By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Bowling Green’s front door is not exactly creating a great first impression for those entering the city.
Knowing this, the city and BGSU hired Development Strategies to examine the 1.8 miles of East Wooster from Interstate 75 to the downtown. The firm has spent six months interviewing officials and residents, examining housing data, looking at construction costs, studying the zoning code, and more.
On Tuesday evening, Matt Wetli and Anne Stevenson from Development Strategies presented their findings to City Council’s Committee of the Whole.
Changes along the East Wooster corridor have the potential to increase jobs, bring more visitors, improve the housing stock, attract more development to the city, and convince more people to live and shop right here in Bowling Green.
But the front door needs a facelift.
“It’s the way most people come to know Bowling Green,” Wetli said. “First impressions are really important. This corridor is so important.”
One of the goals would be to meet the needs of the city residents and the university – an issue Wetli is accustomed to handling
“We tend to work in a lot of university communities,” and realize that the health of the city and university are intertwined, he said.
The planners divided the 1.8 miles into four sections, with some potential focuses for each – though not all will be affordable for developers right now:
- Midtown, which are the blocks closest to downtown. Ideally that area would be good for student and young professional apartment buildings, creative office space, street level retail, boutique hotels, and gas station reuse projects.
- Eds and Meds, which are the blocks next to the university and the Falcon Health Center. That area would work well for other health care services, senior housing, and townhouses.
- Walkable hospitality district, which includes the blocks with hotels and restaurants. That area would attract more developers and more visitors with stricter zoning building specifications, Wetli said.
- The interchange area, which will be improved with the proposed roundabouts, and will look better with “gateway” signage.
The entire corridor can’t be transformed at once, so “we need to be judicious,” Wetli said.
And the community will need to shift from being reactive to proactive.
“Things aren’t just going to magically happen,” he said “It’s going to take work.”
Wetli talked about the transformation of the Kent State community.
“It’s really inspiring what they’ve been able to pull off,” he said. “It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen with a single developer. But, wow, what results they’ve gotten.”
Bowling Green could potentially pull off the same type of transformation, Wetli said.
Wetli posed the possibility of Bowling Green becoming a smaller version of Ann Arbor – for Northwest Ohio. People from the Toledo area often drive up to Ann Arbor for arts and dining opportunities.
Why not Bowling Green?
“You all are so much closer,” and have access to arts through BGSU. “If you could just get 10 percent of those folks,” headed from Toledo to Ann Arbor, “that would have a profound impact.” It would, in turn, attract more businesses to Bowling Green.
“This way you could grow the pie,” of economic development – not just continue dividing up the same small pie, Wetli said.
“Make this a destination,” he said. “Figure out ways to harness” the historic downtown and the artistic campus.
“Put Wooster to work,” by encouraging business incubators to be set up by student startups.
And public art is a good way to “create those Instagram moments,” that might attract younger people to Bowling Green, Wetli said.
The planners from Development Strategies got acquainted with Bowling Green by talking to people and studying statistics. The data showed about 33 percent of Wood County residents work in blue collar jobs, compared to an average of 15 percent in the nation.
“That really jumped out at us,” Wetli said. “We don’t see that very often.”
But with the university here, the city should be poised to attract more businesses in areas like health care and finance.
“You all should be well positioned to reap the benefits,” he said.
The property values in the region are also relatively low.
“There’s some room for improvement here,” Wetli said. “We think the community is ripe with opportunity.”
The planners also surveyed BGSU students and faculty. Though many students now rent houses, that’s not their preference, according to Stevenson. Only about 5 percent said they would rather rent a house than an apartment.
Council members Bruce Jeffers and John Zanfardino asked about housing costs and student housing. The addition of more quality apartment complexes along Wooster, could lead to more houses going back to single-family homes, Stevenson said.
Council member Sandy Rowland talked about the number of people looking for homes who move to Perrysburg rather than Bowling Green. Stevenson said the quality of the housing stock in Bowling Green is an issue, according to the survey.
Wetli talked about how the pieces have to fit together to make the development occur. The profits for the developers have to be greater than the costs to purchase the property and construct buildings.
“Is the opportunity so great that a developer would come in and do it on their own,” he asked.
Or is the opportunity close enough to great that a developer will commit to the project – as long as the city helped out.
Calculating the costs and the return on investments, Wetli said the projects like the townhouses, young professional apartments, and boutique hotels, just won’t attract developers now. However, as the corridor is transformed, the more expensive investments will become more affordable.
Rental housing geared for young professionals would help retain some BGSU graduates, “but the numbers don’t quite work yet,” Wetli said.
Council member Bruce Jeffers asked about the type of “public participation” developers may seek from the city. Wetli responded that some want tax abatements and tax increment financing – but that they should provide the city a high quality product in return.
Council member Mark Hollenbaugh asked what the city needs to do to attract investment in the hotel-restaurant area close to I-75. Wetli said the stricter regulations will attract quality developers. That could include less cluttered signage, a certain quality of building materials, and parking lots behind businesses.
To get the transformation started, Wetli and Stevenson will write up some strategies. The community needs to select some key areas, and see some “early wins” with developments to keep the process going.
“That’s going to invite people to come here to spend money,” Wetli said.
Policies on planning and zoning need to be evaluated. And neighborhoods need to be engaged.
“We’ve had some great talks with residents who want to see this done,” Wetlis said.
“This is just the beginning,” Wetli said. “But the opportunity and the vision exists now.”
The report from Development Strategies will be placed on the city’s website when available.