Frustrated with the lack of redevelopment at the Westland Mall site, James Schimmer talked last year with Emmett Kelly, an attorney representing Plaza Properties, which owns the deserted mall.
Schimmer, Franklin County’s development and planning director, said that during the discussion about the property’s future, Kelly asked: “What do you guys want to see?”
So Schimmer went to the nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center to put his thoughts and ideas into a blueprint for what could be done at the 73-acre site.
Those ideas include a 150,000-square-foot fieldhouse; single and multifamily housing; a parking deck; a job-training center; a park.
“All of this is aspirational,” Schimmer said.
However, he said, Plaza Properties officials don’t think the ideas are economically feasible now.
“They felt very strongly that they didn’t see market support for this type of project,” Schimmer said.
So the site just sits. Schimmer said what happens there is key to the fortunes of the surrounding area.
Response from neighbors mixed
The nearby Hollywood Casino was on track at the end of 2017 to be the top revenue producer among the state’s four casinos in 2017, with adjusted gross revenue of $202 million through November, but its economic impact on the surrounding neighborhood remains difficult to gauge.
Since Hollywood Casino opened in October 2012, 41 small and large businesses have either opened or expanded in the nearby area, according to Chris Haydocy, an auto dealer and president of Weston Vision, the West Side’s economic-development group.
He said the list includes a $3.5 million restoration of a vacant Meijer store on Georgesville Road into a U-Haul center and the $1.5 million facelift of Western Lanes, a longtime bowling alley.
It’s hard to say whether some or most of those businesses decided to spend the money because of the casino’s presence. But Haydocy believes it has made a difference.
“If not for the completion of the casino, there’s no compelling reason for businesses to invest here,” Haydocy said.
Two months after the casino opened, Retail Ventures closed on a $3.2 million deal to buy the West Broad Plaza shopping center at West Broad Street and Georgesville Road. One of the owners in the group said it had planned to invest in the area before the casino.
“We felt even if the casino wasn’t there, we could turn things around,” Tom Heilman, a member of the group, said in December.
He said the 150,000-square-foot strip shopping center, now called Hollywood Plaza, is 90 percent leased; it was 50 percent leased when they bought it.
Although the casino’s impact on the area in its five years of operation has been “less than anticipated,” Heilman said he’s happy to be its neighbor.
“Is it going to change the world? No,” he said.
The city and casino owner Penn National Gaming agreed to create the West Side Community Fund, a $5 million effort to help pay for development and charitable projects on that side of town as part of a 2011 settlement to resolve conflicts over annexation and utilities.
Penn National role: ‘to be supportive’
But Penn National isn’t actively involved in community-redevelopment efforts.
“Our primary role is to work with the Weston partnership, which we have done since the day they were formed,” company spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said. The casino’s general manager, Himbert Sinopoli, sits on the board.
“Our role is to just be supportive,” Tenenbaum said.
Betty Jaynes of the Westgate Neighbors Association said she’s thankful the casino invested in a brownfield site - the former Delphi auto-parts plant there closed in December 2007 - that no one else would have.
“It’s not the savior we thought it would be, and not as apocalyptic,” Jaynes said.
“I’m not pro-gambling, but I’m not anti-casino,” she said.
But Jaynes said the casino could step up and be an anchor for redevelopment, similar to the way Nationwide Children’s Hospital just east of downtown Columbus has been for the neighborhoods surrounding it, or the Grote (Donato’s Pizza) and Crane (Crane Plastics) families have been on the South Side.
“It would be nice for the casino to be a corporate partner and anchor,” she said.
Schimmer said he’s optimistic about some of the things that have happened in the neighborhood in recent years; he noted the Romney Group’s decision to reduce the number of apartments at the sprawling Havenwood complex - formerly Metro West - from 1,726 to 800, making it much more manageable.
He just wants those types of developments to lead to more.
“When does the private-sector light bulb go off?” Schimmer asked.