At a July 15 community meeting that sought to blunt strident local opposition to a proposed COTA purchase of a strip shopping center to make way for a bus turnaround on North High Street at East Kanawha Avenue, president Bill Lhota said, "It's not going to happen by July 28."

At a July 15 community meeting that sought to blunt strident local opposition to a proposed COTA purchase of a strip shopping center to make way for a bus turnaround on North High Street at East Kanawha Avenue, president Bill Lhota said, "It's not going to happen by July 28."

He was right.

At a special meeting on July 22, the Central Ohio Transit Authority's board of directors voted unanimously against going ahead with the planned property acquisition.

"Fabulous, absolutely fabulous," an ecstatic D Searcy, the Clintonville Area Commission representative for District 9, said the morning after the 10-0 vote scotched the project. "The way this community came together and unified, it was really overwhelmingly wonderful to watch.

"We could not have asked for a better outcome," she added. "It was exactly what we were hoping for."

Sheri Deerhake, owner of Delicacies by Sheri, one of six businesses in five storefronts threatened with having to change locations, attended the special COTA board meeting, but admitted the following morning she did so with little hope.

"I thought it was a rubber stamp thing and we were going to come out of it in the same position we went in," Deerhake said. "I was shocked, actually.

"It actually kind of renewed my faith in the system," she added. "I have been very down on the whole political scene and government from local on up to the highest for a number of years, very cynical.

I've got some hope that maybe things are starting to turn around."

COTA president Lhota, at the board session, accepted full responsibility for failing to make the proposed bus turnaround palatable for Clintonville residents, particularly those living nearby.

"I will be the first to admit that, looking back, we did not manage the public-involvement process as well as we could have," he said. "I have no excuses for that. We did not do a good job."

"He made it very, very easy for the board to veto the acquisition of that property, and I have to give him credit for that," said Barclay Hastings, founder of the North Clintonville Development Task Force.

The group was recently organized in response to perceptions that part of Clintonville doesn't get a fair shake in the distribution of infrastructure funding and also faces hardships in stopping unwanted development, such as the bus facility.

"I think what it does for the task force is that it affirms what we're doing in going forward," Hastings said.

About 60 Clintonville residents attended the board meeting, and 22 of them rode together on a bus from Graceland Shopping Center, where the No. 2 bus currently turns around to head back toward downtown. It was intended, according to Searcy, who organized the ride, to show support for COTA while at the same time a unified front in opposing the turnaround.

"It literally unloads us right in front of the COTA office and there were a number of COTA officials in the lobby and they actually saw us get off the bus," Searcy said.

Residents were not permitted to speak at the meeting, the CAC representative continued, but during a lull at the outset of the session she passed along a position paper from community leaders to Linda Mauger, chairwoman of the board. The delay in starting the session, Searcy said, gave Mauger and the other nine board members a chance to look over the position paper.

"COTA has been publicly apologetic about the consummate lack of community involvement and awareness-raising, and has stated they will accept most of the responsibility for it," the letter, signed by Searcy, Sharon Heights Civic Association president Keith Beveridge and Lori Gerald on behalf of Sharon Township, stated.

"Unfortunately, this sentiment is disingenuous.

"The community, not COTA, would bear the effects of this development. By not engaging the community and taking the time to ensure the site fits more than technical and logistic parameters, COTA has done not only a disservice to its patrons, but to the very process of finding a functional site for development."

In the days leading up to the special session, Lhota and the board members were inundated with e-mails, phone calls, faxes and letters, including one from State. Sen. Jim Hughes, R-Clintonville.

"I am very concerned about this plan, as I have been receiving a number of calls from my constituents who have shared with me their concerns regarding the proposal," Hughes wrote. "They are worried about the job loss that would occur, increasing environmental risks due to major increase in bus traffic and possible increases in the crime rate. I share all of those concerns, especially in light of the economic outlook that Ohio is currently facing.

"The very last action that should be taken in economic times such as these is to take away a citizen's opportunity to work and contribute to the growth of the economy."

"I just don't think that the purchase of this property at this point is the right plan for COTA," board chairwoman Mauger said.

Lhota told board members that it will be back to the drawing board for COTA officials in terms of finding an alternative to Graceland for the buses to reverse their course. Lhota has indicated that representatives from Casto, owner of the shopping center, plan future redevelopment that would not permit continued use of the parking lot by COTA.

Lhota said officials would revisit some of the rejected sites considered before the East Kanawha-North High location was settled upon. According to Searcy, he also said that this time around they would seek community help in identifying a location that wouldn't draw as much opposition.

"And we're looking forward to doing that," Searcy said.

Collin Binkley of The Dispatch staff contributed to this report.