Ohio village hopes to shed speed trap reputation

JOSH JARMAN The Columbus Dispatch Published:

ALEXANDRIA, Ohio (AP) -- Meredith Martin likes to use the word renaissance.

Martin said she moved her recently opened Sunbear Studio & Gallery to Alexandria from Delaware County because of the Licking County village's small-town charm and great location near affluent communities. Having an art gallery on Main Street has residents buzzing with the hope that the village of about 500 people is on the cusp of an economic resurgence.

Located on Rt. 37 in the middle of a triangle formed by New Albany, Granville and Johnstown, the town has long been seen as a pass-through for people traveling elsewhere. Worse, a history of aggressive traffic enforcement on the nearly mile-long stretch of the state route that doubles as the village's Main Street has given Alexandria a reputation as a speed trap.

As recently as 2008, village police officers wrote 872 tickets, bringing in nearly $70,000 in fines. Those days are gone, said Dan Bunting, the village marshal, who has worked to change the image of village law enforcement.

"It used to be that the police department scared people away," Bunting said. "My way of policing is more inviting. I'm still fighting crime, but I'm also trying to build relationships."

As a village resident, Bunting said, he joined the police force about a year ago to help give back to the community. When he became its sole officer last year, he asked the Village Council to change the name of the office to marshal to reflect the more laid-back approach to policing he had seen as an officer in Colorado.

The approach is winning respect from village business owners, who say the town's old reputation was a detriment to attracting customers.

Stacie Smith, one of the three owners of the Village Spa, said Bunting's focus on community policing is more in line with what a "quaint little village" such as Alexandria needs.

Smith opened the spa with business partners Wendi Zigo and Jenny Sue Bilderback about three years ago. She said the spa and the recently opened art gallery across the street have rekindled a climate of small-town destination shopping that they think will continue to grow.

With a coffee shop now planned for the small gray house next to the gallery, Smith said, village residents are starting to think the town could become a place that people drive to instead of drive past.

For that to happen, however, the village needs a clear direction of where it wants to go, said Brittany O'Brien, a member of the village planning commission.

The commission is one member short, and the town lacks a zoning inspector. Newly elected Mayor Stan Robinson hopes the Village Council will address both issues soon.

Robinson, who has criticized the way the village was run, said his goal is to keep the village government focused on essential services. One of his first acts as mayor was to abolish the mayor's court, which he said contributed to the perception that the town is a speed trap.

He said businesses such as the art gallery and coffee shop are a perfect fit for the village, and his hope is that officials can encourage managed growth while not creating too many hurdles to opening businesses.

"I want to keep it easy," Robinson said. "I think government should be kept small."

Martin worked for almost two years renovating the more-than-century-old building at 3 W. Main St. before the gallery opened in November. She credited Alexandria officials with keeping the process as smooth as possible.

The gallery offers studio space for artists and will host art classes, she said. "My vision is for it to be a center for people interested in the arts. We want to appeal to people making art, buying art and appreciating art."


Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com