In his first State of the City address, Upper Arlington City Manager Steve Schoeny called on residents to take part in the ongoing study for a local community center and said officials would bolster inclusiveness.

During a segment of the Jan. 27 presentation that he said would define Upper Arlington's new century, Schoeny said a 16-member community-center feasibility task force appointed by City Council last July will work this year to define what a community center means to residents and determine if a project to build a center is wanted.

He said it's important the community take part in the study so the task force and city leaders aren't answering those questions -- and possibly ones related to its location and construction and operations costs -- "in a vacuum."

"Tonight marks the launch of an intensive phase of community engagement," said Schoeny, who took over as city manager Sept. 30. "Multiple 'pop-ups,' like the one in the (State of the City) Community Fair tonight, are being scheduled at events around town, meeting residents where they are.

"Focus groups and interviews are scheduled with representatives of stakeholder groups, like seniors, sports organizations, community groups and others. And by early spring, it will be survey time."

Schoeny said the task force and the city's study consultants don't have preconceived answers for the community. He encouraged residents to "think expansively about what a community center could be." He asked that they provide input through upcoming surveys, pop-up events, community meetings and focus groups.

"These ... channels are structured to truly capture, account for and analyze all of the feedback that we get," he said. "Feedback received through a less structured channel is much more likely to get lost in the noise of everything else."

The task force is expected to work through at least the first six months of this year to gather information before recommendations are made to council.

Then, Schoeny said, the decision will be put in the hands of voters.

"Regardless of how funding might be structured, any proposal would come before voters at the appropriate time, upholding City Council's pledge to residents that a community center will not move forward without going to the ballot," he said.

Changing perceptions

Aside from the community center, Schoeny emphasized that 2020 will be a year in which Upper Arlington officials will strive to change the community's reputation of being unwelcoming to those of other races, socioeconomic levels and backgrounds.

"As was the case in many communities of generations past, Upper Arlington was welcoming only to the right kind of people, but Upper Arlington was not welcoming to all," he said. "We were an 'exclusive' community when we thought that was something to celebrate.

"Today, talented, educated, successful, caring, community-oriented young people are actively seeking inclusive communities and they shun communities that are perceived as rejecting anyone."

Schoeny said Upper Arlington has "a reputation problem" and said inclusiveness isn't just a moral imperative but also "a business imperative."

"Let me be clear: I believe that the culture of Upper Arlington has changed fundamentally," he said. "The heart and soul of this community is welcoming to everyone. The residents of Upper Arlington are now and have long been at the forefront of supporting diversity and inclusion around the Columbus region.

"But we need to continue to deepen that change, to live it and to tell our story at home."

A community-relations committee will be formed to help address that issue.

Schoeny said such groups as Equal UA, the Stand Project, Upper Arlington Schools, Leadership UA and council will be involved, and the as-yet unnamed committee members "will work to deepen the culture of inclusion in UA."

"With care and attention, I am confident this effort will help us redefine Upper Arlington's reputation as a community that welcomes and embraces everyone," he said. "It will not be easy and it will feel uncomfortable at times.

"But it will be rewarding and it is what we must do to remain the community that is the home of Ohio's leaders."

Lane Avenue

Another portion of Schoeny's speech addressed the ongoing evolution of the Lane Avenue business corridor.

He said the Lane Avenue planning study would consider how the district's continued development can promote gathering spaces and walkability.

"We want to improve safety and the look and feel of the district," he said. "All of this must be done while paying close attention to an appropriate blending between commercial activity and the surrounding residential neighborhoods."

Through the study, Schoeny said, the city already has received more than 3,200 touchpoints of public feedback. He said the next phase of the work will seek to share themes from that input; final recommendations will be delivered to council "for enhancing gateways into the district, streetscape improvements and proposed amendments to the Lane Avenue Planned Mixed-Use District zoning requirements," he said.

Resident reaction

Following Schoeny's address, 10-year resident Joe Cape said he was pleased to hear that a community-center study is continuing and that the project ultimately will be decided by a vote of residents if the study recommends moving forward.

"I appreciated hearing that they're going to put this issue for the community center as a ballot issue," Cape said. "This has been proposed a number of times before and every time, it was rejected.

"I think this time it has a lot of support."

Cape said he would reserve his decision on a community center until more details come forward, but generally, he's in favor of building an indoor, multigenerational facility.

"What I hope is in the plans that they make a designated section as the senior center," he said.

Representatives of Equal UA, an organization that aims to foster a welcoming and tolerant community, set up an information booth at the community fair that preceded the State of the City.

Several of its members said after Schoeny's speech they were pleased to hear Schoeny say city officials will partner in promoting diversity and inclusion.

"He's moving the city forward," said Marianne Mitchell, a member of Equal UA. "It's so great to see the community coming together in so many different avenues, all these different people working together."

Fellow Equal UA member Carole Lunney said inclusion initiatives are important so the community culture promotes a sense of belonging among people of different races and backgrounds.

"Especially in a community where so many people are multi-generational," Lunney said. "When you're new, it's nice to know that the city is putting some effort and intention in making sure that people connect with each other and that everyone is welcome and belongs.

"To have that be such a prominent part of the State of the City address was really welcomed."

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