In this quaint but economically stagnant college town 50 miles southwest of Cleveland, Ben Ezinga, Joshua Rosen and Naomi Sabel spent their first four years as typical liberal arts college students, going to class, writing papers and looking forward to graduation. Their last four years in Oberlin, however, have been spent learning hard lessons in real estate, writes Lisa Chamberlain for The New York Times.
Against long odds, the once young, naïve and inexperienced team is nearing the groundbreaking on the first major commercial development in the historic downtown since 1958. They hope they are building not just a mixed-use project, but a model for progressive urban redevelopment under financially difficult circumstances.
“I was about to graduate,” Ms. Sabel recalled, “when I noticed a ‘for sale’ sign on this lot, and I thought, ‘Someone should do something with that,’ and went on my way. But as I kept walking past it day after day, I started thinking, ‘We should do something with that.’ ”
With neither development experience nor a single class in real estate finance among them, the three friends formed a corporation, Sustainable Community Associates, and as they like to say, played rock-paper-scissors to decide who would be president, chairman and chief executive.
It is stories like these that initially caused some in the community to underestimate them, which few are doing now.
They have cleaned up a two-and-a-half-acre site that was once occupied in part by an auto body shop, dry cleaner and gas station, and they worked with lawyers, architects and other developers to get plans approved. They also successfully negotiated the City of Oberlin’s first tax-increment financing (TIF) bond, in which the city issues a bond to be paid back through taxes generated from the rising property values spurred by a project.
Additional site preparation will continue in December, with a formal groundbreaking next spring.
“The polite word might be persistent,” said Daniel Gardner, president of the city council, when asked to describe how the three were able to persuade the city to issue its first TIF bond. “Because we were dealing with developers who had no prior experience, we required a whole lot more from them, frankly. But if we’re serious about redeveloping downtown, we’re going to have to take some risks and make some investments, and this is a slam dunk to me.”
Read Chamberlain's full article in The New York Times.
This article was originally published on October 18, 2006 in The New York Times. For more information on the East College Street Project, visit eastcollegest.com.