The West Broad Street corridor is showing signs that casino development is paying off with new investments in the area.
The glitzy opening of Hollywood Casino Columbus in 2012 came with plenty of talk about the positive impact the $400 million gaming palace off West Broad Street would have on efforts to rescue the surrounding neighborhood whose long-term future was not a safe bet by any measure.
Now, as the casino approaches its three-year anniversary in October, there are signs that the hoped-for revitalization is taking hold in an area whose economic decline had been so precipitous that an Associated Press story referred to it as "America's Loneliest Neighborhood" in 2009.
Nearly 40 private- and public-sector improvement projects have been completed or are under way in the casino area, according to a recent count by Weston Vision Inc., a nonprofit group leading revitalization efforts along the West Broad Street corridor just east of Interstate 270. One of the Weston Vision leaders, auto dealer Chris Haydocy, says that's quite a feat given the list of problems facing the area prior to Penn National Gaming Inc.'s decision in 2010 to build the casino at the site of a former Delphi Corp. auto parts plant at West Broad and Georgesville Road.
Challenging issues included what to do with the Delphi site, a declining Westland Mall and a plague of vacant storefronts, job losses and businesses leaving the area on what seemed to Haydocy like a monthly basis. While the future of the mostly vacant Westland Mall site remains uncertain, progress has been made on those other fronts.
"We've whittled down that list significantly," Haydocy says, adding the hypothesis that Penn National's investment in the casino would pump new life into the surrounding business community "has come true and is working according to plan."
His auto business, Haydocy Buick GMC, is a prime example of the sort of investments being made near the casino. It spent about $750,000 to redo its showroom, offices and other parts of the dealership at 3895 W. Broad St. In addition, Haydocy Airstream and RV opened next to the auto dealership two years ago.
"Before the casino," Haydocy says, "we would not have given a thought to putting an RV dealership here. The casino made us rethink what we want to be. I think we are a microcosm of the rest of the small businesses around here. We struggled and struggled and then the casino stabilized our community and our business."
Some of the bigger investments in the area near Hollywood Casino include more than $10 million by the Utah-based Romney Group on demolition work and upgrades at the sprawling Metro West apartment complex (now called Havenwood Townhomes) off Georgesville Road; an estimated $5 million on reconstruction of the Bobby Layman Chevrolet dealership along West Broad; and $9 million by RD Management to purchase and renovate the Great Western Commerce Center off Wilson Road just north of West Broad Street.
In addition, long-vacant shopping center spaces once anchored by Kmart and Kohl's have been converted to a CubeSmart self-storage facility and the Buckeye Raceway indoor racing center, respectively. A number of restaurant chains have rebuilt or remodeled their properties near the casino, and Value City Furniture, Big Lots and Victory Fitness Center have invested in improvement projects as well.
The casino was part of the reason that RD Management bought the Great Western Commerce Center in 2013 but not the biggest factor, says Richard Birdoff, president of the New York City-based real estate development and management firm.
"Our company looks for assets that are underutilized and where we can add value," he says. "We look for properties with good bones and in areas that are on the upswing. We felt that if we made an economic investment (in the Great Western center), we could retain what was there and attract more users."
His company has spent $2 million on renovations that have helped turn the 300,254-square-foot commercial center into a mixed-used property with a 75 percent occupancy rate. Its largest tenants are a neighborhood services center operated by the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services; Habitat for Humanity's ReStore discount home-improvement outlet; a charter school, Imagine Schools Great Western Academy; and Restaurant Depot, a wholesale food-service supplier.
"It's become a mixed-use property with many uses that are beneficial to that community," Birdoff says, adding that the next piece of the puzzle is finding a tenant for a 50,800-square-foot anchor space that formerly housed a Kroger supermarket.
Besides private-sector investments, the West Broad Street corridor is benefiting from highway, street and other infrastructure improvements funded by the state of Ohio, Franklin County and Columbus. They include more than $8 million of work along Georgesville Road and West Broad Street and $80 million for reconstruction of a section of I-270 that includes the West Broad Street interchange.
It's clear that investments by the public and private sectors have sparked a turnaround on the West Side, says Jim Schimmer, Franklin County director of economic development and planning.
"It's important to remember where we were (before the casino project)," he says. "There was a vacant Delphi plant that was falling to pieces. Now you can barely imagine that plant ever existed in terms of what's been done there. That's been the most amazing thing."
Schimmer is convinced that the highway and street improvements near the casino site have helped pump new life into that area. But he adds that Westland Mall, vacant except for a Sears department store, remains "the elephant in the room" when it comes to keeping the momentum going.
When the casino project was first announced, Columbus-based Plaza Properties Inc., which owns most of the mall site, had talked about redeveloping the property as an Easton-like shopping center. But Plaza officials have been mum on what they have in mind for some time now, and a company executive did not return a call or emails seeking comment.
"That's the last piece that needs to fall into place," Franklin Township Trustee Tim Guyton says of Westland Mall. "Then we can have another success story to sell to other businesses and prospective developers."
The mall site could become the focal point for a joint economic development district that's being explored by Franklin Township officials. The creation of such a district would generate tax revenue to be used for public improvements such as streets, landscaping and lighting to help spur economic development.
"We're in the infant stages of looking at it," Guyton says. "We do see good things ahead."
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.