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Published: Saturday, 10/8/2005

'Lifestyle community' downsized for Norwalk, a town of 15,000

BY GARY PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Norwalk Commons is openly patterned on the successful Levis Commons residential/retail project in Perrysburg. Norwalk Commons is openly patterned on the successful Levis Commons residential/retail project in Perrysburg.
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NORWALK, Ohio - Rising from farm fields on the north end of this Huron County city is a village-like development that the project manager describes as a "Mini Me" version of the Levis Commons development in Perrysburg.

What the Cleveland-area developers hope to prove is that a hot concept known as the mixed use lifestyle community can be as successful in a city of 15,000 as it has been in suburban Toledo and other midsized and larger cities.

"What we want to create is a place for all Huron County residents to go for their basic needs," said 25-year-old David Conwill, managing partner on the project for developer Pride One Real Estate, of Medina, Ohio.

"We've designed it to be the main economic center of Huron County," he said.

Planned for the 93-acre site off U.S. 250 is a development called Norwalk Commons. It will include a 10-screen theater nearing completion, retailers, offices, restaurants, 115 residential units aimed at the "active adult" market, 200 townhouses for families, and space for light industrial enterprises.

The project will feature tree-lined streets and sidewalks that will join the commercial and residential areas. Norwalk is 60 miles east of Toledo.

"It's going to be a beautiful asset to the community," said James Wiedenheft, executive director of the Huron County Development Council. "It's great when you've got investors coming into your community investing that kind of money."

Although Pride One hasn't said how much the project will cost, estimates indicate that construction costs could top $30 million.

The project is less than half the size of the 250-acre Levis Commons, which was undertaken by local developer Larry Dillin and Hill Partners, Charlotte, N.C. But Mr. Conwill said he and his partners have drawn inspiration from the Perrysburg project. "It's a magnificent development," he said.

Developers in Norwalk face many of the same challenges.

They have had no early stampede of tenant hopefuls.

The theater will open Nov. 18 and will be the anchor for the project.

Additionally, the NRP Group, Cleveland, will begin work next spring on the senior living project, which will be built with assistance of federal tax credits and will consist of single-story rental units. Developers have not nailed down other tenants but are in serious negotiations with a number of restaurants, professionals, and other prospective tenants, Mr. Conwill said.

He predicted that the project will gain momentum as buildings are completed and tenants move in.

In contrast to the Perrysburg developers, who focused on drawing upscale tenants to its retail area, known as Town Center at Levis Commons, Mr. Conwill has spoken repeatedly of attracting a restaurant where patrons can get a "$12 steak and a beer."

Planners would like to attract fine-dining establishments, too, but can't ignore the realities of the market. "Norwalk is traditionally blue collar," Mr. Conwill explained. Per capita income is strong, but consumers tend to be budget-conscious.

He would like to get a midpriced Italian restaurant, a sports bar, and an upper-end dining establishment "where people can buy a $25 steak and a glass of wine."

National chains like Damon's and Applebee's haven't bitten yet. More recently the project's rental agents have concentrated recruitment on regional chains.

Besides restaurants, developers are pursuing a banquet hall operator - which a survey identified as a needed service - tanning salons, insurance agencies, and a dental practice.

Robert Spratt, Jr., with Hill Partners in Charlotte, said he didn't know enough about Norwalk Commons to comment on its chances of succeeding.

"Normally you need great regional access and high population density to pull it off," he said.

Still, he said: "Lifestyle centers are the growth vehicles within the shopping center industry. It's a vehicle retailers, consumers, and politicians understand. More and more of them are being built around the country."

Mr. Conwill, the managing partner at Norwalk Commons, lives in Medina but got involved in the Norwalk project two years ago when a real estate agent pitched the 93-acre parcel to him.

He joined Pride One at age 15 when his mother, a company secretary, told him about an opportunity to earn a few bucks doing cleanup work at the residential developments in which the firm then specialized.

He went to work for the firm full-time after college.

Pride One was founded in 1987 by a trio of University of Akron business graduates, whose first investment was a 24-unit apartment complex in Cleveland.

After investigating the Norwalk site, they decided it would be a good bet partly because the community lacked adequate retail, entertainment, and dining offerings.

People in the region often travel north to Sandusky or south to Mansfield for dinner.

Developers figured they could not only keep many of those people at home but also attract business from Sandusky, where in the summertime, residents are eager to find quiet alternatives to restaurants clogged with Cedar Point visitors.

Norwalk Commons also could attract tourists headed for Sandusky because it is a 10-minute drive south on U.S. 250, a main travel corridor for visitors to the area.

The deal was sealed when Pride One officials learned that a chain that specializes in first-run cinemas in smaller markets, United Entertainment Corp., of St. Cloud, Minn., was looking to build in Norwalk.

Pride One, which has construction as well as development experience, is considering taking on the job of building the family townhouses, Mr. Conwill said.

Developers praised the assistance they received from community officials, including help securing a $425,000 grant from the state's Industrial Site Improvement Fund for infrastructure work.

There has been some criticism that Norwalk Commons will detract from the city's historic downtown area. But developers argue it could actually help the area, known as uptown, by attracting area residents to Norwalk who might otherwise have travelled to Sandusky or elsewhere for dinner and entertainment.

Doug Berry, of Berry's Restaurant in downtown Norwalk, isn't enthusiastic about the arrival of Norwalk Commons. "It won't help," said the owner of the establishment founded in 1946. "But I don't think it will dramatically hurt what's happening in downtown Norwalk."

The key to the future of uptown lies in businesses and services not found at chain discount stores and places like Norwalk Commons, he said.

Meanwhile, Norwalk Commons is working with economic development officials in Norwalk to recruit light industry.

The entrance to Norwalk Commons will be marked by an arch that developers hope will become a community landmark. "Norwalk Commons will be very unique," Mr. Conwill said. "It will be a place that people can go to live, work, and play."



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