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city plan identifies seven areas of focus

With the Hermitage Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee having identified seven focus areas for the plan, the committee members are helping city officials hone in on the details.

The committee met April 9 to talk about the city’s residential, commercial and industrial sectors, as well as its open spaces, and recommended ways these areas could be improved over the next 10 to 20 years.

The committee members said they want a vibrant city center, but consultant Amy Wiles asked them for specifics on what that means.

Although officials said the committee members could choose anywhere in the city in which to create a city center, they seemed to settle on the traditional spot -- the few blocks surrounding Hermitage Road and East State Street.

However, the committee members said they would like to see changes to the area. It needs to have a central recreation space, one in which families can gather for concerts and picnics and community events, committee member Meg Grober said. This space should be surrounded by dining, shopping and entertainment venues, and be easily accessible by walking and biking, committee members said.

The wild card in this vision is the Shenango Valley Mall, said committee member Larry Reichard. Although currently privately owned and exclusively used for retail business, the property could be redeveloped for a variety of uses, should it become available, he said.

The city should take a lead in developing a city center by devoting staff to organize public events and find new uses for existing spaces in the area, committee member John Hudson said.

In discussing how to promote a healthy community, committee members said the city should continue expanding recreational offerings, but also promote what the city already has, particularly its trails. Something as simple as placing signs to mark distances on trails could do a lot to increase use, said committee member Amy McKinney.

“I think we have a lot of the things that we want,” said committee member Dan Gracenin. “They might not look like we want or function the way we want.”

Hudson added that the city needs to create an atmosphere that is inclusive and promotes diversity, making people feel safe and welcome.

The discussion on industrial space went in two directions: amending the zoning language to allow non-intrusive light industries to locate in commercial zones, and building on the Joy Cone Co. model, where neighborhood cooperation has allowed an industry to expand in a residential area.

“If you can handle the site development, the buffer, the screening, it can be OK,” Reichard said, referring to the Joy Cone model.

But committee member Matt Liburdi cautioned against a wholesale embrace of industry in residential areas. Liburdi said the primary smell coming from Joy Cone is of cookies, and you can’t expect that from every industry, he said.

To create attractive and efficient corridors, sidewalks and lighting can go a long way to making a good first impression, Grober said. Assistant City Manager Gary Gulla said the South Hermitage Road corridor north of Routes 80 and 376, a gateway to Hermitage and the Shenango Valley, is lacking in “wow” factor.

The discussion of neighborhoods noted a lack of short-term housing outside of motels and tech-ready rental units.

To strive toward a prosperous economy, Hudson said the city should be more involved in attracting developers by seeking more public-private partnerships ala LindenPointe Innovative Business Campus, trying things that traditionally are considered out of the realm of government, and adding staff members to work on economic development issues. That would take political will on the part of city commissioners, but Hudson placed the recommendation within the framework of a private business.

“You have to invest money to make money,” he said.

The seventh focus, quality of life, is a catchall that can include such things as education, healthcare and recreation. Commissioner Michael Muha also suggested making government more transparent by broadcasting commissioner and school board meetings, and promoting the community through a changeable copy sign that lists events and then providing a space in which to hold them.

Committee member William Dungee recommended expanding the city’s use of social media, creating public wireless fidelity areas so people can jump on the internet and accommodating public games such as Pokemon Go.