Access to Opportunity 2

Administrative officials from the City of Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon City Schools and Mount Vernon Nazarene University met on April 10, 2019 to discuss the 'Access to Opportunity' initiative, which includes collaborative projects between all three entities that total $20 million and will be in the works over the next year.

MOUNT VERNON – Every spring, administrative officials from Mount Vernon City Schools and the City of Mount Vernon hold a joint meeting. There are usually small but necessary projects to talk about, such as construction on the sidewalks surrounding a school’s campus, which involve both entities working together to get the job done.

It rarely warrants a crowd of spectators, or tables of explanatory tri-folds, or a 90-minute presentation where representatives from each entity speak. It rarely includes terms like “great progress,” “major projects” or “divine providence.” And it rarely includes officials from Mount Vernon Nazarene University, sitting at the same table.

This year’s meeting was different.

“This is a historic event,” Dr. Margie Bennett, president of the Mount Vernon City Schools Board of Education, said in her opening remarks.

Around 30 of the city’s most prominent decision-makers came to Twin Oak Elementary on Wednesday night for the meeting. The presentation, titled ‘Access to Opportunity,’ detailed major projects that the city, school district and university will be working on together, simultaneously, over the next year.

For the city, that includes replacing the Mount Vernon Ave. bridge and connecting Kokosing Gap Trail with Memorial Park and MVNU.

The school district will complete its Education Gateway Project, building a new, on-campus bus maintenance garage and extending Yellow Jacket Dr. to Cougar Dr. A field house and new stadium entrance are also in the works, thanks to fundraising efforts by Jacket Boosters.

MVNU will build a new soccer and lacrosse stadium that will host college, high school and youth sporting events.

To make these projects work, all three entities have had to work together to reimagine land use and partner for shared utilization of facilities. By doing so, they have conserved resources and strengthened the bond between local institutions, which will ultimately benefit the community moving forward.


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While all of these projects will commence over the next year – MVCSD Superintendent Bill Seder said Wednesday that the district has already received steel for the bus maintenance garage – each came about differently.

The $6.8 million bridge project traces back to a 2012 study, city engineer Brian Ball said, and the funding has now become available through ODOT to make it happen.

The Education Gateway Project, which will cost $11 million once booster-funded elements are included, has been in the works for the past two years, although certain elements (such as the field house) have been district dreams since the 1990s.

MVNU’s $2.5 million soccer and lacrosse stadium stemmed from a recent athletic expansion effort, and the project’s timeline was expedited once the Education Gateway Project began picking up steam last fall.

Access to Opportunity

A blueprint of the changes that will occur just south of downtown Mount Vernon over the next year, courtesy of Mount Vernon Nazarene University.

Combined, more than $20 million will be poured into the area over the next year. The city anticipates having a contract for the Mount Vernon Ave. bridge project by July 1, and Ball said construction will take approximately a year to complete.

Mount Vernon City Schools plans to have the field house, maintenance garage and Yellow Jacket Drive extension completed by spring 2020. The stadium entrance will be finished by this fall.

MVNU does not currently have a timeline set for its soccer and lacrosse stadium, although fundraising is quickly gaining momentum; James Smith, VP for University Relations, announced Wednesday that $1.1 million had already been raised, with the help of a private matching grant of up to $1 million for the project.

Local officials believe the economic impact of this collaborative effort will be far-reaching. Mayor Richard Mavis, who has held office since 1996 and has lived in Knox County his whole life, said he has never seen this kind of collaboration between local entities.

“This is exciting, really. And I think people, when they get a chance to see what’s really happening here, they’ll say, ‘Gee, this is unusual, to see this large of a project come out of three major institutions in a community,’” Mavis said. “The city, the university, the public school system… that’s something.”

The field house and soccer fields will be fit to host youth tournaments year-round, which will bring visitors to the area. Mavis believes this will benefit local businesses, such as restaurants and hotels, as well as the community at-large.

“I think that generates business,” he said. “Those people come here once, and that’s what I say about the bike trail – people came here and realized, ‘It’s a pretty nice community. We can come back and not only ride the bike trail, but also visit the community park and those things.’

“Without question, I see it being a real economic booster for our community.”

Ultimately, this multi-million dollar initiative will make Mount Vernon more marketable for new industry and residents. Jeff Harris, executive director of the Area Development Foundation, called the projects "deal clinchers."

"Envision someone considering an investment in Mount Vernon, but they are on the fence," Harris said in a press release. "They start going through the tally sheet. Having these new facilities allows another checkmark on the Mount Vernon side of the ledger, and makes that decision more in our favor."

The Knox County Foundation has supported MVNU and Mount Vernon City Schools through the fundraising process for each project. The non-profit organization has collected and managed funds, to make sure they are spent for their intended purposes. The organization has also processed alternative methods of funding, such as gifts of real estate or stock.

Sam Barone, executive director of the Knox County Foundation, spoke on Wednesday about the significance of this effort and how it all came to be. He discussed other major projects that involved multiple local entities, dating back to the 1980s. He referred to them as "puzzle pieces," as they set the stage for today's collaboration.

The first came in 1988, when community visionary Phil Samuel worked with county commissioners and several donors to turn the old CA&C railroad right-of-way into Kokosing Gap Trail, which now courses across the county and provides an essential recreational outlet for the community.

Then came the development of Ariel-Foundation Park in the 2000s, which took foresight from Mavis and collaboration between the city and (formerly) Community Foundation for Mount Vernon and Knox County. This project came to life in 2009 with the formation of the Foundation Park Conservancy, and the park eventually opened in 2015.

Ariel-Foundation Park put Mount Vernon on the map, Barone said, as cities across the country began paying attention to Mount Vernon’s shining example of industrial reuse.

Within the last 12 years, all three institutions of higher learning in Knox County have moved downtown. COTC kicked things off in 2007 by moving its regional campus to S. Main St.

MVNU took on several major downtown construction projects over the years – first the Buchwald Center and Schnormeier Gallery, then Hunter Hall, the Grand Hotel, and finally the Stephen W. Nease Center last fall.

Kenyon College restored the old Buckeye Candy building in 2015 and currently houses multiple programs, including one based on community outreach, in the facility.

Barone outlined a number of projects currently occurring in Knox County that will keep the community moving forward, alongside the $20 million ‘Access to Opportunity’ endeavor:

Barone believes these projects, all occurring simultaneously, will take Knox County to the next level.

“They are going to enable our youth and our population in general to access opportunities that have been unavailable to them in the past,” he said.

Moving forward, Barone envisions Mount Vernon will set the standard for community collaboration. The ‘Access to Opportunity’ project, which includes years of planning and community partnership, is no small feat.

“The involvement of so many entities and the way that this has all come together, almost by divine providence, is something to behold,” Barone said. "This does not happen in every community, but it is happening here.

“We are extremely blessed to have the partners that we have in this community, the generous philanthropists that we have in this community, and the visionaries that we have in this community.”

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.