Long struggling Milo-Grogan is receiving attention from developers and nonprofits as an extension of the Short North.
Milo-Grogan is making a comeback with a return to its roots. The more than century-old Columbus neighborhood is emerging from a decades-long skid thanks to a hub of manufacturing employment and a commitment to affordable housing.
What started in earnest two years ago when Rogue Fitness opened a 600,000-square-foot manufacturing facility has settled into a quieter revitalization, property by property.
Milo-Grogan is getting more attention from the city of Columbus, an affordable housing nonprofit and two of the state's largest banks.
And being situated close to Downtown and Ohio State University, with easy access to major thoroughfares, the neighborhood is considered a sure bet to continue on its trajectory. “We think Milo-Grogan has a very bright future,” says Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther. “We're excited about the way public-private partnerships have helped to transform the neighborhood already. I think it's only a matter of time before Milo-Grogan takes off.”
The neighborhood took shape in 1910 as the communities of Milo and Grogan were merged and absorbed into the city. Both date to the late 1890s, when Joseph P. Grogan owned a general store and post office on Cleveland Avenue and Milo P. Streets owned a brickyard a few blocks away.
The working-class community thrived until the 1960s, when more than 400 homes and businesses were razed to make way for I-71.
Poverty, blight and crime crept into the newly splintered neighborhood and still linger among the roughly 2,000 residents. Average household income was $28,331 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau with nearly 40 percent of families below the poverty level.
Some optimism returned when, in 2015, fitness equipment company Rogue committed to investing $35.5 million in a manufacturing facility at East 5th and Cleveland avenues.
A symbol of Milo-Grogan's comeback, the new building opened a year later on vacant land once home to Timken Co.'s roller-bearing plant that shuttered in 2001. The development was largely made possible by the brownfield cleanup spearheaded by Wagenbrenner Development of Columbus.
Rogue employs 525 people at what is also its corporate headquarters and expects to soon have 600 there. “That pace of hiring doesn't seem to be letting up any time soon,” the company said in an email, noting, “There are many team members that live in the area and local community.”
The neighborhood is getting more housing options, still within reach for lower-income renters and buyers. Nonprofit housing developer Homeport is building 33 new rent-to-own homes scattered east of I-71.
Homeport is supporting renovation of another 25 homes, and local businesses can use special grants to improve their buildings.
“There aren't enough middle-income homes in the city that are in good strong, stable neighborhoods,” says Homeport CEO Bruce Luecke. “And that's part of what we look at is, how do we support what the city is trying to accomplish. We have to be able to preserve affordable housing in these areas.”
The new homes, 30 of which are on former Columbus Land Bank properties, are about 1,400 square feet with prices tied to area median income. Homeport received low-income housing tax credits to finance the project. And critical to follow-on investment by others, Homeport's project led the city to establish a 15-year, 100-percent tax abatement on all new residential construction and large renovation projects.
“It's not a neighborhood where rents today are particularly strong, especially when you look east of 71,” says Steve Schoeny, director of the city's Department of Development. “We're trying to make it so that it's easier for the market to come around. We can't make things happen on our own, but we can set the conditions.”
Mayor Ginther says property tax incentives, however, are not enough to spur investment in Milo-Grogan and some of the city's “most challenging” neighborhoods.
“We need to work on workforce development, transportation,” he says. “We're also looking for business partners. Rogue has been a great partner to help champion [Milo-Grogan].”
Homeport is getting some of that support from business partners as it completes houses throughout the year. Huntington Bank is providing financing, plus a $3.7 million investment in low-income housing tax credits.
Fifth Third Bank says it is funding home construction, and working with Homeport to educate residents on finances. “These investments will strengthen the Milo-Grogan community and positively change lives,” Jordan Miller Jr., regional president of Fifth Third, said in a statement. “This initiative means a lot to me, having been raised in the Milo-Grogan community.”
In trying to revitalize Milo-Grogan, the city is looking beyond investment in real estate.
Last fall it announced a partnership with health insurer CareSource, the Workforce Development Board of Central Ohio and the Franklin County Board of Commissioners to provide job-training and employment resources.
Infrastructure, too, will be improved in the neighborhood, beginning with curb extensions, bicycle “sharrows,” street lights, park improvements and beautification.
“Right now we're working with public service on design for Second Avenue improvements,” Schoeny says, “reconnecting Milo to Italian Village and faster-growing parts of the city.”
Neighborhood advocates say that, as investment rolls in, maintaining affordability will be important, especially as home prices quickly escalate in hotter neighborhoods. Italian Village, for one, has been transformed from a former manufacturing district with an aging housing stock to a hotbed of upscale apartments and condos and trendy restaurants. “Milo has great socioeconomic diversity,” says Mayor Ginther, adding, “we want to protect that.”
While single-family homes continue to be built on small vacant parcels scattered throughout the neighborhood, it is largely unclear how commercial development along Milo-Grogan's main roadways will take shape. “There's a lot of commercial opportunity along 5th and along Cleveland,” Schoeny says. “Cleveland is a commercial corridor everyone knows and understands, but you have St. Clair, which is an important connection between the Near East and Milo.”
Where there are existing buildings in attractive locations, it still is not easy to open a business, says Becky Neubauer, Homeport's development coordinator. “A lot of the vacant buildings are in pretty rough shape,” she says. “Which is a pretty big barrier to entry.”
Rogue is sitting on one prime piece of developable land, between Fifth Avenue and its parking lot. “Our plan is to break ground in 2018 with entrepreneurial-based retail,” the company says. “We are looking for a barber shop, lunch spot, pub, restaurant, butcher, pizza shop. … The vision for this area is to have businesses that fit our mission and values, bootstrapped companies that are willing to put in hard work and do things differently.”
With employment and housing returning, Milo-Grogan's greatest challenge may be overcoming the very obstacle that derailed it more than 50 years ago: Being fractured by I-71 and cut off from Ohio State, the Short North and Downtown.
Hoping to better transport people along Cleveland Avenue, though, the Central Ohio Transit Authority recently rolled out its CMAX bus rapid transit. Regardless of perfect connectivity, advocates say Milo-Grogan will be appealing for the same reasons that it was more than a century ago.
“There is a renewed preference for these kinds of neighborhoods and these kind of locations,” Schoeny says. “They're convenient, they have a sense of character, and they present an affordable total cost of living. And that's attractive to a lot of people.”
Evan Weese is a freelance writer.