Nurturing high-tech industry; Kent officials want to use mall funds for industrial development

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Kent has a limited amount of vacant land, more than $1 million set aside for a mall some predict will never be built, and a university developing new technology.

Now, city officials are hoping a feasibility study for a high tech business incubator will signal the rebirth of industrial development in Kent.

The Kent Regional Business Alliance has received a $40,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Development to look at the feasibility of locating a technology incubator in Kent. The incubator would help entrepreneurs transfer technology into the private sector.

If the incubator is built, city officials are hoping it would help create a high-tech industrial park on one of the city's few remaining vacant parcels _ such as the property at S.R. 43 and S.R. 261 owned by the Simon DeBartolo Co.

"You can certainly see throughout the country business parks in proximity to universities," said City Manager Lew Steinbrecher.

Steinbrecher said Kent State University has a variety of resources in technology and research, which suggest a "natural marriage" with development in the private sector.

"We have an opportunity here to really capitalize on this," he said. "I think the city of Kent should take a good strong look at partnering with the Kent Regional Business Alliance to see what we can do to participate in this process."

George Stevens, dean of the Kent State University College of Business Administration, and a member of the KRBA board of directors, previously worked at Oakland University, which was next to the Oakland Technology Center. He had also worked at the University of Central Florida, which was near Central Florida Research Park.

Now that he's in Kent, he would like nothing better than to see a similar technology center in the city limits.

"I've watched it work in a number of places," he said. "The impact is just fantastic for the entire community."

Stevens explained incubators are usually located near universities so the business people in the private sector can draw on the resources and knowledge at the university. Once a business gets up and running, it moves out of the incubator and into a place of its own.

The feasibility study will address research infrastructure needs, identify people affected by such a project and locate possible funding sources. The grant requires matching funds, Stevens said, which will be provided by the College of Business and the KSU School of Technology. Others also may be asked to make small contributions, he said.

John West, director of the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University, said he would support the feasibility study. He said a high-tech incubator would support the institute's goal of encouraging economic development in the region.

Such development is important so there is a place the LCI can put its technology to work locally. Those companies would also provide funding for research, he added.

"The ivory tower is gone," he said. "Research for the sake of research doesn't happen much anymore. We need to show our value to the community. We don't want people to say, 'Why are you developing this technology and sending it to Asia?' "

If the incubator becomes a reality, businesses will need a place to move once they are ready for their own building. Some city officials are wondering if that place could be the DeBartolo property, the proposed site of the University Town Center Mall.

Representatives of DeBartolo have insisted that a mall, which has been planned for more than 10 years, is still slated to be built on the property. But site plans for the land expired about a year ago, and no new plans have been submitted to the city.

Council now is considering reprogramming the money set aside for infrastructure improvements at the mall, which totals just more than $1 million with earned interest. While council has yet to decide where to spend that money or whether to spend it at all, some potential uses for the funds center around the mall site.

Steinbrecher said the money could be used to purchase the land, but it is more likely the funds would be used for infrastructure improvements to make development more feasible.

The matter is expected to be discussed at an April 22 meeting of council's community development committee. Representatives of DeBartolo will be invited to address their plans for the property.

"We'd like to explore our options," Steinbrecher said. "All we really know is we have a definite need to promote industry and a shortage of available land."

Councilwoman Aimee Lyle said she would probably support using the mall funding to promote industrial development if the administration recommended it. But she noted the city has little control over how the mall property is developed because DeBartolo still owns the land.

"It's important to remember that land is not ours," she said. "They (the developers) have to decide what they're going to do with it. They could decide to divide it up and sell it tomorrow. It's important to try to communicate with them and encourage them to do something that's beneficial for the community."

Portage County Commissioner Kathleen Chandler said she believes the money commissioners set aside for infrastructure improvements at the mall site had already been budgeted for other purposes. However, she predicted other commissioners would join her in providing some financial support for an industrial park if it were to become reality.

"The county makes money from sales tax, which is why commissioners had been willing to put money into the mall," she said. "But there is a significant residual effect when you bring industry into the county. Industry brings people, who earn money and buy things. That translates into sales tax as well."

She said the commissioners want to encourage more foreign trade, and perhaps such an industrial park could become a "subzone" in the Northeast Ohio Trade and Economic Consortium's foreign trade zone. Placement in such a zone would give companies significant tax advantages, she noted.

"I think it's an excellent idea," she said. "It's generally a clean industry and provides significant support ot the government and schools. It would be a perfect location for this kind of industry because it's so close to the university."

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