The last time U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood visited Kent was July 9, 2010. At the time, all that existed of the millions of dollars worth of federal, state and local investment in the ongoing redevelopment of the downtown area was the first phase of developer Ron Burbick's Acorn Alley.
On Friday, LaHood again set foot in Kent, this time to tour the Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority's Kent Central Gateway project, a multimodal transit center at the corner of Erie and DePeyster streets.
The cavernous $26 million brick and concrete facility is one local officials hope will be a tie that binds the Kent community and Kent State University to destinations such as Akron, Cleveland and Youngstown. It will provide a transfer point for bus riders, home for new retail businesses, additional downtown parking for Kent residents and visitors, and is expected to bring approximately 700 jobs to the city.
Starting on the parking deck of the Central Gateway's third floor, Kent, KSU and PARTA officials and local media joined LaHood on a 15-minute tour of the facility. LaHood briefly passed through a room full of workers in hard hats taking a lunch break and thanked them for their work on the project.
In brief remarks inside the massive bus bay on the ground floor, LaHood praised Kent, PARTA and the construction workers for their commitment to the project. According to PARTA, the construction project -- scheduled to be completed this summer -- already has created more than 260 jobs.
"This project is proof that the stimulus worked," LaHood said, referring to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. "It is also proof the stimulus helped put a lot of people to work, not only here in Kent but across Ohio."
LaHood also thanked U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, Kent's congressman, for making a "courageous" vote on the stimulus during hard economic times, a vote he said was "not popular" with everyone. However, the stimulus has put thousands of people to work on thousands of projects and "that's what we're celebrating today," he said. He said Ryan, with whom he served on the House Appropriations Committee prior to becoming Secretary of Transportation, called him to inquire about getting economic stimulus money for his district, which includes Kent. A former Republican congressman, LaHood joked he was "delighted to have played a small part, in taking Tim Ryan's phone call," and also joked after neglecting to introduce Ryan that he "couldn't think of anything else good to say about him."
Ryan said working with LaHood was a pleasure and praised him as a "visionary leader." He praised the "men and women with hard hats on" who come to the job site and are "getting dirty every day."
Ryan also said the Kent Central Gateway "should not be a one-time, 'look-what-we-did' project."
"For 30 years in Ohio, people have been leaving their communities. We've given them a reason to come back," he said.
With construction partners including the federal government, KSU, PARTA, private investors like Burbick, Fairmount Properties LLC and the Pizzuti Companies, downtown Kent is in the midst of a more than $125 million renaissance. On Friday, Kent Mayor Jerry Fiala called the project the "cornerstone of redevelopment" in downtown Kent, "a dream of what public transportation would mean."
It was LaHood who signed off on a $20 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant in July 2010 making the Kent Central Gateway a reality. More than $3.5 billion has since flowed from the grant program, a portion of the $48 billion the U.S. Department of Transportation eventually received as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, LaHood said.
A Republican, LaHood served as a congressman from Illinois from 1995 to 2009 before being tapped for the transportation post by President Barack Obama. LaHood announced earlier this year he plans to retire from public service and work in the private sector.
Quoting the Kevin Costner film "Field of Dreams," LaHood said Kent's downtown investment was an example of "'If you build it, they will come.'"
"None of this existed until you had this vision," he said Friday, "a willingness to make this an economic magnet, an economic engine for jobs … Congratulations Kent, you've got a lot to be proud of."
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