Knox County and Mt. Vernon have been doing a lot to prepare for growth and change, despite not having any planning staff.
The area has had its share of good luck to go along with the disappearance of some major employers, but Jeff Harris knows good luck goes only so far without good community stewardship. As president of the Knox County Area Development Foundation the past four years, Harris, along with his predecessors, played a facilitating role in that process.
The countywide economic-development agency may not face the same challenges as the booming Columbus area, but Knox County is still part of the same growing region – from Centerburg, the next exurban area north of Sunbury, all the way up to rural Fredericktown.
In the absence of planners, Harris and Jeff Gottke, head of Knox County’s land bank, have advocated for government and private dollars to hire out some planning services – in addition to “geeking out” on ideas themselves.
“We read planning books for fun,” Harris laughed.
As a result of the interest in planning, the foundation has corralled public, private, and philanthropic dollars to help the city and county pay for some planning efforts. It’s been effective.
In downtown Mt. Vernon alone, four blocks of S. Main Street have had $42 million in private investment since 2010 including a $21 million renovation of the historic Woodward Opera House, a five-story hotel on the postcard-perfect town square, 18 condos on the upper floors of commercial buildings, and several new restaurants.
A key to the success has been the locally owned Ariel Corp., a major manufacturer of gas compressors with 1,200 workers in Mt. Vernon. Founded in Mt. Vernon in 1966, it is the county’s largest employer, has a global reach, and has spawned the Ariel Foundation – which has funded some of the planning efforts as well as downtown revitalization.
The new downtown hotel – The Grand – accommodates clients of Ariel and other companies, as well as the local colleges. It also developed Ariel Foundation Park on the site of a PPG plant shuttered for four decades south of downtown. The park preserved parts of the factory, including a 280-foot concrete smokestack with a spiral staircase winding halfway up the outside to an observation deck.
The strong civic infrastructure goes beyond Ariel. Kenyon College, in nearby Gambier, and Mt. Vernon Nazarene University attract professionals and young people. The colleges and Knox Community Hospital (the county’s second-largest employer) are partners in developing the new downtown condos.
Mt. Vernon Nazarene also is developing an academic presence in downtown commercial buildings. Its arts, nursing, and engineering programs are on S. Main St. – along with a “maker space” for technical and engineering innovation. A USDA Rural Development grant allowed the space – Knox Labs – to create a business plan through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Knox County Area Development Foundation itself is a significant institution that showed foresight. It was formed in 1955 to develop a new industrial park south of Mt. Vernon. It evolved into a private, non-profit agency that now has contracts to serve as the economic-development arm of both the city and the county. Harris likens it to a small, localized version of JobsOhio.
Harris also has a more-comprehensive view of economic development than some counterparts. The county’s 2019 economic development plan identified three main prongs: jobs, workforce, and housing.
“We have to get involved in housing because if we get the proverbial 150-job factory (that all communities dream of), where are 150 people making $16 an hour going to live?” he said.
Whether it be higher-end homes for professionals coming to the area, stable and affordable housing for the middle class, or apartments for lower-wage workers in warehouses or other workplaces, Harris believes housing needs to be part of the discussion in Mt. Vernon and elsewhere in Knox County.