About 25 residents turned out Thursday evening to learn yet more about the proposed development of the former lumberyard site directly behind the Grove City Hall parking lot.

About 25 residents turned out Thursday evening to learn yet more about the proposed development of the former lumberyard site directly behind the Grove City Hall parking lot.

Those who attended the gathering in City Council Chambers, the first of four meetings Mayor Richard L. "Ike" Stage has proposed to hear from citizens on the potentially $29 million public-private initiative, sat through a presentation from developer Mo Dioun of the Stonehenge Co.

They also heard - since a crowd was gathered - from former South-Western City Schools Board of Education member Gary Leasure, who urged those on hand to vote in favor of Issue 15 on the May 5 ballot. Leasure, chairman of Citizens for South-Western City Schools, acknowledged that times are tough for everyone, but pointed out that includes schools, too. Until the funding formula for public education is changed, he said, district administrators have only two options when faced with budget shortfalls, cutting costs or raising property taxes.

Issue 15 is a four-year, 8.3-mill operating levy. Current school board members decided on only a four-year measure, Leasure said, in hopes the state's funding mechanism might undergo changes in the near term.

If passed, the district would not collect any money from the levy until 2010, Leasure pointed out.

District officials have already made $8 million in spending cuts, $1.6 million of which would stay in place even if Issue 15 is approved, Leasure said.

Passage of the levy would also spare district administrators from having to close the Harrisburg Elementary and Kingston schools, as well as eliminating all extracurricular activities, the former board member added.

Also on hand for the lumberyard development portion of the evening were Don Walters, the city's community and business relations officer, and retired Columbus State Community College Provost Mike Snider, who now serves as a consultant. They discussed the "Center of Learning" aspects of the proposed development.

Then it was an opportunity for the people to speak, and they offered up a mix of skepticism, outright opposition and unqualified support.

Dioun gave essentially the same multimedia presentation he presented at a special City Council session on April 14, outlining how his Gahanna development firm has been working on the details of the project since the spring of 2006.

"These things do not come easily," he said. "They take a lot of discussion."

At the time, his firm was selected in response to a request for proposals from city officials, Dioun said that the goal was to create a mix of housing, office, retail and restaurant uses for the site. When the bottom fell out of the housing market, the housing aspects fell out of the project, he said.

As it currently stands, the lumberyard site would encompass a 290-space city-owned parking garage, a city-owned public plaza, two buildings owned by the developer to be rented out for offices, retail uses and classroom space for colleges, as well as an atrium connecting the parking garage with City Hall via the larger of the two structures.

The public plaza with various possible water features, Dioun said, would be the main focal point of the overall project, a sort of "urban park" that would become a destination for not only Grove City residents but also people from throughout central Ohio.

The city's investment could be as much as $17 million, Dioun said, while his company would be putting up $12 million for the two buildings, one currently proposed at 66,000 square feet and facing Park Street and the other 8,000 square feet located in the plaza next to the parking structure.

Work on the parking garage could begin as early as June, with an estimated completed on this December, according to Dioun's timeline. Construction of the larger structure could commence in October and be finished by December 2010. The 8,000-square-foot building would take from April 2010 to that December to be completed, while the plaza and public space would require the longest to complete, with a start date this coming September and completion estimated for April 2011.

Dioun reiterated that no private developer in the current economy would be interested in constructing office buildings in Grove City, while city officials probably would not, on their own, invest in a parking garage and public plaza. It is only the public-private partnership that makes the project possible, he said.

Dioun pointed out that construction costs are currently very favorable for builders.

"It's the best time to get the contractors," he said.

Dioun concluded by saying that he hopes one day to "have goose bumps" as he watches people enjoying themselves in the plaza, just as he does when he sees people gathered at the Creekside development his firm created in conjunction with the city of Gahanna.

The "Center of Learning" aspects of the lumberyard project came about "almost as a fluke," according to Mayor Stage. He said officials from Ashland University visited Grove City two and a half years ago to express interest in a branch campus. They were not interested, however, in investing in a building of their own but rather wanted to hold classes in rented space, Stage said. When he brought up the possibility of the lumberyard's office space, the mayor said that Ashland officials were pleased with the prospect.

Since that time, according to Walters, CSCC and Ohio State University Extension have signed letters of intent to hold classes in the 66,000-square-foot Park Street building, which until recently was also a candidate to house a relocated and expanded Grove City Library. A majority of council members shot that idea down at the April 6 meeting.

Three other colleges, which Walters did not name, are also close to signing similar letters of intent, he said. When all are up and running, the business and community relations officers estimated that the "Center of Learning" could draw as many as 3,000 students.

Snider, who worked at Columbus State for 33 years, said President Valeriana Moeller asked him to serve as a consultant following his retirement. The possibility of CSCC offering classes in the lumberyard project is important enough, Snider said, that he's been assigned to serve as the liaison between community college officials and the city.

As CSCC is doing in a Westerville program, Snider said the Grove City program would include not only classrooms but also computer and science labs.

"We're excited," Snider said. "We know that this is the right thing for Grove City."

During the public participation portion of the evening, resident Chuck Engelman expressed some incredulity that for a total investment of $17 million, all the city would be getting is a parking garage and public plaza. Mayor Stage and City Administrator Philip D. Honsey responded that the city would also be getting "a lot of infrastructure," as well as improvements to City Hall and the atrium for use as public space.

Dioun said that his firm would be paying for the infrastructure for the two buildings Stonehenge would own, as well as a "premium price" to the city for the land the structures would occupy.

Sandy Engelman expressed opposition to the parking garage. She said it simply would not look right in downtown Grove City. She also said that a 290-space structure would be inadequate for as many students as Walters said would be attending classes for the various colleges.

Sandy Engelman also suggested that locating the parking garage next to the railroad tracks would prevent Grove City from ever being a stop on a possible high-speed rail line running from Cleveland to Cincinnati.

"It's not coming down this way," Stage replied.

Resident Charles L. Brown rose to point out that, 35 years ago, city officials decided against spending the money to locate service roads on either side of Stringtown Road, which now suffers from congestion those streets could help alleviate.

"Let's start thinking 35 years down the road," Brown said.

"I consider this a hundred-year decision," Stage offered.

The second lumberyard Town Hall meeting will be on Tuesday, April 28, at 7 p.m. in Buckeye Woods Elementary School, 2525 Holton Road.