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Downtown Kent Before and After...

Whoa — been a while since my last blog post.  Sorry about that.

Seriously, where does the time go?  I’ve just finished complaining about winter and we’re already half way thru summer.  Just can’t catch a break from Father Time.

Despite the low productivity on the blog, we’ve actually been quite busy.  A lot of the initial new construction has wrapped up but our work is far from done; it’s actually just begun.

The revitalization of downtown was never a finish line to get across and then relax.  It was a starting line for us to live up to the promise of a vibrant university City.

The pieces have come together remarkably well but now we’ve got to put them to work for us — to drive our local economy, bring more jobs, more visitors, more businesses and students to create the kind of unique community experience that sets Kent apart from anyplace else.AcornAlleyPeopleWalking

There’s still room for some more new construction and we’re actively trying to push some projects into that pipeline, but in the meantime the new downtown Kent is officially open for business and we’re out there doing everything we can to make sure all the new stuff gets off on the right foot and keeps rolling along.

Downtown revitalization of this magnitude is a massive undertaking, much of which remains outside the control of the City, but it’s our job to give everything the greatest chance possible to succeed so we’re in the trenches along with the new businesses trying to figure out how to get this new machine running on all cylinders.

Everything from parking, to flowers, to crosswalks, to signs, to sidewalks, alleys, lights, trash, recyclables, trees and pocket parks.  It’s all on the table and everyday brings another surprise.  Needless to say, we’re never bored and work has never felt more fulfilling.

In a rare moment of reprieve, we took the time to reach back in pictures a mere 4 years to compare how downtown Kent looked at the end of 2009 and how it looks today.  It’s pretty astonishing which is why we wanted to share it.

How soon we forget how far we’ve come.

DowntownBeforeandAfter2014(small)
(the file is full of pictures so it takes a little longer than normal to load, so please be patient)

 

 

 

Fox 8 News Road Trip To Kent...

Downtown Kent got some nice air-time this morning on Cleveland’s Channel 8 Fox News.

I was at work when it aired but I heard from the Mayor that Channel 8 did a New Day ”Road Trip Visit to Kent” that featured a couple of our favorite downtown businesses.

The Mayor said it was a great piece and I’m working on finding that original news clip to share but in the meantime I did find “extra” footage that Channel 8 posted on their website that showed extended interviews with the owners of Popped, Bent Tree Coffee, and the KSU Fashion Store.

Fox 8 News Interview at Popped in Downtown Kent

These businesses showcase the kind of unique stores downtown Kent offers — the kinds that you won’t find anywhere else which makes a road trip to Kent worth taking.

Click here to view the Fox 8 visit to Kent.

Kent’s Utility Plants Featured...

Usually in the world of municipal water production and wastewater reclamation, no news is good news.

It’s one of the few service areas of the City where out of sight, out of mind, and out of the headlines is our goal.

Kent’s modern and professionally managed utilities perform so well that we rarely have to think about them — and the men and women that are working the plants are ok with that – they’re proud to have the results of their work speak on their behalf.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the occasional cheer from the sideline and fist bump for a job well done.  That’s exactly what they got in February of this year when they were featured in an issue of Automation World magazine.

It was a hot seller and flew off the shelves at the store so in case your copy is on back-order I’m happy to share a copy of the story here.

AutomationWorld-Mag-2014

Cover page of the magazine article.

Admittedly, the magazine may not have as broad popular appeal as Rolling Stone or National Geographic but in the world of utility engineers it’s a keeper with a strong technology emphasis — so it was a point of pride for our utility plants to be featured, particularly given the high praise they received for technological sophistication in running the plants.

Turning the faucets and flushing toilets seems so simple but when you take a peek behind the curtain you quickly appreciate how much work it takes to keep those tasks simple in your life.

Feel free to high five your water meter reader the next time you see him and tell him to pass it along back at the plant for a job well done.

 

 

 

 

 

Kent Health Department Update...

It’s usually not a good sign when Jeff Neistadt, the City’s Health Commissioner, knocks on my door and says he needs to talk to me.

Thoughts of measles and mumps outbreaks immediately come into mind (just ask Ohio State about that) but thankfully Jeff’s recent visit was good news — he reported that the Health Department web site now has all of the 2013 environmental health inspections posted online for the public to access and review.

That means that all of the food service and swimming pool inspections can be viewed by anyone interested in learning about where they are eating or swimming in Kent.

With casual dining more popular than ever, it’s nice to know that the Kent Health Department is on the job making sure the food we eat is safe.  Jeff can’t necessarily do anything about the calories we consume but his staff is on the front lines of sanitation — and we should all be thankful.

Hang out too long with Jeff and you learn more than you ever wanted to know about the battle health departments wage against viruses, bacteria and the millions of bugs that share our world and are all to happy to invade our bodies through any opportunity we give them.

A big part of Jeff’s job is to teach us how to keep those bugs out and the doors of opportunity closed.  It turns out that it takes a village to stay healthy and as hard as Jeff and his staff work, it’s up to all us carriers to do our part to stay a couple steps ahead of the next contagion.

That’s why Jeff’s expanded use of the web site is great news.  He’s giving us access to more public health information than ever before and that’s our best weapon against these critters.

To view the reports, go to  http://www.kentpublichealth.org/ and click on the Inspections tab on the left.  You will then be redirected to Jeff’s healthspace website where you can click on food facility inspections (or swimming pools) also on the left. From there you can search for any restaurant in Kent and see their last few inspection results.

There’s also great search function that let’s you find your restaurant quickly and easily. After reading through some of last year’s results, you’ll see that there’s a difference between “critical” and “non critical” violations.

The nice thing is that over time we’ll be able see which restaurants routinely run into trouble and which one’s do a great job so that we can plan our dinner locations accordingly.

Sharing Downtown Kent...

With the arrival of warm weather, downtown Kent is starting to show off it’s best side.

Kent’s mix of something old and something new has given the downtown a second chance to be a point of hometown pride — a place where another generation of Kent visitors and residents can create memories that will make them fans for life.

A lot may have changed on the outside but it’s still the same downtown on the inside.  It’s a place where people of all ages, backgrounds, nationalities and interests can mix and mingle in a way that is hard to find anywhere else.  It’s a place custom made for people watching, casual dining, conversation, and raising a toast to celebrate our differences as much as our commonalities.

A stroll down Acorn Alley.

A stroll down Acorn Alley.

The new shops, outdoor patios, benches, landscaping, artwork and all-around great public space add up to a enjoyable, walk-able, and bike-able experience that is unmistakably Kent.  Downtown Kent was designed with variety in mind and Kent’s characters come from all walks of life to get here. We know we’ve succeeded when people look around, smile, and say “only in Kent.”

The redevelopment of the downtown has won admiration and awards, turning up the volume of Kent buzz at kitchen tables, barbershops, and social media all over Ohio.  As a result, thousands of people are re-discovering what makes Kent such a great community.

Kent’s rising popularity has put Kent back on the map and the our stores and restaurants make sure people keep coming back.  Even our peer cities are coming into town to see what the excitement is all about and take home a few lessons learned.

An early spring walk on Water Street.

A spring walk on water (street).

We’ve hosted groups of elected officials and city staff from Medina, Bowling Green, Youngstown, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Team NEO, Hiram, and Aurora — and even groups from as far away as India and Azerbaijan.  We make the tours a priority because it’s a chance to create a bunch of new loyal customers for our downtown businesses.  It’s our way to pay our success forward.

It appears that Kent is no longer northeast Ohio’s best kept secret and I think I can speak on behalf of all our downtown businesses when I say that’s fine because we’re happy to share.

I’m also happy to share a link to a new Akron region tourism video titled “This Is Now” that I’m pleased to report includes a feature on Kent.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr6j-UdfLSQ&feature=youtu.be

Recycling in Downtown Kent is Back...

Nice weather brought lots of people to downtown Kent last weekend and besides kicking-back in the new benches downtown visitors also got a chance to show off their “green” by using the new blue recycling containers that were set out just in time for Earth Day.

Kent is proud of it’s environmental legacy — being one of the first communities to recycle in the early 1970′s — so it’s no surprise to see recycling get “recycled” back on Main Street.Recycling01

With all the changes in downtown, the old wooden recycling containers were pulled and we’re just now installing the new versions.  The old wooden containers had a great nostalgic look but an ill advised cigarette butt tossed inside would put these out of service for months.

Kent residents on the City’s “Sustainability Commission” hand-picked the new blue containers because they proved successful in other downtowns where it can sometimes be a challenge to get recyclables in but keep garbage out.

The bright blue might not blend downtown but that’s the point — the Commission members were looking for something that stood out so people could find the recycling bins easily and not be confused over whether they were trash bins or recycling bins.  There’s no mistaking that bright blue bin.

New and Improved Downtown Kent Recycling Bin

New and Improved Downtown Kent Recycling Bin

Also, these containers have a small round opening to let bottles in but hopefully keep other trash out.  Recycling in downtowns is always plagued by trash contamination issues so anything we can do to limit the random pizza boxes from being shoved in the better.

These first recycling bins were purchased with the intent of giving them try to make sure they work as planned before investing lots of money to put bins all over only to watch them fail.

Hopefully these will bins will prove as popular as the other changes downtown and we’ll try to build on that success over time.

 

 

 

NOPEC Savings for Kent Residents...

Sometimes there’s power in numbers – like buying power — and that’s been the basis for the success of NOPEC  since it opened for business back in 2000.

Irrespective of political opinions on the de-regulation of the power and gas industries in the late 1990′s, one thing is undeniable, it created an opportunity for organizations like NOPEC to enter the market on behalf of their members to shop around and negotiate better prices over the long term for their customers.

For 13 years NOPEC has used bulk-buying techniques to reduce energy costs to their member communities (Kent included) and they report saving their customers more than $195 million by pursuing the best deals they can find for electric and natural gas rates.  That’s big money and it’s not surprising since NOPEC is the largest governmental aggregator in the nation with 174 member communities covering 10 counties in northeast Ohio.

There’s logic in the math — more customers buying together means better pricing – and the Kent City staff routinely track price trends with the open market and over time the savings for Kent residents has proven significant.

City of Kent Public Service Director honored by NOPEC for Energy Efficiency Upgrades.

City of Kent Public Service Director honored by NOPEC for Energy Efficiency Upgrades.

NOPEC also took the lead on promoting and incentivizing energy efficiency investments and the City of Kent jumped into energy efficiency with both feet, saving tens of thousands of dollars annually from the City utility budget.  In recognition of our work,

NOPEC awarded the City a check for $260,000 resulting from energy savings last year that we used to pay for the investments it took to upgrade our lighting, motors, etc., to achieve those savings.

NOPEC sent word around last week of another type of savings that comes from having a long term rate contract with the power providers.  It turns out that the polar vortex was costly on the grid and the power suppliers announced that they will soon be charging about 2 million of their customers in our region a one-time fee ranging be
City of Kent Public Service Director honored by NOPEC for Energy Efficiency Upgrades.

tween $5 – $15 to cover their extra power supply costs resulting from the nasty weather.

Kent residents will not have to pay that fee thanks to NOPEC’s deals with the power suppliers.

Maybe $5-$15 isn’t all that much in the context of a family budget but every dollar helps and it’s nice to know that NOPEC is out there working to save Kent residents as many dollars as possible.

Kent Mayor’s Volunteer Awards...

Mayor Fiala works tirelessly to make Kent a great hometown and he’s announced a new Volunteer Awards Program to celebrate all those selfless volunteers that work alongside with him.

Kent has a lot of new stuff going on but one thing that never changes are the people that are willing to roll up their sleeves, step up, and offer their time and talent to tackle whatever community need comes their way.

Volunteers are a special breed and Kent has a long and proud tradition of folks that come together and rally around their home town.  The Mayor says it’s time to recognize those people and give them a well deserved atta-boy and public pat-on-the-back.

For all those people, Mayor Fiala has announced his new Volunteer Recognition Awards that he’s timed to launch with National Volunteer Week, April 6-13th.

The Mayor has selected a team of judges, developed awards categories, and set the award criteria – but now he needs nominations.  That’s where you come in.

If you know someone who selflessly gives their time or talents to others or to their community, now is the time to nominate them by sending in their name.  There’s lots of different award categories and the Mayor is hoping there’s something for everyone — he just needs some names to consider.

Even if you can’t volunteer, here’s a great chance to do a civic duty and nominate someone whom you know has made a difference in this community.

Here’s the details that the Mayor is sending around:  Mayors Volunteer Awards 2014

 

 

Fairchild Bridge Award #2...

Last week ended on a high note when I received word that our Fairchild Avenue Bridge Project is receiving the local Section of the American Society of Highway Engineers “Outstanding Highway Project Award” for 2014. 

This is the second award recognition for the Fairchild Avenue Bridge project and although it may not be as glamorous as our downtown revitalization it is another great example of a project that has won the admiration of our peers and is recognized as being best in class. 

Every project we do has a team of staff busy behind the scenes that work their magic and turn lead into infrastructure gold and this award is a credit to the resourcefulness of the Kent team that worked alongside ODOT to somehow keep this enormously complicated and ambitious project on track and on budget — and transformed one of our busiest gateways into a safe and attractive front door to our downtown. 

For an engineering staff of our size it is remarkable how much work they have produced over the last 5 years — and as this news reminds us, they did their work really well. 

I had a comparatively small role in the Fairchild Avenue Bridge project but I have great pride in the end result, so I hope everyone – from the residents that served on the Study Committee, to City Council and all of the staff — shares in a piece of hometown pride from this award. 

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Winter Safety Ops...

Unfortunately the weather is not being particularly cooperative and I know from experience that this kind of extended winter storm season and extreme cold temperatures can wear thin on resident’s nerves so I thought this was a good time to provide an update on where we’re at with our winter operations. 

Street Plowing — When it comes to street plowing City crews concentrate on high traffic and high risk locations (hills, bridges, schools) first.  The crews will stay on those high priority streets as long as the rate of snowfall requires.  Sometimes the crews may have to work the high priority streets all day.  When the supervisor thinks the high priority streets are reasonably safe, he will began to cycle the plow trucks to secondary collector streets.

Once those streets have some degree of safety, the supervisor can begin releasing the trucks into neighborhood streets.  Often the crews only have time to run a single pass at first in the neighborhoods before having to get back to the secondary and primary streets to re-clear them and start over again due to continued snowfall.

In a typical storm event this cycling back and forth goes on for 48 hours.  The goal is to get at least one pass down residential streets by the end of 48 hours but each storm is different and can affect those results.  The crews will also be diverted for accidents and other emergencies so although we have a plan for snow plowing, those plans can change depending upon the circumstances.

Once the snowfall recedes, the crews will circle back into the residential streets to go from a single travel lane to a plowed lane in both directions.  It’s at this stage that the City needs resident’s cooperation to not park their vehicles on the street so that we can safely maneuver the plows down the street in a timely manner.  As more travel lanes are opened up the trucks will then work at the intersections to push back the piles that have accumulated at the corners. 

During a storm event the crews work around the clock.  After the storm has stopped the supervisor may continue a night shift with various staffing levels depending upon the amount of work still needing to be done, personnel policy limitations (by law plow operators may not plow for more than 16-hours and they must have an 8-hour period of rest), equipment availability, overtime budget, weather forecast and worker safety.  Each of these factors influence the supervisor’s decision but rest assured the goal is to restore safe street conditions as quickly as possible citywide. 

Winter storm response is more than just plowing.  It includes decisions about rates of applying dry salt, pre-wetting salt, adding calcium chloride, or using a brine product to pre-treat the streets.  Each of these techniques have an ideal temperature and weather range when they are most effective so the supervisor does his best to study the weather forecast and match the tactic to the condition.  The use of these products has budgetary impacts so it is critical to be prudent in their use. 

It’s important to keep in mind that the City’s plow operators are also responsible for responding to other City maintenance issues, e.g., water line breaks, sanitary and storm sewer backups, traffic accidents, and municipal building problems, so when the deep freeze hits our crews are often spread in many directions.  When fully staffed our Central  Maintenance Division has nineteen employees that can plow.  During a major snow event such as this past weekend the City typically responds with 9 trucks but some employees were temporarily diverted during the storm to deal with 3 water main breaks. 

Salt supplies in our region have made the news because the salt suppliers have not been able to keep up with demand so even though we have a contract for salt delivery, everything is on back-order and the suppliers are rationing their deliveries while they try to ramp up salt production.  As a result, we’ve had to be ultra-conservative in our salt applications so as to not be left with any salt until the next delivery.  The good news is that the temperatures have been so cold that salt has less effectiveness so scaling back our salt applications really hasn’t had any appreciable impacts on street safety. 

However, the extreme cold and reduced salt has meant more driving on hard pack snow in neighborhoods rather than bare pavement which is actually a consequence of the circumstances rather than sub-par performance by the plow operators.  I realize that residents may not necessarily understand that subtlety, but in extreme cold, driving on hard pack snow can provide a more predictable and safer driving surface on low volume streets where black ice can be prone to develop — particularly as salt applications have been cut back. 

I know residents can get frustrated as they drive around our region during a storm and see different street conditions across city boundaries but I caution against investing too much in intra-city comparisons because rates of snow fall in lake effect storms can vary even from one side of Kent to the other depending on where the bands of snow pass thru town — but I know it’s only natural to compare and frustrating when they think we came up short. 

When we receive complaints, we share those with the supervisors that lead the operations so that they can double check to make sure something wasn’t missed during all the shift changes and so they can keep an eye on those areas when the next storm arrives.  I know that the crews worked around the clock and although we are having to be careful with our salt use due to shortfalls in Northeast Ohio, the crews followed their standard emergency snow operations procedures and I think did a great job keeping Kent streets safe under the circumstances. 

I checked with the Police Chief and I am grateful that she reports that from an accident perspective the streets in Kent were safe even if they were a bit snowy.

Our City Service Director reports that we currently have 835 tons of salt in the barn.  On 1/3/2014 we ordered 1,000 tons of which we have only received 462 tons or less than 50% of our order (first deliver on February 1, 2014; 28 days after ordering). On February 5, 2014 we ordered an additional 1,000 tons so when combined with the January order we have received less that 25% of our combined January and February orders.

Prior to salt rationing being implemented on 2/1/14 there were a total of 18 snow events this winter.  For the 18 events there was 3,600 tons of salt used or an average of 200 tons/event.  Post 2/1/14 there have been 4 events using 225 tons of salt or an average of 56 tons/event.

If salt were used at the normal rate (pre rationing) usage would would have approximated an additional 574 tons for the 4 events in Feb.  Using the current estimate of 835 tons in barn and subtracting the estimated quantity of salt not used in February the salt dome would only have 261 tons remaining — a perilously small amount. 

As you might imagine, salt delivery is a serious concern.  We are being told that those communities that are telling the salt suppliers that they are out of salt are being given a preference for delivery but some cities are reporting that they are out of salt and still haven’t received a salt delivery — we don’t want to find ourselves in that situation.  

The Service Director and I have discussed this and it comes down to our willingness to take the risk that if we use all of our salt now will we receive a shipment in a time for the next storm.  We’re currently taking the approach of better safe than sorry.

Rationing now makes sense because salt has minimal functional impact (due to the extreme temperatures) and we just don’t want to run the risk of depleting our stockpile only to have a possible ice storm head our way and be out of salt when it will be needed the most.  The alternative would be to roll the dice, use all of our salt and shut the City down if an ice storm were to occur and we had no salt to respond — never a good option. 

Sidewalk ShovelingAfter much discussion over the last couple of years the City kept the legislative framework for sidewalk shoveling largely unchanged.  Our Compliance Officer is tasked with doing his best to advise residents and businesses to clear their sidewalks for safety reasons in response to a compliant.  The Officer will make personal contact either in person or in a letter to encourage clearing the sidewalk but we stop short of citing for the clearing of natural snowfall. 

However, we will cite the owner when the owner or their contractors intentionally pushes snow from driveways or parking lots and blocks the sidewalk.   For the natural snowfall, we want to encourage compliance but given the cumbersome court process involved we decided against adding fines, penalties, etc. that are procedurally almost unenforceable.   

Generally speaking the Compliance Officer works on a compliant basis but we do take a more pro-active approach in the chronic areas such as Water Street and E. Main Street to try to stay out in front of the issue in those high pedestrian areas.  How effective that is remains a matter of debate.  At the moment walking along the sidewalks in front of the commercial strips is a bit treacherous. 

For the first time this season, the Public Service Director is arranging for a private contractor to get crews in to clear the pedestrian crossings in the downtown area and City crews will also begin hauling some of the piles of snow out of downtown. 

The best strategy to fight the winter storms is for spring to arrive — sun and warmer temperatures are our best ally.   It can come soon enough. 

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