Falls Council plans to begin eminent domain proceedings against State Road complex : Akron OH Beacon Journal, 10/1/07

By Betty Lin-Fisher

One way or another, the current State Road Shopping Center has to go, Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Robart said today.

To that end, the Cuyahoga Falls City Council voted tonight to begin eminent domain proceedings to force Beachwood-based owner GMS Management to sell the property to the city for redevelopment.

The vote by council was unanimous, with at-large Councilwoman Carol Klinger abstaining because she works for Goodyear, which operates an automotive tire shop at the plaza.

The city has been trying for years to persuade the owners of the plaza at State Road and Portage Trail to invest in the center or sell.

Several developers have expressed interest in the 30-acre parcel, but until the owners agree, nothing can be done, Robart said.

In the meantime, the plaza remains an eyesore and continues to decline, the mayor said. Discussions with the owners have been hot and cold, sometimes giving city officials hope.

But lately, discussions have been ''lip service,'' Robart said.

Time was of the essence for the vote at the specially called council meeting. On Oct. 10, a new state law will require cities to prove a property is 70 percent vacant in order to take it by eminent domain.

State Sen. Kevin Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls, is pushing to take a stricter eminent domain issue to voters next year in an amendment to the Ohio Constitution.

The plaza has ''to be bulldozed,'' Robart said. ''People come back and say, 'Why can't we use Montgomery Ward for fill-in-the-blank? There's no hope for State Road Shopping Center, both north and south. It's gotta go. It's just a question of what does it become.''

Robart said he would like to see the plaza torn down by next year.

Falls officials believe the plaza could make the 70 percent vacancy threshold, but to be sure, the council last year passed its own definition of ''blight,'' requiring that 75 percent of any commercial property be vacant for at least six months or 50 percent be vacant for at least one year.

City officials estimate the State Road Shopping Center is at least 60 percent vacant and has been for some time.

The city plans to file its lawsuit on Oct. 9, the day before the state law takes effect. That would mean the city's eminent domain proceedings would not have to meet the new law's numbers.

The city made an offer last Thursday to GMS to purchase the plaza for $12.9 million, based on an appraisal the city received for the land and property. The city needed to make an offer before it could proceed with an eminent domain suit. The city said GMS indicated it needed an extension of time but got no other response.

''They've got to make a decision if they're going to fight this thing, or legitimately come to the table or sell it,'' Robart said.

Calls made today to GMS Management, the plaza's leasing agent and GMS' attorney for comment were not returned. Built in 1952, the State Road Shopping Center opened in 1953 and was touted as one of the ''most modern, up-to-date shopping centers in the state.'' Early tenants included W.E. Wright Co. hardware, Woolworth Co. and a Western Auto Store.

The center thrived for years. But in 2001, anchor Montgomery Ward was shuttered when the national retailer went bankrupt. City officials said that was the beginning of the plaza's decline, when current management seemed to stop investing and retailers began leaving.

Steve Meyer is the third-generation owner of the small DolenOre Keysmiths kiosk right outside the old Montgomery Ward. The business started in 1962.

Meyer took over in 1996 from his father, Gus.

Then, Steve Meyer said, the plaza around him was pretty well occupied.

''It was hard to find parking spaces. It's hard to find a car now,'' Meyer said.

Meyer hopes that the city is successful in either getting GMS to sell or taking the property. But Meyer said he's not sure the city will succeed. He doesn't fault the mayor, saying Robart has been trying for years to get GMS to improve the plaza, ''but he's been talking to a brick wall.''

Meyer said he has no contact with the plaza owners, other than mailing his monthly rent and when he's renegotiating his lease.

Jim and Karen Lucas, owners of Pro-Tec Electronics, which repairs small electronics, said something must be done.

''I think any kind of improvement is needed,'' said Karen Lucas. ''I would love to have this place full of people, like we used to.''

The Lucases have been in the plaza for about 10 years and are considering renewing their lease for another three years while moving a few doors down to a larger space.

Even though occupancy is low, Jim Lucas said his customers know where he is. But there's virtually no walk-in traffic anymore.

Robart said he envisions a mix of retail and housing in place of the plaza, but that will depend upon the developer. In the past, Robart had said he envisioned a lifestyle center, with mixed retail, restaurants and possibly upscale residential units, like Crocker Park in Westlake.

Today, Robart said he still envisions retail and housing, but added the lifestyle center would probably be more appropriate for downtown Cuyahoga Falls. Robart said an anticipated master plan would be unveiled in about 60 days and would lay out more State Road and downtown plans. A balance needs to be struck to develop retail at both sites, he said.

''When we get all done, State Road will be highly desirous and the place to be,'' Robart said.

The city has to do something to get GMS to act, said Councilman Ken Barnhart, R-3. Half of the plaza is in his ward.

''I can't see that we can do anything to salvage (the plaza),'' he said. ''Obviously, we've given them more than adequate time to make their move.''

Barnhart said he'd be more in favor of finding retailers for State Road that would appeal to middle-class residents of the area. He worries that an upscale lifestyle center wouldn't be supported economically.

There appears to be the potential for area residents to spend their money in the State Road corridor. A study last year showed that only 29 percent of area residents shop along the corridor. But a fully developed center could bring 626 new employees to the area and generate $1.2 million in annual municipal taxes, $871,500 in county sales tax and $6.4 million in state sales tax.

Robart said there could be room for some, but not all, of the retailers now in the plaza. Both Meyer, the locksmith, and Lucas, the electronic repairer, said they'd like to stay. But both also said they're worried that they'd be priced out if rent escalates.

Akron OH Beacon Journal: http://www.ohio.com