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Village revitalization project boosts Gambier’s economy

Is Kenyon a college in the village of Gambier or is Gambier a village in the College? Renovations to downtown Gambier are prompting residents of Gambier and the College to ask who owns what in the Village.

Kenyon is the largest landowner in the Village. The College owns everything in the village center along Chase and Gaskin Avenues except for the post office, the house next to the Village Inn, the sidewalks, the roads and the water pipes underground.

Approximately two-thirds of Gambier’s 2,400 inhabitants are students. The median age in Gambier is 21. Many of the 800 other citizens work for the College or are alumni. The Area Development Foundation of Knox County found that Kenyon is the fourth largest employer in Knox County, just behind Siemens, Knox Community Hospital and the Ariel Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of gas compressors. Kenyon employs 575 residents of Knox County.

Kachen Kimmell, the mayor of Gambier, believes it is important to understand Gambier as a one-company town, with Kenyon as that one company. This sentiment was echoed by retired Village resident Richard Tuck in an email to the Collegian.

Tuck praised the recent construction projects and called the College “good stewards” of the Village, though he would support a moratorium on construction in the downtown area after the current projects are finished.

Kimmell urges people to weigh the economic perspective of Kenyon’s revitalization of downtown Gambier. She estimated that the money Kenyon invested into revitalization would produce several million dollars in wages.

“Every time Kenyon does construction there’s a $100,000 to $200,000 swell in income tax,” Kimmell said, which she says is an economic boon for the Village

Construction projects boost the Village economy but are not always popular among the Village’s or the College’s various constituencies.

“You can find people who disagree even profoundly with the change that is happening,”  Kimmell said, before stipulating that in general, young families and retirees who are not affiliated with the College support the renovation downtown.

Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman pointed out the various ways in which the College attempted to hear and weigh concerns about construction projects. “We tried to have a cross-section of staff, students and some participation from the Village,” he said.

Tuck, who served on the Village’s Planning and Zoning Commission, believes the College achieved this. “I have found the College to be very responsive to our concerns,” he said. 

The Master Plan was created in 2004 and updated in 2014. It establishes a list of developmental goals Kenyon has for its campus. Part 3 of the plan is to “revitalize the Village,” which includes both preservation and enhancement “where it has been eroded.”

Kohlman said the College consulted various interest groups in the Village and the College during the development of the renovation plans. Village Council members sat on the committee for updating the Master Plan  in 2014.

Kimmell said her role is about striking a balance between the economic benefits of development and the natural resistance to change. She believes that public hearings and town zoning laws pair together to keep the College, and all other landowners, in check.

Kimmell highlighted the public hearing at the beginning of 2016 when the College brought its first round of proposals for construction downtown. “I’d say that hearing was attended by 50 people, 60 people,” she said. “That is a lot for a tiny town.”

While these public hearings were well attended, Kohlman and Kimmell both voiced frustrations at the low attendances at regular Village Council meetings.

“I’ve done … a number of presentations to the Village Council about projects and planning and those are all public meetings,” Kohlman said. “Those are open to the whole community even though most of the time I am the only one there.”

Specifically, at the first public hearing regarding downtown renovation on April 4, 2016, the Village Council voted down Kenyon’s proposal because of concerns over the height of the new Village Market and the density of the lot that Snowden House and Unity House sit on. The College responded to Village concerns and had its variances approved on a second public hearing on May 2, 2016.

Kimmell also works with the mayors of the other villages in Knox County.

“[These] mayors … would kill to get 18 million dollars invested in their downtown,” Kimmell said. “You cannot imagine — envious is the word that comes to mind — how much they wish, how much they long for that kind of revitalization for their downtown.”

In the end, there are decisions Kenyon makes that the Village cannot change, such as building a library on its own land, and aspects of Village life that Gambier alone controls.

The two are deeply connected but, as Tuck and Kimmell suggested, the College is still a company, perhaps the company, in the Village of Gambier.

“Our guys dig graves, our guys clean sidewalks, we are responsible for the maintenance of the roads,” Kimmell said, “so to my way of thinking, the College is inside the Village.”

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