The sign in front of an empty lot along Main Street in Groveport displays an optimistic message: "This site is not empty. ... It's filled with OPPORTUNITY!"

The city purchased the nearly half-acre property -- a former used-car lot -- at the corner of Main and College streets in 2018 and has owned green space next to the Ace Hardware store at 726 Main St. since 2013, with the goal of future development.

Thus far, potential developers aren't ready to invest.

"Because Groveport is not considered a primary market for retail and restaurant development, it is difficult to attract developers who view the local market as 'higher risk' than development in other areas of the region, such as Franklinton or the Short North," said Jeff Green, assistant city administrator and development director.

The city, along with the Groveport Community Improvement Corp., a nonprofit whose mission is to enhance the city's economic and community development efforts, is looking at more ways to provide available downtown commercial space and ensure affordability for start-up businesses, Green said.

"We hope to provide more information in the coming weeks or months," he said.

The city purchased the property at Main and College streets for $250,000 from Kenneth E. Stebelton, who operated the used-car lot, Stebe's Sales Inc.

The goal remains to find a restaurant or retail business for the site, which is what residents indicated they want to see in the downtown, according to a survey and market study conducted in 2018.

"When you go to (neighboring) Canal Winchester, you see Groveport people eating in the establishments there," said City Council President Pro Tem Jean Ann Hilbert. "They're just looking for a place to go."

The number of Groveport residents steadily has increased since 2000, with the number about 6,000, according to city officials. In fact, it became a city after the 2010 census. Once a village exceeds 5,000 residents after a federal census, it becomes a city.

However, that growth hasn't translated into more business.

"The city's challenge, when it comes to attracting retail and restaurants, has always been demographics, the number of rooftops and the population within our corporate boundaries," Green said. "Most national chains use modeling that does not consider the regional nature of the city's market or the huge jump in daytime population the city makes every day because of our industrial development."

During work hours at the warehouses, Groveport expands to about 13,000 people, Green has said. More than 7,000 cars a day travel on Main Street.

According to the city, it collects nearly $11 million from income taxes annually, most of it from those who work in the warehouses. Groveport residents pay less than $1 million of income taxes per year.

The downtown does have family-owned businesses that are succeeding.

Little Italy on Main Street has served pizza, pasta and sandwiches for 40 years.

Rick Hanson opened the Hansom Hog, a barbecue restaurant at 549 Main St., in 2016, according to its website.

Hanson said he welcomes more competition and more support from the city for local business.

"The city really needs to do more advertising about what's here," he said. "A lot of people think we're in Grove City. Most of our business comes from somewhere else."

As for the area next to Ace Hardware, Baltimore Land Management LLC, which built the store, has been leasing the adjacent space from the city, with plans to construct a second building on the site.

The CIC gave the company an extension of time allowed to get something built, but that expired at the end of 2019 without a building being erected.

Mayor Lance Westcamp has said it might be time for council to consider developing the property.

"Development has been difficult, but it has to be our priority," councilman Scott Lockett said. "I think the people were very clear prior to the last election. That's what they were interested in. They're interested in seeing something done."

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