests looking at the long term. “In the short-run, will the Chinese restaurant be hurt by an Indian place – maybe. But in the end, everyone, merchant and consumer, will benefit from the increased competition.” Ben adds, “We’re going to have a Wal-Mart in the next 19 months – in 10 years, Downtown Oberlin will look a lot different anyway. Can I predict what will happen? No. But it seems to be the best way to prevent the town from losing out.”