“Economic development is challenging for a city of our size,” Mayor William Robertson of Rittman said. “I look at this opportunity zone as a way to enhance the quality of life for our residents.”
Since 2017 the Wayne Economic Development Council has been working to develop opportunity zones in collaboration with Rittman and Orrville. In late May, inSITE Advisory Group presented its economic analysis on the opportunity zones for each city. Both Rittman and Orrville are ready to move forward with more planning and investment.
How will the opportunity zones help Rittman and Orrville? And why does investment in these two opportunity zones matter for economic development across Wayne County?
Here’s a quick overview: Opportunity zones are a federal designation that provides incentives to encourage commercial, industrial and residential development. The incentive is in the form of an individual tax benefit for investors. Ohio has designated 320 opportunity zones in low-income neighborhoods across the state.
“WEDC identified Rittman and Orrville as good locations for opportunity zones. They were sites where there was going to be future growth,” said Tom Pukys, president of WEDC.
Once identified, the sites were submitted for approval by the State of Ohio and the secretary of the U.S. Treasury.
In Orrville the opportunity zone incorporates the downtown area. Orrville has many appeals such as a strong work force and a rail trail, which make them a destination for visitors. The area in the opportunity zone targeted for investment is referred to as Market West.
“Market West is a concept for the development of a city center in Orrville on West Market,” said Lori Reinbolt, president of the Orrville Area Chamber of Commerce. “The center would connect to the trailhead of the Heartland Trail, which could also lead to economic development (in that area).”
Reinbolt said there have already been some early successes in terms of investment in the opportunity zone. “There are several entrepreneurs that are currently there, like Jerry Demlow, who owns Jerry’s Café. (He) built an addition on the restaurant, and the new patio area is called the Garage.”
Despite the early successes in Orrville, there are challenges as well. Because the downtown area is not densely populated, it’s more difficult for businesses to predict demand. Orrville may need to find an investor with a local connection, “somebody that wants to leave a mark on Orrville and/or has an affinity for the community,” Reinbolt said.
In Rittman the zone incorporates the downtown area and industrial park. Rittman has many advantages that make it attractive to investors, like an active rail line and a large industrial site ready for development.
Rittman offers access to the Rails-to-Trails’ County Line Trail and the popular Bauman Orchards, which attracts visitors from across the region.
“Rittman is near major airports and metropolitan areas, accessible to those who live and work in Northeast Ohio,” Bobbie Beshara said. “Our goal is to showcase Rittman, not just for its industrial opportunities, but also for the diversity it has to offer for residents, visitors and businesses.”
Beshara was selected in February to be the new city manager for Rittman. She enjoys the quality of life in Rittman including their quaint downtown and new nature preserve.
However, the city also struggles with limited staffing. They currently are working without an economic-development manager or a zoning director. That means most economic-development work falls on the shoulders of Beshara as city manager. For that reason both Beshara and Mayor Robertson were pleased to collaborate with neighboring Orrville around capitalizing on their respective opportunity zones.
Both Rittman and Orrville have sites in their opportunity zones that are ready for development.
“The more we can collaborate and pull our resources together, the stronger we can be,” Pukys said. “Rather than Orrville trying to do their own thing or Rittman trying to do their own thing, we can pool resources and market the two together.”
Plus investors are more likely to select Wayne County if they have more options.
“Not every site checks off every box for an investor, so having more options means you might find that one site that fits better than the rest,” Pukys said. “Investors aren’t just looking in Wayne County. When businesses are looking to relocate or expand, they also look at other counties. Further, when we see more investment in our cities, the benefits have a ripple effect across the county. We have a big work force pool. The more businesses we have, the more we can tap into that work force.”
More jobs mean more income and stability for Wayne County families.
The impact can last long into the future. “We have great training opportunities for a new work force with University of Akron-Wayne College and the career center.” Pukys said. “The more we can hold onto the younger generation and give them opportunities, the more likely they are to stay here and continue to establish their roots in Wayne County.”
From an economic-development perspective, it’s interesting that the simple designation of two opportunity zones in Wayne County has the potential to provide so many benefits. The benefits will only be achieved if Rittman and Orrville can successfully market their sites.
The inSITE Advisory Group was hired to gather data on market demand to help promote the opportunity zones. The contract was funded in a joint effort by the WEDC, Rittman, Orrville and the Wayne County CIC.
The firm’s president, Jennifer Syx, immediately began interviewing stakeholders to get to know the two cities better. Fortunately she brought with her a wealth of experience working with opportunity zones.
“When (opportunity zones) were initially announced in 2017, it was a great plan, but it wasn’t followed up with a lot of guidance. Some developers were hesitant,” Syx said. “It presents challenges because it’s an education from the property owners to the city. In some cases the city doesn’t even know that the transaction happened unless someone contacts them.”
Syx explained the best strategy. “The best strategy is to market specific properties that are already ready for investment,” she said. “You give the investors a tool kit. It’s really by the numbers for investors.”
More programs and financing options in the tool kit will make Wayne County more attractive to investors. The tax incentives associated with the opportunity zones is another incentive to offer.
The analysis by inSITE is a key piece to the puzzle. Investors need more information on the potential return on their investment. For Rittman and Orrville, which are smaller cities a little bit off the beaten path, doing the background research for the investor and having it ready is crucial.
Things are really starting to move. WEDC recently received a due-diligence grant to market the industrial park in Rittman.
“This is a new initiative from Jobs Ohio,” WEDC’s Myranda Keister said. “Typically these grants are tied to an end user. This is one of the first where you don’t need an end user.”
“Normally we couldn’t tap into those grants or funding unless you had a business on the hook,” Pukys said. “Now this will help speed up the process. It’s a great message we’re getting from the state.”