Randy Auler likes to tell people that Westerville’s award-winning parks and recreation system is the jet fuel that powers the economic development engine in the prosperous city that anchors central Ohio’s northeast quadrant. And Auler, Westerville’s parks and recreation director, has the facts to back it up.
Among them are studies showing that quality of life factors, especially parks and recreational programs, are among the top five reasons that companies locate or stay in a community and in the top three for small businesses. Part of that, Auler says, is companies view happy and healthy employees as being more productive and needing fewer healthcare services than unhappy ones. Research has also shown that property values are 12 to 20 percent higher for homes within a quarter to half of a mile of a park or pathway compared to those that are not.
Westerville has nearly 30 miles of paths and bike trails that help tie together nearly 600 acres of park land in 46 locations. The 96,000-square-foot Westerville Community Center, which opened in 2001, has 8,000 members. There are about 89,000 participants in the parks and rec department’s sports programs annually. Some 2,400 programs and classes are offered each year.
“We’re a key part of our community,” says Auler from his office in the always-busy community center off Cleveland Avenue. “Our citizens understand that and value that.”
So do those that rank quality of life issues. Westerville was named the top suburb in America in 2013 by Movoto Real Estate, ranked fifth on Forbes magazine’s list of “America’s Friendliest Towns” in 2012, and was listed among the “Best Places to Live in America” by Money magazine in 2007 and 2009. In 2014, Movoto ranked Westerville as the nation’s seventh Happiest Suburb. The Westerville Public Library has regularly been rated among the nation’s best by Library Journal. The city’s Parks & Recreation Department has won the National Gold Medal Award for excellence in management from the National Recreation and Parks Association on four occasions, including in 2013.
Such achievements reflect decades of thoughtful planning and deliberate growth in the community, says Janet Tressler-Davis, a life-long Westerville resident and CEO of the Westerville Area Chamber of Commerce. The parks systems is a shining example of that, she says, as are the library, high-achieving public schools, a vibrant local arts scene that includes the Westerville Symphony Orchestra, and resurgence of Uptown, the city’s historic business district. Add in Otterbein University, major medical facilities operated by Mount Carmel Health System, OhioHealth and Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the city-owned water and electric utility divisions and the city’s two-year-old WeConnect Community Data Center, and Westerville is an easy sell for business advocates such as Tressler-Davis.
“It helps when it all comes together like it does here,” she says. “You have all these amenities.”
Westerville was a quiet little college town until a suburban housing boom began in the 1950s. Its population jumped from 7,000 in 1960 to 23,000 in 1980 to 37,000 today.
“We are a very dynamic and growing city,” says Westerville Mayor Diane Fosselman, “yet we’ve been able to maintain that small-town feel…I think we’ve done a good job of planning for the future. It’s about how you provide a balance between the health of the business community and needs of our residents. It’s about how different users of services interact with each other.”
She says Westerville officials made a key decision to shore up the community’s tax base when they approved the annexation of 941 acres on the city’s northwest side in the mid-1990s. That area became the Westar Center of Business, an office park where companies that include Emerson Network Power, Stanley Black & Decker (including Mac Tools), ABB Group, GSW Worldwide, Bank of America, Nationwide Insurance and a number of medical facilities now operate. More than 7,000 jobs with an average salary of $68,000 have been created at Westar, says Jason Bechtold, Westerville’s economic development administrator.
The city is now leading the effort to develop the 67-acre Altair tract south of Polaris Parkway that’s part of Westar. Westerville purchased Altair and its infrastructure from private developers in a $6.3 million deal completed earlier this year. The city will serve as a steward for the site until a developer can be lined up. It’s considered a prime location for offices and a hotel and conference center, Bechtold says.
Westerville’s quality of life is a big part of the city’s pitch to developers at Altair as well as in other parts of the city. It includes the excellence of the city’s parks, recreation facilities, schools and public services as well as the benefits that come with locating in a community that’s home to a well-regarded university in Otterbein and the revived Uptown district.
“At the end of the day,” Bechtold says, “(financial) incentives are pretty much even in the communities we compete against. It’s the value-added that differentiates us from other communities… Successful companies want to be in successful communities, great communities and growing communities. That’s Westerville.”
Much of the city’s recent success can be attributed to the annexation of the area that became Westar, says Re/Max Realtor Rick Rano, who grew up in Westerville in the late 1960s and 1970s and has sold houses there for more than 20 years.
“If you look back at Westerville,” he says, “it was heavy on rooftops and light on office and light industrial for a good balance of tax base. (Westar) has broadened Westerville’s income tax base and allowed the city to be better planners and stewards of the municipal resources.”
Rano also notes the city is making investments in older sections of Westerville to help support existing businesses. An example is the $9 million the city is spending to improve roads, sidewalks, streetlights and signs and to add trees and shrubs along South State Street (State Route 3) at the southern gateway to Westerville. The city is also focused on boosting Uptown in an effort that includes a building façade improvement program and a comprehensive plan for future development in a district that connects Westerville’s past and present.
Uptown has had new life since 2006 when voters approved the sale of liquor in a part of town that had remained dry because of Westerville’s history as the center of the U.S. temperance movement that led to the enactment of Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Passage of the liquor issue brought in restaurants such as Old Bag of Nails and Jimmy V’s Grill and Pub as well as two wine shops. Uptown has also seen its “Fourth Fridays” street fair program in the spring and summer months take off, attracting crowds approaching 10,000 each time it’s held.
“I think Westerville understands you can’t forget about existing businesses,” Rano says. “You need to retain what you have.”
The city has also prospered because of its housing options. While much of the housing stock is in subdivisions built since the 1960s, the mix also includes century-old homes in Uptown, large houses with a view of Hoover Reservoir along Sunbury Road and condos and apartments throughout the city. More is on the way with 500 apartments to be built just south of Polaris Parkway between an extension of Worthington Road and Alum Creek and a project that calls for 41 courtyard homes and 148 apartments off State Street on the city’s far north side.
Home buyers are attracted to Westerville because of its schools, parks, jobs and proximity to medical facilities, freeways, Port Columbus and Polaris, says Kathy Greenwell, a Realtor who operates HER Greenwell Group in Westerville with her husband, Mike.
“A lot of the time people think they need to be in Dublin, Powell and the Olentangy corridor,” she says, “but they change their minds when they find homes are more affordable (in Westerville)… I don’t think there’s enough said about the lifestyle here. Westerville gives you a hometown feeling but on a much larger scale. Everybody is so friendly.”
Any successful community has strong schools, and that’s the case with Westerville. The sprawling district, with more than 14,600 students living across 52 square miles in seven political subdivisions, earned a grade of “A” on the newly revised State Report Card, meeting all 24 performance indicators. That followed five years of being rated “Excellent” under the previous rating system, including “Excellent with Distinction” the last three of those years. In addition, students taking the SAT and ACT examinations in 2013 scored higher than the state and national averages.
Those achievements are in a school district that epitomizes diversity, both racially and economically. Some 38 percent of Westerville students are members of minority groups or multiracial, and students speak in nearly 30 native languages. A third of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches based on family income.
“It’s all about learning and the student experience,” says Greg Viebranz, the school system’s executive director of communications and technology.
The district has a number of initiatives to maintain the momentum. One is to have a student-to-computing device ratio of two-to-one in three years, Viebranz says. Another is an effort by 180 stakeholders representing parents, students and staff and community members in a process to develop a five-year strategic plan. Additionally, the district’s budget managers are seeking new practices that will result in more efficient operations, reduced costs or alternative revenues for the district.
City officials are also looking to the future, says Fosselman, a 30-year Westerville resident who has served as a city councilwoman or mayor since 1999. They are working on a new economic development plan as well as a comprehensive plan for the entire city. Among the issues that need to be addressed, she says, are more housing options for the rising number of empty nesters in the community and for young professionals who want to live close to where they work.
Parks and recreation programs will factor into those plans as Westerville tries to ensure its system continues to meet the expectations of residents. Auler says his department has a new master plan based on feedback from conversations with 3,000 residents last year. The survey found 93 percent had used a park or recreation facility in the last year and 67 percent rated park quality as excellent.
Resident comments are also reflected in the master plan that maps out the next generation of projects at a time when city officials are looking at renewing the 0.25-percent income tax for parks and recreation that was approved by voters in 1998. The tax, which generates close to half of the department’s $11 million operating budget, is scheduled to expire in 2020.
“That quarter-percent tax is really how the city developed these parks and facilities,” Auler says, adding the tax money has helped his department leverage $6 million in grants over the last 15 years and $650,000 in sponsorships.
The master plan calls for expanding the city’s pathway system; enlarging the Community Center to include space for senior citizen programs and larger fitness and aquatics areas; improving neighborhood parks; enhancing sports fields; and improving access to waterways such as Alum Creek and Otterbein Lake.
“Parks are very important,” Fosselman says. “We don’t want to rest on our laurels and just accept what was acceptable 20 years ago.”
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.