Once upon a time, Westerville was a sleepy and sedate community. No more. These days, Westerville is on an office, retail and restaurant development tear.
Along Cleveland Avenue north to Polaris Parkway. Along Africa and Worthington Roads—Worthington Road now reaching Polaris Parkway. Along State Street in Uptown Westerville. Along the southern end of State Street at the I-270 interchange. In Blendon Township through a special tax-sharing arrangement.
This land-locked Columbus suburb, with a current population of 37,000, has carried out methodical planning and careful financial management to stimulate the growth of existing businesses and attract new businesses. This approach comes out of increased municipal involvement with private contractors. Dave Collinsworth, Westerville city manager, notes, “The development community is looking increasingly to local governments to make things happen.” Westerville has long been known for its strong public school system, well-maintained city parks, an outstanding public library and stable residential neighborhoods.
It all adds up to a new jewel in the metropolitan Columbus crown. “Westerville is a premier location to do business,” says Rick Coplin, Tech Columbus’s vice president of community partners ventures. “It’s very supportive of new entrepreneurs.”
The person polishing this jewel is Jason Bechtold, Westerville’s economic development administrator. The 33-year-old native Clevelander has been on the job just over four years and now is in high gear. Development growth, he says, is vital to Westerville’s future. “We can’t be a bedroom community any more,” he says.
The biggest current news is Altair, covering 67 acres along the southern edge of Polaris Parkway and east and west of Cleveland Avenue and featuring a full-service hotel and conference center, restaurants, retail stores, and over one million square feet of Class A office space. It’s a giant step in Westerville development. Bechtold anticipates that the project will create 3,000 new jobs. Westerville purchased 62 of the 67 acres from Jerome Solove Development Inc. for $6.3 million in early May, with an option to buy the remaining five acres. Ponds have been dug and infrastructure and road construction have started.
The plan for Altair was conceived in 2005 but got little further than architectural renderings before the recession hit several years later. Now Westerville is ready to move the project forward. Its anchor will be a hotel and conference center. “The prospect is exciting,” says Janet Tressler-Davis, president and CEO of the Westerville Area Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t have a very large hotel right now. I’m anxious to see what commercial developers come aboard.”
Altair will connect with Westar, Westerville’s earlier business development. That project of more than a decade ago got its start by extending Cleveland Avenue north to Polaris Parkway to create a business office complex. Dubbed “the Medical Mile,” the thoroughfare now is dotted with such health providers as OhioHealth, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Central Ohio Primary Care Center for Surgical Dermatology, Immediate Health Associates and Orthodpedic One. It is anchored at its southern end by Mount Carmel St. Ann’s, the area’s first suburban full-service hospital. Westerville boasts that the stretch of providers adds up to “the most comprehensive and accessible healthcare options and facilities in central Ohio.”
Other major companies populating Westar include Emerson Network Power, GSW Inventiv Health Advertising, ABB (automation and power technologies), Exel (a division of DHL), Century Insurance Group, Stanley Black & Decker (including Mac Tools), Nationwide Insurance, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase. The number of employees inside these offices is well in the thousands, with 550 at GSW, 620 at Exel and 500 at Chase, Westerville’s major employer with a total of over 3,300 workers at three locations.
Collinsworth says that the city’s $30-million investment in Westar has been totally recouped through property taxes.
Smack dab in the middle of Westar is the Westerville Community Center, opened in November 2001. The 96,600-square-foot fitness facility offers resident rates to anyone employed in Westerville.
Westar’s growth is continuing. Currently Daimler has put up steel for its fifth office building—a four-story, 110,000-square-foot structure with the option of expanding it to 210,000 square feet.
Also starting construction is the first of a four-part development by Polaris Centers of Commerce and NP Limited Partnership on the Zumstein farm property, a 120-acre site north and south of Polaris Parkway at Worthington Road. MORPC and the City of Westerville are extending Worthington Road between County Line Road and Polaris Parkway and building a connecting road between it and Olde Worthington Road at a cost of $10 million. Franz Geiger, managing director of Polaris Centers of Commerce and NP, says that the first phase, a 296-unit apartment complex ultimately to grow to 504 units, has begun. The second phase will be retail with a supermarket anchor; the third a Volkswagen dealership with assisted living facilities; and the fourth, 100,000 square feet of retail and 300,000 square feet of office. Westerville will establish an eight-acre park in the southeastern corner of the property.
Integral to Westerville’s ongoing establishment and expansion of businesses is WeConnect Community Broadband Digital Corridor and Community Data Center, a public-private partnership that opened in March 2012. The $9-million utility, the nation’s first municipal data center, provides a high-security, high-speed, highly reliable fiber optic network with cutting edge computing technologies. The fiber optic network, now reaching more than 60 miles and constantly growing, is managed by DRS (Data Recovery Services), headquartered in Youngstown. Todd Jackson, Westerville’s chief information officer, says that the system “delivers connectivity, flexibility and scalability, resulting in affordability.”
Bruce Macnichol, sales director of WeConnect, reports that the center currently serves more than 40 commercial customers, five municipal customers, and several government agencies, with about 60 percent of its users located in Westerville. The 16,000-square-foot facility is groundbreaking. “A lot of cities don’t really comprehend what companies are doing,” Macnichol says. He credits Westerville City Council for doing more than building a data center. “Anybody can give you power and cooling,” he says. Westerville has added IT managed services—what Jackson defines as an economic development model versus a utility model. “We want to develop relationships with our customers,” Macnichol says. “We want to be known as problem-solvers.”
Macnichol, who has more than 30 years of experience in commercial and municipal internet computing, was lured into his current position by Westerville’s extensive and thorough planning. “It’s the first city I’ve seen that had all the pieces,” he says. “The City Council made a leap of faith.” But Macnichol doesn’t mean that they have been careless with taxpayer money. “I’ve never seen a city that is as financially responsible,” he says. Westerville’s investment in WeConnect will be recouped through tax revenue from the new and expanded businesses it helps to create.
Jackson stresses that WeConnect operates as a utility, providing computing services in a manner like electric and water services, with the customer paying a fee based on usage. Westerville is the only suburb in central Ohio that owns and operates electric and water utilities. Because power is a major expense in operating WeConnect, the in-house electricity utility delivers a reduced cost.
Michael Swartz, president and CEO of Lakeshore Cryotronics on McCorkle Boulevard, says that the benefits of WeConnect are manifold. “We don’t have to invest in a computing facility here,” he says. “We don’t have to manage that. And we have 100 percent uptime.” Lakeshore Cryotronics, a manufacturer of temperature, magnetic and system products, has 140 full-time employees.
Macnichol says that businesses are moving from a “rack and stack” computing hardware approach to consolidation and a storage area network. “There is an unlimited thirst for storage space,” he notes. Perennial issues of security, reliability and cost complicate reaching for a “total solution.” But those challenges belong to WeConnect, not to its customers.
Lakeshore Cryotronics has among its McCorkle Boulevard neighbors Worthington Cylinders, Progressive Medical and Cheryl’s Cookies, which is scheduled to expand its operations and add 92 new jobs.
Uptown Westerville, the historic retail district along State Street, is receiving an injection of upgrading and renovation, spurring the opening of new businesses. The recently released Uptown Westerville Comprehensive Plan, the first since 1974, states that 38 percent of Uptown existing businesses are boutiques, antiques, clothing stores and other retailers, with restaurants and food-oriented businesses comprising 27 percent. But a survey indicates that only 11 percent of Uptown visitors came to shop, pointing out a “need to increase Uptown’s role as a shopping destination both locally and regionally.”
The plan also calls for steps hastening the traditional shopping area into “an entertainment district.” Key to this conversion has been the end of Westerville’s dry status in 2006. This end of prohibition in Westerville more than 70 years after the rest of the nation has attracted such local restaurants as Jimmy V’s and The Old Bag of Nails to Uptown. Additional eateries underway are the Uptown Deli and Brew Company at 41 North State Street and the Northstar Café on the corner of State Street and Plum. A façade improvement program of windows, awnings, doors and paint color is providing architectural enhancement consistent with historic preservation. The Westerville Chamber’s Tressler-Davis says Uptown “is definitely on the upswing. It has a lot of synergy.”
A concern in the plan is the future of the State Theater, currently vacant since Amish Originals furniture moved up the street. A movement to restore the theater, which screened its last movie in the 1960s, as a performing arts center, possibly in cooperation with Otterbein University, has gained attention. “It would be nice to have a community place for live entertainment,” Tressler-Davis says. “But it’s an expensive undertaking, especially for nonprofits.” As things now stand, the imposing marquee of the State Theater is the only sign of its former life.
At the city’s southern end of State Street, landscaping and street and sidewalk improvements are nearing completion to create an eye-catching gateway to Westerville. “South State Street used to be the place for retail,” Tressler-Davis says. “It’s still a prime area.” She says the improvements will enhance its desirability and make it much more pedestrian-friendly.
A Joint Economic Development Zone (JEDZ) between Westerville and Blendon Township, funded by income tax proceeds from residents to facilitate new commercial growth, has been instrumental in attracting Teleperformance, a customer service and technical support call center, to Sunbury Woods Center. The company expects to hire 800 workers at an hourly rate between $9 and $18. Bechtold is anticipating that the JEDZ will generate “a lot of redevelopment opportunities along Westerville Road.”
Another project still on the drawing boards is Braun Farm, a 95-acre site along the eastern edge of Cleveland Avenue and south of Westerville’s Main Street. Plans include a 111-bed nursing home, 42 assisted-living apartments, retail space and the creation of a west campus of Otterbein University.
If anyone asks whether these projects seem too ambitious, Bechtold has a ready answer. Pointing at Westar, he says, “We have done this before.”
Dennis Read is a freelance writer.