ED Now Feature: When Town and Gown Make Ideal Redevelopment Partners

By David J. Robinson, the Montrose Group and Wilson Kerr, the Ohio State University

Located just outside of Toledo, Bowling Green, Ohio, is a traditional college town. Bowling Green is home to 31,000 residents, 20,000 of whom are students, faculty, and staff at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). The university’s presence offers opportunities and challenges for economic development, as they do in most college towns. A collaborative development project between the city and the university offers an interesting model of a town-gown relationship that achieves bigger and better economic development goals.

Bowling Green has many assets. Forty percent of residents have a bachelor’s or professional degree, and the county’s median family income is above the Ohio average. It is located directly on the I-75 corridor, which runs from Detroit to Florida and connects the U.S. auto industry with growing southern markets. And of course, the university is a huge asset, as a source of technology commercialization, industry-based research, major academic and sporting events, and a large population of students and staff that creates a heightened demand for commercial and retail development.

There are challenges, however, to development in Bowling Green. A substantially dense student population creates a concentration of retail and housing that is often of questionable quality. These challenges impact both the city and the university, hindering BGSU’s ability to recruit students and lowering the quality of life for the people who live there year-round.

Much of this aging retail and low-quality housing is concentrated along East Wooster Street, the campus’s gateway, directly off of I-75. When the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) approved a $100 million third lane expansion on the section of I-75 running past the town, it gave Bowling Green the impetus to rethink the university’s “front door.” Next to the street’s off-ramp is vacant land primed for development. Bowling Green decided it was time to not only improve the off-ramp but also to improve the campus gateway and encourage industrial and technology business growth east of the freeway.

The City of Bowling Green, along with BGSU, jointly commissioned the East Wooster Street Corridor Study, a land use plan that outlined a $10 million highway off-ramp, streetscape and traffic improvements to completely change the look and feel of the gateway to the town and university. The city also solicited the Bowling Green Community Development Foundation (which leads the city’s economic development program) to partner on an economic development strategy to determine what companies could be located on both sides of the Wooster Street corridor. It also identified an infrastructure and tax incentive approach to make both the land use and economic development plans a reality. By combining their land use master plans, the City of Bowling Green and BGSU were able to cooperate on a plan that would serve both parties.

Impact on economic development

While BGSU is Wood County’s largest employer, trade, transportation, utilities, and manufacturing represent the largest share of the private-sector economy. Bowling Green determined that the vacant parcels east of the I-75 interchange have substantial development potential to attract high-wage, advanced manufacturing companies. The economic development strategy recommended maximizing the off-ramp investment at this strategic location by:

  • Adopting a tax-increment financing district to develop shovel-ready sites for advanced manufacturing facilities;
  • Considering the connection of a transportation improvement district over East Wooster Street and the I-75 interchange project; and
  • Marketing the sites to high-wage, advanced manufacturers that could leverage the highway access.

Impact on the university

Bowling Green’s economic development strategy acknowledges that Ohio’s higher education marketplace struggles to recruit 18-year-old students. Amenities such as quality, low-cost housing and a mix of millennial-friendly retail are important factors that influence where freshmen decide to enroll. Kent State University, the University of Toledo, the Ohio State University, and others have created similar campus gateway developments to improve entries to the schools.

The Bowling Green East Wooster Street Corridor Economic Development Strategy suggested a joint planning process to create a mixed-use and housing development connected to the campus through several critical steps:

  • Bowling Green, Bowling Green Community Development Foundation, and the university should work with the BGSU Foundation to develop a property assemblage plan on East Wooster Street;
  • A request for qualifications should be sent to private developers with experience in mixed-use and housing development near a university;
  • A TIF district should be created to fund infrastructure development, site development, and streetscaping on these sites; and
  • Bowling Green should invite local investors and developers to be a part of the property assemblage and mixed-use development.

Implementing Bowling Green’s land use plan and economic development strategy is a story in progress, and the project team is in the process of interviewing master developers to implement this vision. The project illustrates how partnerships and planning can maximize the benefits to both the university and the city. By collaborating on both studies, Bowling Green discovered a unique opportunity to simultaneously create high-wage manufacturing jobs and address critical redevelopment opportunities tied to attracting and retaining college students.

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