Time to “raise the bar” when considering development around the Intel site.
It’s safe to say that western Licking County was not prepared for the coming impact of the Intel development. In particular, government bodies of this mostly rural area do not have the tools nor the experience to address all the issues—housing, schools, transportation, environmental changes and workforce availability, among others—rushing toward them as the chip manufacturer aims to open its two plants in 2025.
“Parts of Licking County will be unrecognizable 25 years from now. Can its planners and leaders provide the right mix of housing; control sprawl; maintain green space and create transit solutions that look beyond cars?” asked Niel Jurist, the communications director for Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission in her introductory remarks at a recent Columbus Metropolitan Club forum titled: “Licking County Plans for its Ideal Intel Future.”
Realizing the potentially overwhelming challenges facing them, county leaders approached the Newark non-profit Thomas J. Evans Foundation, which had partnered previously with municipalities on bike paths and public parks, to act as a “neutral convener” for 15 Licking jurisdictions to collaborate on the “race to get ahead of the planning effort,” according to the foundation’s executive director, Jennifer Roberts.
An umbrella group for this collaboration was born: Framework, which held a national search for a planning partner and selected Planning NEXT of Columbus. NEXT began to collect public input in the fall and will issue a report in early summer.
Licking County has a unique opportunity to do something special, says Jamie Greene, founder and principal of Planning NEXT. “If you are going to have this $20 billion significant, global enterprise, can you raise the bar of what you are doing–or when you leave the property of Intel, does it look like New Rome-Hilliard Road? We have done a terrible job in the last 60 years of making homogenous, unattractive places no one has an emotional attachment to.”
He added, “What can we do in this part of Licking County that rises up in this moment in creating quality places that we all can be proud of?”
Roberts, Greene and Rick Platt, president and CEO of the Heath-Newark-Licking County Port Authority participated in the CMC forum on Feb. 22. The moderator was Benjamin Lanka, business editor of the Columbus Dispatch and former editor of the Newark Advocate.
Here are excerpts from the event.
Lanka: “Just imagine that in 2019, how many people would be here to talk about Licking County?” In 2020, he points out, many communities were struggling. He wondered if some towns would die. That changed after the announcement of Intel’s investment in northwest Licking County.
While many celebrated the news, locals, who preferred living far from the urban environment of Columbus, expressed deep reservations. “What would this do? There were concerns about escalating property values, loss of rural lifestyle, the ever closer creep of the Big C. Overnight, rural township trustees had to become urban planners. That’s not the role they signed up for when they ran for office originally.”
He cited Johnstown as an example of the turmoil caused by the impending change. During the “nightmare” of 2022, Johnstown lost five of seven council members, two city managers, a police chief, finance director, service director and city planner—plus endured a recall election that convincingly ousted a mayor and council president.
To give perspective, Lanka says that Intel’s $20 billion investment is equal to the total value of all property in Licking County.
Platt: He disagreed with Lanka that Licking County was declining before the Intel announcement. He cited the number of manufacturing companies—“the heart” of the county’s economy–in Newark and western Licking County, producing everything from baby formula to plant-based seafood to guidance systems for missiles. He noted the 30,000 jobs at more than 65 plants at three industrial parks.
He applauded Robert’s work in bringing together the various government officials. “Licking County is a grassroots kind pf place,” with each municipality sporting different personalities, such as the upscale Granville and the blue-collar Hebron. He joked that sometimes it’s hard for public officials to agree that the sun sets in the evening.
After the Intel announcement in early 2022, he says he received calls from officials at three companies that recently agreed to invest in Licking County to express concerns about now competing for talent and construction materials. He says those worries were unfounded; “all three are in a good place.” He advised business leaders not to fear competition for limited resources. “Ohio needs to get used to growth.”
Greene: He says NEXT has “engaged” with more than 3,000 people to compile 14 guiding statements, including “a full range of housing,” growing inward before outward and “the importance of a fiscal benefit (not growth for the sake of growth).”
The impacted area of Licking County is about 250 square miles, about the same size as Columbus. Around 40 percent of that property is developable. There is an “extraordinary” amount of planning happening now. “It makes your head spin.” He knows of three studies just focused on transit. The struggle is that folks feel passionate about both density and sprawl. Trying to balance those opposing viewpoints will be a key.
Roberts: “We all need to give our public officials grace, especially in Licking County. We need to hold them accountable, but this is an extraordinary process that has been thrown into their laps and many of them don’t have the resources they need to make the best choices.”