Four years after purchasing the 62-acre tract of land that would become Westar Place, the city of Westerville is about halfway through the process of selling its individual parcels, and has created one of the hottest development areas in central Ohio.
The process began in May 2014, when the city paid $6.38 million to purchase the tract from former owners Altair Realty Ltd. and North Westerville Ltd., both of which were incorporated by developer Jerome G. Solove. The land is located east of Interstate 71 along Polaris Parkway, with two access points to the Westerville community, including Polaris Parkway and Cleveland Avenue.
The city funded the purchase with municipal notes that are paid back each year.
In the purchase, the city also spent $9.5 million in reimbursements for existing infrastructure, and has spent another $5.4 million on extension of roadways and other work since acquiring Westar Place.
According to Jason Bechtold, the city's economic development director, Westerville anticipates those funds will be recouped through tax-increment-financing agreements. A TIF is an economic-development mechanism available to local governments to finance public-infrastructure improvements and, in certain circumstances, residential rehabilitation, according to the Ohio Development Services Agency.
A TIF locks in the taxable worth of real property at the value it holds at the time the authorizing legislation is approved, diverting resulting incremental revenue to designated uses, such as funding necessary improvements or infrastructure to support a new development.
In December 2014, the city revealed its plan for the land with the announcement of a Marriott Renaissance Hotel as the "crown jewel" of Westar Place.
The hotel, situated on 5.5 acres in the middle of the 62 acres, on the south side of Polaris Parkway between Cleveland Avenue and Africa Road, represented the accomplishment of an economic development goal that city leaders say had been in place since at least 2008, when the country's recession made it seem like a pipe dream.
At the time of the hotel announcement, former council chairman and current Mayor Craig Treneff called the hotel "a piece of the economic development puzzle that's been missing in Westerville."
"We've wanted that for a long time," he said.
Since that announcement, momentum has consistently grown for Westar Place properties.
Bechtold said the area is "very competitive," and the influx of restaurants, retail establishments and even childcare options in the areas surrounding Westar Place has set the stage for attracting the types of businesses the city seeks.
"I think in general, Westar is heating up," he said. "You really see that momentum for different amenities. That has garnered a lot of interest in Westar in its totality, whether it's here or on Worthington Road. We see a lot of momentum in this area."
Council chairman Mike Heyeck, who has served on council since 1993, has watched as the site transformed from a newly annexed property in the 1990s to a development hotbed today.
While many things have changed, he said the city's priorities for the spaces have stayed the same.
"In the broader sense, our focus ever since the 1990s has been on jobs, jobs, jobs," he said.
"Everything else is secondary. So for office development, you need hotels, you need retail, you need some sense of residential on the perimeter. But those are secondary and tertiary to the jobs."
Heyeck and Bechtold said company headquarters, healthcare and finance are the main target industries for remaining deals.
The city recently announced two new purchase agreements for a total of about 6 acres -- worth about $2 million -- and Bechtold said he expects two others to follow shortly.
The first agreement was for Daimler Group Inc. to develop an approximately 2.5-acre plot on the east side of Westar Place that eventually will become a campus for the Central Ohio Primary Care Physicians Group. The second purchase agreement was for Wildcat LLC to purchase about 3.6 acres on the north side of Westar Place for a retail development.
For now, four main office spaces, totaling about 22.6 acres, and three separate pieces of planned retail space, about 3.8 acres, remain available.
Since purchasing the 62 acres, Bechtold said the city has already sold back enough parcels to have recouped $2.1 million of its $6.38 million investment, a number that does not include more than $2 million in value that is currently in a purchase agreement.
"It's gone faster than I expected," Heyeck said. "Any time you do something like this, you make sure you think about the worst case scenario. But I think we've got the best case scenario."
To account for that rapid turnaround, Bechtold said he gives credit to a slightly evolving approach to attracting developers. Instead of bringing companies into Westerville and having amenities follow, he said the city has seen that when amenities are present and space is available, the companies are much more willing to move in.
"What we're hearing is, 'It's all about the experience in the workplace. What are the amenities around my office space?' I think that's an important feature," he said.
"It's not always getting the corporate headquarters opportunity. It's about attracting them, but it's also about having great restaurants, great parks, great hotels, great amenities. ... So we're really building our story where you can go to a coffee shop, drop off your kids and go to work."
The key piece of that holistic approach has been the hotel, which city leaders say has been every bit as influential as they hoped.
"It's really a marquee that shows the evidence of economic development," Heyeck said. "You really would struggle if you didn't have a major hotel, and it's a direct result of economic development and investment in public infrastructure."
Bechtold said the hotel will be helpful for existing businesses, let alone new companies that the city wants to attract.
"There are businesses here and around our community that need that extra space, that conference space, that gathering space," he said. "So to see that come to fruition as a Renaissance, first-class hotel, we're seeing even our existing businesses looking forward to taking advantage of that opportunity."
Scott Starek, the manager of the hotel that's aiming for a spring opening, said Renaissance leadership sees the building as an economic driver as well.
"I think bigger companies are slightly hesitant to come to an area that doesn't have a hotel," he said in February.
"So where do they send their guests? Over to Polaris. Now, they're going to say, 'We have this brand new, top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art Renaissance hotel right next door to these plots of land,' " he said.
With so many parcels sold and so much interest in the spaces, the city now has the luxury of taking its time in selling the remainder of the parcels, waiting for the right fit and the right economic impact, according to Bechtold.
And as the rest of Westar Place takes shape, Bechtold said it's catching the eye of more and more developers.
"They see the picture unfolding," he said.
But don't expect Heyeck and others who have watched the long process to begin patting themselves on the back before Westar Place is finished.
"We're not done yet," he said. "We've got a little ways to go."