By Kevin Kelley
In his 17 years as Fairview Park’s economic development director, Jim Kennedy worked on numerous projects, from the closure of five run-down motels along Lorain Road to the redevelopment of Westgate, that permanently changed the face of the community.
But when West Life asked him to discuss the city’s greatest accomplishments during his tenure, he spoke not of any single project but of a process that laid the groundwork for change in the city.
“We changed the culture at City Hall in order to make it a more customer-, business- and resident-friendly environment,” recalled Kennedy, who retires at the end of this month.
That process began with the completion in 1997 of the first master plan, which served as a blueprint for future steps, said Kennedy, a graduate of St. Edward High School and John Carroll Univeristy.
While he was appointed development director in 1997 by former Mayor Karl Kubb, Kennedy said Eileen Patton brought a much needed openness to City Hall and energy to the city when she took office in 2000.
Kennedy recalled that City Council initially declined Patton’s request to reappoint him as director. But the mayor fought for him and he was confirmed on a second vote.
One of their first victories, Kennedy recalled, was the acquisition of three old motels where the McGowan Insurance building and a medical building now stand on Lorain Road, just east of City Hall. The process, which involved obtaining a grant and the selling of $1.2 million in bonds, took more than 18 months. But it eliminated blight, beautified Lorain Road and attracted new tax-paying businesses, Kennedy said.
Early on, the Patton administration also drew up design guidelines that standardized signage regulations and established Georgian-style colonial architecture as the preferred style in the city, Kennedy said.
Kennedy also oversaw, on behalf of the city, the redevelopment of Westgate, from a moribund indoor mall in 2005 to a vibrant outdoor shopping center two years later. He credits the city’s good relationship with the Richard W. Jacobs Group with the success in that endeavor. Dick Jacobs, Kennedy said, had a soft spot for Westgate because it was his company’s first shopping center. The Jacobs Group was successful not only in building a new shopping center but in attracting quality tenants, Kennedy said.
Patton said perhaps the most frustrating project the two worked on was closure by the NASA Glenn Research Center of the two Brookpark Road buildings. The reduction of workers there and ultimate closure cost the city $800,000 in annual income tax revenue. Patton and Kennedy insisted that the federal government not allow the buildings to lie dormant.
“We knew this was going to be long and challenging,” the mayor said of the battle to make the property economically viable for her city. “This prompted a standing joke at City Hall that Jim can retire when the NASA buildings get sold.”
Sure enough, the federal government’s General Services Administration announced that title of the property was transferred June 4 to a local development group that had purchased the buildings in an auction.
Fairview Park’s city charter mandates that the development director also serve as the service director. Just like service directors in other cities, Kennedy has had to battle the flooding of the basements following major rainstorms.
Kennedy, who previously worked at General Motors and Euclid Inc., a GM spinoff, said the city has used sewer funds wisely and creatively in its efforts to reduce basement flooding, and has been largely successful.
Patton described Kennedy as a “master of our sewer system” who has overseen $10 million worth of improvement projects over the years.
When City Council presented Kennedy with a resolution of appreciation for his 17 years of service to the city, several members noted he has been an excellent source of institutional knowledge about the city’s infrastructure. Ward 1 Councilman Brian McDonough joked that Kennedy once told him the entire history of the city’s sewer system when all he asked for was the location of the men’s room.
Kennedy, who has seven children with his wife, Marilyn, said he plans to spend more time with his 14 grandchildren.
THE NEW GUY: As West Life reported last week, City Council unanimously voted at its June 17 meeting to confirm former Avon Lake Mayor Rob Berner as Kennedy’s successor as economic development and safety director.
Berner, who also served as safety-service director in Port Clinton, rose to the top of the 36 resumes submitted for the job, Patton told West Life.
“With Rob’s past experience working in small government, including Avon Lake and Port Clinton, he understands that we need to work as a team in order to grow and prosper,” Patton said.
“Rob has firsthand experience in economic development with the success he had in bringing new business into Avon Lake, and firsthand experience in overseeing the service duties in Port Clinton,” the mayor said. “As a former mayor, he also understands how important it is that we have a safe and satisfying workplace for our employees.”
Berner will leave his current job as the executive director of the Lorain County Rural Wastewater District Friday. He begins his Fairview Park duties July 8.