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Robert Stinson, Oberlin News Tribune

Much of the concern over the East College Street Project turns on its being undertaken by “newcomers.” I am a sort of newcomer, myself, at least in residence–a couple of years–though my heart has been in Oberlin a couple of decades.

So I went to the December 19th City Council meeting to see what this and other concerns were about. I could have watched it on TV, of course, but the camera cannot be everywhere nor move as quickly as my own eyes to see as well as hear actions and reactions. This was also my first Council meeting.

As I listened to the arguments for and against the night’s specific proposal, that Council approve a million and a half dollars in tax increment financing (TIF), I kept replaying conversations I had two years ago with realtors, bankers and lawyers as I prepared to buy property and move here.

More than one of them said, “Oberlin is anti-development.” Property values, one said, tended to rise steadily but modestly over the years. Economically, not much changes here.

I am guessing the person was thinking about the fight over letting McDonald’s build a restaurant on the edge of town and things like that. I did not ask. The Oberlin of my frequent, happy visits over the years was fine with me. My wife and I bought a hundred-year-old house, painted it in old-world colors, and settled in.

Nothing, though, in the East College Street Project, as plans and images of it began to appear in the local papers, threatened my own sense of what Oberlin was or should be.

Its visual look, its prospects of re-animating the business district in the very teeth of Wal-Mart opening south of town, its providing of employment and housing at various income levels, its encouragement of minority-owned businesses downtown, and its practical demonstration of a new environmental consciousness we all should have, made the project seem not just tolerable but wise.

If the word “development” too often conjures up images of traffic jams, chaotic parking lots, high-perched neon signs, and litter blowing in the wind, the East College Street Project helps us see our way toward a better definition of the concept.

So I thought City Council’s approval of TIF, moving the project further along, was a happy outcome.

The meeting, itself, was revealing. I had heard and read arguments for and against the project before, of course–we all had–but the evening of December 19 seemed a microcosm and showed how people make up their minds.

Some arguments were philosophical. Councilman Everett Tyree, for example, said he thought the function of government was to receive and approve (or not) proposals from private developers but should not be an investing partner. He was admirable for his succinctness and clarity.

This is an argument my own years of teaching urban history made me familiar with. Had I an active role to play in the decision, I would have pointed out how long out of date it was. Cities have been in partnership with private business for the good of communities since the 19th century.

Dan Gardner, President of City Council, whose even-handed style and affable good will encouraged as full a hearing as possible, did not make that argument but a practical one based on much more recent history. His philosophy, he said, suggested a more passive role for government, too, but other towns around us were already using partnership agreements that enhanced their economic viability to the potential detriment of our own.

I also noted the eyes-wide-open attitude of Councilwoman Sharon Soucy, whose opening statement, though she planned to vote aye on TIF, was full of caveats. The risks of a city financial investment are minimal but quite real for all that. I also appreciated her critique of Council’s tendency to legislate on “emergency status.”

What she said and how she said it made me realize all over again how unfortunate it was that, on a technicality, Soucy was not allowed to run last month for another term on Council. Articulate, thoughtful, close to her constituents–these characteristics, which I realize, many on Council share, were especially well-modeled that Monday night.

What I have been sorry to see is how much of the opposition to East College Street and the entrepreneurs was neither principled nor practical but ad hominem. They are too young. They are outsiders. They come from allegedly problematical families.

The December 19 meeting, I thought, gave the lie to such arguments.

A wonderful moment came when President Gardner wanted the developers to respond to Soucy’s concerns. First he asked them to state their names.

For any other item on the agenda, this would have been a formality, but we have all been calling them “the young, inexperienced developers” or “recent Oberlin College students” for so long, we have forgotten that they do have names and experiences that recommend them to our attention and their plans to serious consideration.

For the record, they are Josh Rosen, Ben Ezinga and Naomi Sabel. And if you were there or saw the meeting on TV, you heard them speak as articulately as men and women twice and three times their age.

They are young. They are in their twenties. Age numbers in the twenties have been urged on us as a problem.

What I kept thinking about, though, was the number 16. Rosen, Ezinga and Sabel managed to put together 16 million dollars in capital to build and sustain the East College Street Project. Sixteen. Million. Dollars.

I have to say, too, how tired I am of hearing Oberlin College used as a pejorative. The College is and has been historically the very essence of this town.

Oh, I know, relations between Oberlin the city and Oberlin the college have sometimes been contentious, and members of this very City Council have recently quarreled with the college over development of land near the Arboretum. College students don’t always look the way we looked when we were their age.

But we need to recognize that Oberlin College, a national, an international institution, is a font of understanding and learning unmatched in Ohio and, indeed, in most other states.

Why anyone thinks a person’s degree from Oberlin is an effective prima facie argument against her or him is beyond me.

When they graduate, Oberlin students go everywhere, in every field and to almost every place. Rosen, Ezinga and Sabel stayed in Oberlin and, at one with us, are our partners in the prospering of our culture.