Partners in Success: Kent State and City Collaborate for the Win
Kent City Manager Dave Ruller remembers well the day in late 2006 when he met Kent State University’s then-President Lester A. Lefton at the Franklin Square Deli to talk about downtown Kent.
“It was the famous turkey sandwich lunch meeting,” he recalled.
Lefton, known for his no-nonsense, sometimes gruff manner, didn’t mince his words, Ruller said. He pointed to whole blocks of downtown and pronounced them “a piece of crap.”
Ruller said Lefton, who served from 2006 to 2014, made it clear that he wanted Kent State to be a great university and could not do that with a deteriorated downtown.
“I was like, OK, put your money where your mouth is,” Ruller recalled.
Over that lunch, the seeds of the revitalization of downtown Kent were planted and a new era of cooperation between Kent and Kent State was born.
The results were substantial.
Entire blocks of property were torn down to make way for the construction of Acorn Alley and its shops and restaurants, the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center was constructed, the PARTA bus garage and parking deck were erected, and the Lefton Esplanade walkway was formed to create a gateway to connect the campus and downtown.
The city and university received numerous accolades from downtown revitalization groups nationwide and, 10 years ago this month, the New York Times featured Ruller and Lefton in an article touting their college town-gown success.
Collaboration Continues on Main Street
Now, Kent State President Todd Diacon and Ruller continue to work to maintain that town-gown relationship in ways that create a rising tide to lift both the city and the university.
Chief among those projects is the redevelopment of East Main Street, or state Route 59, a busy four-lane thoroughfare that borders the front of campus where it connects to downtown.
Along East Main Street, the city has committed to Route 59 improvements that include making the road a boulevard with dividers and landscaping in its median, a realignment of Horning Road to link it to Overlook Drive, and improved pedestrian safety along the corridor.
As the university developed its master plan, it became clear that this highly visible area would be the best fit to showcase the future Crawford Hall, an $83 million building currently under construction as the new home of the Ambassador Crawford College of Business and Entrepreneurship. Businessman and retired U.S. Ambassador Edward F. Crawford made possible this enhancement of one of the university’s preeminent colleges with the largest-ever gift to Kent State.
“Ambassador Crawford was pleased to have the building located on such an important thoroughfare,” Diacon said.
Importance of ‘College Town’
For the city, turning Kent into a more attractive college town wasn’t merely a good idea, it had become a matter of survival.
“When compared to vibrant college towns such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Boulder, Colorado, we were underachieving,” Ruller said. “It was reaching a tipping point in terms of the conditions downtown. If we didn’t do something soon, it would be a downtown that no one would be proud of.”
Kent State leaders, too, understood that improving the look of the campus and the downtown was key to attracting students.
Toledo, Ohio, resident Deb Shull recalled her surprise at the new and improved Kent when making a campus visit with her son, Nate Shull, in 2012. A native of Canton, Ohio, Shull rejected Kent State for Ohio University during her own college search in the 1980s.
“I am from Northeast Ohio originally, so Kent was kind of in our backyard,” she said. “It was one of the places when I was looking for colleges that I didn't get the vibe, like you get when you walk into Athens or come around the bend and see Ohio University. Kent was just a lot of cement buildings and cement sidewalks.”
Shull said her son was thinking he too would attend Ohio University, but she wanted him to look at other campuses to be sure.
“When we got to Kent, the Esplanade was in the works and it was going into downtown Kent,” she recalled. “Seeing the development and Acorn Alley, I was like, ‘This is a cute little college town. It’s got charm.’ It definitely helped my son envision himself there and ultimately he did end up choosing Kent State.”
Nate Shull graduated from Kent State in 2018, with a major in computer science. He works in information technology for Sherwin-Williams in Cleveland, where he had an internship during college and was offered a position after.
Surroundings Attract Students and Visitors
When freshman students are surveyed about their choice of Kent State, one of the top three reasons they name for selecting Kent State is the look of the campus and the look and feel of the town, Diacon said.
“We know we have to provide a very physically attractive, high functioning, inviting campus,” Diacon said, adding that the same goes for the city.
The idea of “college town,” Ruller said, is something the city finally had to begin taking seriously.
Ruller said he had file drawers full of plans spanning 50 years that all called for the same type of redevelopment, yet none were ever able to get moving. When he arrived in Kent in 2005, he took on the job of convincing city officials that using city funds to invest in property purchases that could then be offered for development was a wise use of the city’s limited resources.
He credits Lefton, who became Kent State’s 11th president in 2006, with having the vision and determination to create the change on the university’s part. “I’ve been around higher ed long enough to know that, especially with a school as big as Kent State, large, public, it was like turning an aircraft carrier. Somehow, he willed it to turn,” Ruller said.
Since the work began, Ruller estimates the public and private investment has been about $170 million.
Students Appreciate Sense of Place
The improvements also helped turn Kent into a small-town Ohio tourist destination. The city recently was named one of Ohio’s best hometowns by Ohio Magazine.
Lucia Perry, a sophomore fashion merchandising major from Poland, Ohio, was sold on the city of Kent even before she thought about picking a college or an area of study. Perry first visited Kent as a sophomore in high school, on a day trip to tour the Kent State University Museum and stop at a restaurant to eat.
“I immediately felt like it was a college campus that was very welcoming from the downtown alone,” she said. “This is such a great community. It has great shops and restaurants and places to walk.”
Successful Town-Gown Takes Work
Diacon said maintaining the kind of strong town-gown relations that Kent and Kent State enjoy is not an easy task and is the exception, not the rule.
Town-gown relations were one of Diacon’s duties in his previous job as deputy chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and he came to realize quickly what a difficult and challenging task it is.
“It’s hard work,” Diacon said, adding that in 2012 when he was considering the provost job at Kent State and saw the mutually beneficial development that was taking place, he keenly understood the work that took place to make it happen.
“We need to recognize that this isn’t business as usual,” Diacon said, “There aren’t a lot of places in America that do this as well.”
Looking to the Future
Diacon said working with the city and the community at large is constantly ongoing, in ways large and small.
“We are always collaborating with business owners and the city in commercial and real estate endeavors,” he said.
When Starbucks left the Captain Brady’s building at the corner of East Main Street and South Lincoln Street, Diacon said the university was committed to filling the space with a Northeast Ohio company, which happened when the Cleveland Bagel Cafe located there. When the university has a need for temporary space, officials typically look downtown for short-term lease locations, he added.
Likewise, Ruller said, the university continues to be a catalyst for business growth, with graduates often launching new small businesses downtown. One of the newest is Sun in Leo, a store in Acorn Alley that sells responsibly sourced clothing, jewelry and other items, which was opened this month by Justine Gallo, a 2022 graduate from Kent State’s School of Fashion.
When he considers future collaborations, Diacon said the need to build a new, state-of-the-art ice facility is particularly high on his list. The Kent State Ice Arena is aging, and whether the new facility is in Kent or a neighboring community, he would like to find a future home that would serve Kent State ice hockey, local high school teams and recreational skating.
Diacon also would like to involve the downtown in more celebratory Kent Campus events, particularly the university’s Juneteenth celebration, which has taken place for the past two years.