One more empty building

As yet another business prepares to close its doors, the Westside of Columbus is beginning to look more and more like a ghost town.

Meijer, located at 775 Georgesville Road, announced last week that it would close its doors April 26, along with a location on the Eastside of Columbus. The closings are happening alongside the opening of two new locations outside of the city, in Grove City and Canal Winchester.

This is the latest of many closing of stores and business in the area, and the news has caused a frenzy of panic and anger in area residents and business leaders who face a loss of not only places to go, but also places to work.

This recent announcement comes on the heels of the Hilltop Marketplace’s closing at the end of the year.

According to Dan Stewart, State Representative of the 25th House District and a third-generation resident of the Hilltop, this is not a cause for alarm, but a signal for residents to “work together and look at the big picture.”

Stewart calls the closing of Meijer a “corporate decision,” and says that many area closings can be seen as a sign of the current economic condition.

“I do worry that sometimes you can see an increased level of closings when this happens,” said Stewart, “It’s like a domino effect. Someone leaves, and that empty building makes the area less attractive for others.”

Aside from causing a progressively gloomy presence, what effect do the large, vacant structures have on a community?

According to Stewart, an increase in crime is not an uncommon result.

“When you lose jobs in an area, there is less money to go around. There are more people on the fringe, more people who are susceptible to resorting to crime.”

Stewart, however, isn’t going to sit by and watch the Westside deteriorate further. He has a plan.

“Healthy communities begin with good jobs and good neighborhoods,” he said.

Rather than dwelling on what has been lost, Stewart asks residents to focus on the strengths of the area, and according to him, the greatest strength of the Westside is the people who populate it. His number one priority is to bring jobs to those people.

“These jobs went south, or went to India or China. They’re not coming back. What we can do is develop the next set of skills,” said Stewart.

One of Stewart’s biggest ideas for helping residents develop job skills would also give a purpose to one of the area’s largest vacant structures.

At a Jan. 11 meeting for community leaders on the Hilltop, Stewart outlined his plan to turn Westland Mall into a fully-functioning academic facility that would help citizens develop skills useful in the workforce.

He spoke of using most of the vacant space several different areas of study, reasoning that the food court could be used for culinary students and students working towards daycare certifications could care for the children of other students. The site also has auto bays, which would be useful for auto mechanic classes.

According to Stewart, the facility would successfully house a wide-range of educational programs.

Although the plan is still in its infancy, Stewart has high hopes. He plans to bring Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher to the area in hopes of getting him on board in the near future.

“If it doesn’t happen at Westland, it needs to happen somewhere,” he added.

According to Stewart, the State of Ohio has retuned money to the federal government that was earmarked for job training in the past.

“I don’t want to see that happen again,” he said.

Stewart has several other ideas to help revitalize the area and make it more attractive to potential business partners. One that he shared is the return of the “Up on the Hilltop” parade, which was formerly held in the fall each year.

“It brought people here. Those are the things that we need.”

Stewart, however, is the first to admit that he can’t bring back the area on his own.

“I think community involvement is absolutely key,” he said.

Stewart has plans in the coming weeks and months to bring as much involvement into the area as possible. Aside from working with Lieutenant Governor Fisher, he hopes to work with Mayor Michael Coleman and other government officials.

He also has plans in the works for several town meetings and community forums, where residents will be able to hear plans, ask questions, and make suggestions.

“I want to work with the Department of Development and find ways to emphasize what we do have to offer,” Stewart added.

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