Downtown Springfield association to disband

The association organizes the annual Holiday in the City event and the Springfield Farmers Market, which draws thousands of people to downtown Springfield each year. The events are expected to continue under a different organization, Center City Board President Theresa Hartley said, but details weren’t available Thursday.

The time’s right to pass the torch as other organizations are now as passionate about downtown as Center City, Hartley said. The group wanted to “go out on top.”

“We all on the board feel like Center City has accomplished its mission,” she said.

The board voted 12-1 this week to dissolve, Hartley said. Center City had one employee, an administrative assistant, who is expected to join the organization that takes over the events.

By bringing downtown to the forefront, she said, other organizations are now focused on improving the area.

“It’s become more important on their plates,” Hartley said.

Over the past few years, the organization has struggled to keep its executive director position filled, said Hartley, owner of Ohio Real Estate Title. The previous executive director, Bill Harless, resigned last June.

Several previous executive directors were hired for other leadership positions, including the Chamber of Greater Springfield Vice President Horton Hobbs and United Senior Services Executive Director Maureen Fagans.

The group also recently had funding cut from a private foundation, Hartley said.

“All agencies experience that,” she said.

In 2000, Center City invited the American Institute of Architects’ Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team to study how to revitalize downtown Springfield.

The nonprofit group created the Downtown Business Alliance and partnered with other downtown stakeholders to create a downtown streetscape plan that included added benches, lighting and flower baskets. It also advocated for a making downtown bicycle friendly, including the addition of more than 30 bike racks.

Downtown Springfield has seen major redevelopment since Center City started, including about $400 million in investment over the past 10 years. Projects include construction of two downtown hospitals, a cancer center, the National Road Commons park, a massive renovation of the historic Bushnell Building and the NTPRD Chiller ice arena.

This spring, a downtown microbrewery is expected to open and the Crowell-Collier building is in the midst of demolition.

In 2010 the association proposed creating a special improvement district. That called for downtown property owners to agree to tax themselves for extra services such as cleaning up litter, additional security and building improvements. But Center City couldn’t get enough property owners to sign on and the plan went away.

With decreasing financial support over time, Mayor Warren Copeland said the decision to shut down wasn’t surprising.

“It was sort of accepting reality to figure out that they needed to fold the tent,” Copeland said. “I think the failure of the SID was kind of a turning point.”

Copeland would have preferred Center City to continue to be the downtown advocates.

“They were a fairly broad-based group and I felt that was helpful, but I understand that they couldn’t sustain it anymore,” he said.

Center City Association played a major role in “helping position our urban core for many of the positive developments happening today,” wrote Chamber of Greater Springfield President and CEO Mike McDorman in an e-mail to the Springfield News-Sun.

“As a former board member, I am confident that the momentum Center City has created for downtown will continue to help us focus on our greatest asset, Springfield’s urban center,” McDorman said.

A separate downtown development group, SpringForward, has been formed, including businesses, foundation and government representatives. That new group played no role in the board’s decision, Hartley said.

The organization made “stunning” changes to the downtown since its inception, especially considering what it looked like in 1997, said Sam Beloff, owner of Rose City Fine Jewelry and Loan. The Beloff family has owned businesses in the downtown since the 1950s.

“It’s a night-and-day difference,” he said. “We basically made our downtown a show piece, a large attraction, which is what Center City started out specifically to do.”

The Downtown Business Alliance, a working group designed to address the needs of downtown businesses, may continue to operate under the Chamber, Beloff said.

“There was an honest feeling that once we had an effective chamber, which is what we have today, that it was a proper place for it to be under the chamber,” Beloff said. “You can’t have competing organizations, especially in an environment of shrinking resources. … This is a natural progression. It’s a good next step. This is where it needs to go.”

Several organizations focused on downtown will provide support in the future, said Center City founding member Jim Lagos, who owns three downtown buildings, including the recently renovated $18 million Bushnell Building.

“There was a whole lot of progress made with a whole lot of volunteers and donors,” Lagos said. “It’s sad to see Center City be no more, but the organization has done a lot over the last few years.”

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