—A small city that created a niche for itself as a hub for Appalachian artists is coming to grips with its stake in President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package.
The state highway department's biggest stimulus investment — $150 million to complete a highway bypass around Nelsonville in southeast Ohio — is challenging business leaders to prevent the city from becoming invisible once construction is completed in 2012.
The new four-lane highway on U.S. Route 33 will give motorists from Columbus, Ohio, to the Charleston, W.Va., area a faster option but threatens to divert potential shoppers from the eclectic mix of art studios, galleries and crafts stores downtown.
"There are a lot of questions, a lot of unknowns," said Jennifer L'Heureux, who owns a pottery store in Nelsonville, where country singer Willie Nelson headlined this summer's music festival.
The bypass is among about 210 state transportation projects scheduled to get $774 million in federal stimulus money.
Although construction on the highway began in 2007, work on the final two phases was put on hold because of state funding problems. Transportation officials took money from Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan, signed in February to jolt the economy, and put the project on a fast track, galvanizing residents into action.
At a July 27 chamber of commerce meeting, merchants stressed the need to step up marketing — billboards, for example — so motorists know the city is a destination, not a detour, said Susan Holmes, owner of Nelsonville Quilt Co.
The Ohio Department of Transportation has agreed to erect road signs on the bypass that alert drivers to the business route. Some merchants question whether more advertising is needed, and the city is working with Heritage Ohio Inc., a nonprofit group that helps communities with business recruitment, marketing strategies and fundraising.
Merchants in St. Peter, Minn., voiced similar concerns about a drop in business when work began in July on a stimulus-funded project to rebuild and widen a highway that runs through downtown.
Nelsonville, a city of 5,000 tucked amid rolling hills of Appalachia, saw its fortunes decline with the demise of the area's coal mining industry, and by the 1990s many storefronts in the public square were empty.
Then a 19th-century opera house reopened, and landlords agreed to subsidize rent for artists needing studios.
In return for the subsidy, artists agreed to put sweat equity into renovating the Victorian-era buildings, framed by red-brick facades. Within five years, downtown occupancy rates jumped from 25 percent to 85 percent and included coffee shops and restaurants, said Angie Hawk Maiden, president of the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks.
Old wood-framed houses near town are still neglected, but the arts district, with an ornate water fountain at its center, helps draw tourists, as does Nelsonville's other attractions.
The city is surrounded by Wayne National Forest and is home to a popular scenic railway, and footwear company Rocky Brands Inc. operates a large outlet store. The city doesn't track tourism dollars, but those are some of the most popular tourist attractions in Athens County, the county convention and visitors agency said.
So the bypass is a touchy subject for some people.
"I'm not sure how prepared anyone is to deal with it," said Dee Dee Loge, whose family owns a glass company in town. "But it's coming whether people like it or not, so it's up to us to make sure we give drivers a reason to stop."
Many civic leaders support the highway project because Route 33 — one of Ohio's busiest truck routes — shrinks to two lanes when it hits Nelsonville, creating a bottleneck of semitrailers, said City Council President Kevin Dotson.
The bypass would send those trucks out of town, relieve congestion around nearby Hocking College and reduce traffic accidents.
The new route also could lead to economic development — coal, lumber and trucking industries in Appalachia need reliable infrastructure, said David Rose, a spokesman with the state transportation department.
About half of the nine-mile bypass runs through the national forest, and about 360 acres of trees were cleared for the right-of-way.
Environmental groups that oppose the project have largely given up, and the use of stimulus dollars to push it through adds salt to the wound, Sierra Club member Loraine McCosker said.
"There won't even be a slow-zone through the forest," she said.
The state, however, will install culverts under the highway so deer can have a safe place to cross, and a pipe under the road will allow snakes and other small wildlife to cross.
At this point, despite some lingering misgivings about the bypass, it's time to treat it as an opportunity to put Nelsonville on a path to a new future, Hawk Maiden said.
"We have to get down to action," she said. "We don't have time to sit around and complain."
On the Net:
Nelsonville Chamber of Commerce: http://www.nelsonvillechamber.com/
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Monday, August 10, 2009
Stimulus forces Ohio city to rethink futureNELSONVILLE, Ohio (AP)
Posted by Neal at 2:57 PM