Going downtown

Downtown Canton is in the eye of a hurricane of change, and no one tracks the storm better than Tarek Moneir, director of the Canton Development Partnership.

The Partnership is a coalition of five organizations — Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Canton Special Improvement District, Downtown Canton Land Bank, Canton Tomorrow Inc. and the city of Canton — all of which share an interest in Canton’s continual improvement.

Moneir also serves as president of the Special Improvement District, the Land Bank and Canton Tomorrow Inc.

Rolling out the welcome mat for business owners who are thinking of relocating is important to the revitalization of Canton’s center, and Partnership is doing its part. Small business owners interested in exploring corporate opportunities in Canton can receive applications and guidelines for revolving loans of up to $5,000 at the Partnership office, and its Web site offers additional information, “so they can find us, without even having to call us,” Moneir says.

Technology adds a competitive advantage when trying to attract businesses, and Canton is on top of the trend. The city recently implemented WiFi service that allows wireless Internet access in a 25-block area of Central Plaza, giving laptop computer and PDA users access to high-speed Internet within the “WiFi hot zone.” And Moneir says the city will be expanding the wireless service beyond these boundaries.

The Partnership also launched two marketing programs last year; the Getaway Package features a stay at the newly renovated Canton Marriott McKinley Grand Hotel and tickets to attractions including the National First Ladies’ Library, Canton Classic Car Museum and Canton Museum of Art, while the winter Celebrate the Season program offers discounts on accommodations and special prices on admission to museums and live performances.

Smart Business talked with Moneir about Canton’s downtown master plan and other plans for 2004.

The Partnership and a national urban design firm created a downtown master plan and implementation strategy that was adopted by the city council in October. What did it take to make this happen?

(When initial work began to develop the master plan,) I got the question from everybody — from elected officials to the newspaper — ‘Why do we have to go through a plan again?’

The city did a comprehensive plan back in 2000, before my time, and one of those recommendations was to develop a master plan for downtown. I pointed that out to them, and then the question came back, ‘Why do we have to do a plan and put it on the shelf?’

I said, ‘This plan is not going to be a plan to be put on the shelf, this is going to be a living document with an attached implementation process that we will have to follow.’ So all the different people said, ‘We’re going to wait and see.’

The entire community participated, including the mayor and city council, city staff, property owners and board members. The plan was delivered and made available on July 1, 2003, and it was adopted by city council in October. The plan also was endorsed by, at the time, the two candidates for mayor.

I feel ecstatic about the process and about having the entire community actually support that.

Our initial task is to work with the city on marketing the Kresge block, (five connected buildings, owned by the city) in the center of town on Market Avenue. We developed a marketing strategy for that, and we’re close to starting that process officially; the city received a Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund grant for close to $1 million from the state to remove asbestos, demolish the structure and eliminate the nuisance. (Construction of a new building on the site is expected to begin in fall 2004.)

How have these changes affected employment in downtown Canton?

We calculated over $50 million in public and private investments in the last 18 months in downtown, through infrastructure, renovating buildings, restoring historic structures, grants, etc. So it’s quite a bit.

We were able to retain approximately 390 full-time jobs within the core of the downtown. I’m sure it’s much more because there are (companies that don’t communicate with the Partnership) or they don’t share their numbers with us.

That’s new and retained jobs, and I put them together because retaining a job is like gaining a job. Because if they leave, you’re going to have to work on them from the beginning.

We got the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation to combine their offices between Canton and Akron and bring the Akron staff to Canton. It’s basically reversing the trend. The Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic was able to open and gain new jobs with the 23,000-square-foot state-of-the-art medical facility on Market Avenue South.

The General Services Administration recently announced a new office building in downtown Canton that will house the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Social Security Administration and local Internal Revenue Service offices, in a new structure that will occupy four downtown blocks combined. That’s about a five-year project that will be an investment of between $15 million to $25 million.

The Timken Regional Campus is also going to be a state-of-the-art (technology academy) when it’s completed in the next two years. We just had a groundbreaking. That’s initially a $39 million investment by the Canton City Schools but I’m sure it’s going to be expanded much more.

We have no limitation on partnership. We partner with the city, the county, local economic development organizations like the Stark Development Board, the school system, the universities, college and cultural center.

What business projects does the Partnership have on the drawing board?

We’re looking at starting the Onesto Hotel conversion to market-rate housing. The Onesto Hotel was built in the early 1900s and has been vacant for quite some time. The city was trying to convert it to assisted living or senior housing but has never been able to do it. Just recently, we were able to work with private developer (Stephen Coon), who would like to develop it as about 46 units of market-rate housing.

It’s about a $7 million investment. The city applied on the developer’s behalf for a Clean Ohio Assistance Fund grant. It’s a one-and-a-half to two year project, and it’s going to have a huge impact on the overall image of downtown.

We’re not just promoting. We touch different areas: economic development, planning, architecture, real estate, marketing; these are the different disciplines that we cover. I personally have an architecture degree and planning degree.

Do you have advice on how business owners can work effectively with civic development organizations like yours?

My motto is, ‘The answer is yes, what is your question?’ It’s more of an attitude, that we will make everything possible if it’s within reason.

There’s a lot of competition out there, and the economy is not that great. Everybody watches every penny they spend. We concentrate on the quality of living.

The Cost of Living index for Canton is lower than in surrounding communities. (95.55, compared to the U.S. average of 100.) We’re a relatively urban area.

You get more for your buck here. HOW TO REACH: Canton Development Partnership, (330) 456-0468 or www.cantonchamber.org