Downtown Kent is still growing could be a place for fresh, new start-ups.
An additional development is in the works for downtown Kent, said Lori Wemhoff, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of Kent.
The recently developed Acorn Alley on Erie Street, just one street south of historical Main Street, is already home to many small, local businesses, many of whom are former Kent State graduates.
“This year, we have had more requests from businesses to be on Erie Street than Main Street,” Wemhoff said. Before development (three years ago) no one wanted to be put on Erie Street, she added.
In Kent, small businesses are the norm, rather than the exception, said Susan McGann, a certified business adviser with Summit Medina Business Alliance in Kent, one of Ohio’s Small Business Development Centers. She said she has lived in Kent for 20 years. She does advising, coaching and business networking for residents of Portage County.
Downtown Kent is basically unrecognizable from what it looked like seven or even three years ago, McGann said.
“Erie Street was just dirt and Depeyster Street may have as well been a moat,” Wemhoff said.
Before the Lefter A. Lefton Esplanade was built, students rarely made the trek downtown unless they were going to the bar or the tattoo parlor,” Wemhoff said. “Businesses never reached out to over 29,000 students.”
“Now, there is never a moment where you don’t see students trekking up or down the Esplanade,” Wemhoff said.
Homes that were once between the University and downtown acted as a barrier. Many have been removed and others are being “repurposed” for the university, according to source at the Office of the University Architect.
“When major developments were made, Kent became not just a college town, but also a place as a place to stay,” McGann said.
“It’s like when you remodel one room of your house and look at the rest of your house and see that it, too, needs to be remodeled,” McGann said.
“The energy is much different now.” It’s only been one year since a Kent Hotel was opened, the only hotel in downtown, McGann said.
These developments are signifying further harvesting of the ‘town and gown’ relationship between the university and city of Kent, Jane Murphy Timken, chair of the Kent State Board of Trustees, has said in the press.
“What’s good for the new is good for the more established business,” Wemhoff said. “The only shortage we have now is parking spots.” (she notes there are 365 in the public parking garage )
There are few “big-box” stores around downtown and that is because of the strong business community, Wemhoff explained. In August 2009, when Wemhoff became executive director, the Kent Chamber of Commerce had 176 members, she said. Now, there are 322.
“My more successful business people I have noticed come from entrepreneurial families because they have a realistic sense of what it takes to go into business,” McGann said.
“They grew up with families dinner conversation was ‘how are we going to pay the taxes;’ not ‘I want to sit on a boat and have my employees work for me.”
You are seeing more realistic businesses form now, McGann said. They have realistic goals and want to start small and grow, she explained.
Wemhoff was an entrepreneur herself. When first moved to Kent in 2003, she created her own public relations and marketing business, LMS Creative Communications.
“I gave myself a timeline. If I wasn’t successful enough within five years to have an outside-of-home office location, I would try something else” she said. “At the four-and-a-half year mark my business took off” she said.
But it wasn’t just because of the business itself. Wemhoff was an active member and on the board of directors of Kent Chamber of Commerce while her business grew.
While on a beer-tasting outing on a vacation in Cape Cod, she received a call offering her the position as executive director of the Kent Chamber of Commerce. She made the decision to take the job and has been with the Chamber for four years.
“Last year we had 32 ribbon cuttings of new businesses, the year before that was 19, and this year we have had 13,” she said with a smile on her face.
“Kent is a great place to do business.”