November 28, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
14°F
test

AVON’S TURNING POINT: Outgoing Mayor Jim Smith led city through explosive growth

Avon Mayor Jim Smith

Avon Mayor Jim Smith

AVON — There’s a song that Jim Smith thinks of when he reflects on his time as mayor of Avon.

Smith, who sat in his office surrounded by boxes, has begun packing up items he has collected during his 20 years in office. The 65-year-old mayor will retire in January, and he said he listens to the Joe South song at least once a week, and it serves as a reminder of how much the city has changed since he took the helm in 1994.

Turning around in his desk, Smith reaches over to play the song on his computer, pointing out the importance of the lyrics.

“Don’t it make you want to go home? But there’s a six-lane highway down by the creek where I went skinny-dippin’ as a child. And a drive-in show where the meadows used to grow and the strawberries used to grow wild,” South sings as Smith sits quietly in thought.

“This is a very good song that I listen to. And sometimes I cry when I listen to it,” he says when it ends.

For Smith, the song — “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home” — represents the growth of Avon. What began as a small farming community is now the focal point of Lorain County — a bustling suburb of business and economic growth.

One of the fastest-growing cities in Ohio, Avon’s population has steadily increased, taking the largest jump between 2000 and 2010, when it grew from 11,446 to 21,193 residents.

Avon’s income-tax revenue increased by 13.7 percent from 2011 to 2012, and the city earned the third-best suburb of Cleveland designation from Cleveland Magazine this year.

When local leaders talk about success, they talk about Avon.

But with the explosive growth came traffic headaches, developments and shopping centers. The “old Avon” that lifelong residents remember is no more.

Smith said there are some things that he misses about “old Avon” — the East Avenue market where farmers would sell produce and the creek he swam in as a child.

But as Smith often says, he told residents that he would “take them kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” and there’s no turning back now.

“People want to go and retrieve their youth by making their town stay the same. No matter what you do, you’re gonna get old,” he said. “There’s a realism that you have to have. You can’t stick your head in the sand. The people who try to hold the city back are really hurting themselves.”

The beginning

Smith’s goal was never to become mayor. A barber and school board president, he ran for office in November 1993, hoping to abolish the position in support of a city manager form of government.

He ran against then-mayor Pearl Olearcik, whose time in office was marked by controversy.

Olearcik took more than half of the votes when she defeated incumbent Mayor Charles Busser in 1989. She had formerly worked as Busser’s secretary and as Council clerk.

Smith, who was unhappy with Olearcik’s time in office, accused her of being out of touch with constituents and a magnet for controversy when he ran against her four years later.

Smith, then 45, said Olearcik’s administration hadn’t done enough to curb lawsuits against the city. From 1990 to 1992, the city handled 40 lawsuits and spent more money on lawsuits than any city surveyed in Lorain County.

Olearcik made enemies and critics among some residents and City Council members, who accused her of not listening to residents, including those on Jaycox Road who said her administration didn’t do enough about styrene fumes from Xerxes Corp., a plant on Mills Road; and Chester Road residents, who didn’t want their residential street rezoned for A.J. Rose.

Smith ousted Olearcik with a 1,674-to-1,286 vote count, according to unofficial returns. During his first month in office, he took over the safety service director duties and worked on a one-year plan for the city’s growth.

His plan was to make sure he took care of the needs of the residents, but to do so required boosting the city’s revenues.

Smith said, initially, he worked part-time as mayor and as a barber at his family’s business until 1998, when the city saw a need for a full-time mayor. At that time, the city was buying used police cars for its 11-man unit, and the Fire Department was part time.

Smith said he worked to bring the city up to speed, never taking a day off until he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2004.

Smith, who said his family taught him the importance of hard work, said his time off didn’t last long.

City Law Director John Gasior, who heard Smith was in poor health, said he was surprised when Smith walked through the door to his office after his brief stay in the hospital.

“I remember when he came back, I said, ‘Why are you here?’ He said, ‘I’m walking around my house driving my wife nuts. I might as well come here,’” he said, laughing.

Smith’s health had been the subject of retirement rumors over the years, but Smith said there was work to be done, and he wanted to make sure the Nagel Road-Interstate 90 interchange was finished.

The project was his biggest challenge.

“I was going to retire four years ago, but the interchange project wasn’t in our grasp yet … I knew that if I walked away from it, I felt that if I walked away from it and retired, that they would start throwing the roadblocks up to a new mayor, and most of them know me, and I think they know that I’m a little crazy,” he said.

Bringing in business

The interchange, which opened Dec. 20, 2012, ended nine months ahead of schedule, but the $26 million project was not without a hitch.

Property owners resisted the interchange, fearing they would be assessed a third of the costs of the project. The opposition led to a subsequent plan to finance the interchange through a joint venture that would see the city sell more than $20 million in municipal bonds, while a third of the expected $18 million construction costs would be paid by the Richard E. Jacobs Group, which developed the Cleveland Clinic medical center on Chester Road.

Smith said the interchange was the key to the Cleveland Clinic making a home in Avon. He said he knew if the clinic wasn’t on board, there would be no restaurants, hotels or income for the city.

Gasior, who worked closely with Smith on the interchange project, said the city had to get the approval of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency before the interchange could be built, and it required several meetings with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cleveland officials, who had a weighted vote for NOACA.

Cleveland leaders and others feared the interchange would accelerate the movement out of the Cleveland area to suburbs such as Avon.

Gasior said he remembers everyone in the meeting ordering pizza for lunch, but Smith would not eat until a deal was ironed out in the approximately five-hour meeting.

“That was when I saw he was no-nonsense. He said, ‘We’re not here to eat, we’re here to negotiate,’ and I think that says a lot about him,” he said.

Smith said he was so upset about the project — one that caused him to have panic attacks – that he refused to eat in Cuyahoga County that day.

“I said, ‘If I run out of gas in Cuyahoga County, I’ll push the car into Lorain County,” he said.

Smith got his interchange, and the clinic recently announced plans to expand its facility — another win for Avon.

Smith’s major focus was to bring business in to the city, and in that way, he succeeded, too, said Bob Fedor, a 13-year Avon resident and former president of Avon Seniors.

“He recognizes that I-90 split Avon in half, and from early on, his dream was to have south of 90 primarily residential and north of 90 primarily industrial and commercial. And that north half pays for all of those living in the southern part,” he said.

Fedor, who has been attending City Council meetings for the past 10 years, added that Smith had an integral part in bringing Manco to the city, as well as All Pro Freight Stadium and the YMCA, which is used by residents across Lorain County.

Smith said the key is to “create an atmosphere” for business. He’s gone as far as petitioning Columbus legislators for change that would benefit Avon’s businesses.

Smith said he enlisted the help of state Sen. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville, to introduce a bill to change state law to allow food makers, including Avon-based Custom Culinary, to purchase liquor and beer in bulk to use in their products.

Prior to April 2011, Custom Culinary, which produces sauces, gravies and other products, was required to buy beer and other spirits at retail prices in the same-sized containers sold to the public. The retail prices are marked up considerably over wholesale prices, and Custom Culinary had to use individual alcoholic beverages in its soups, requiring more work and more money.

The legislation, which was signed into law April 2011, allowed the company to save on the price of beverages and reduce labor costs. In June 2012, Custom Culinary announced a $5 million expansion and an addition of 17 employees due to the cost savings from the new law.

“Those are the kind of things that I’ll miss. Because those are the kinds of things you sit back and think, ‘Wow, that’s neat.’ We’re doing things that other cities can’t do,” Smith said.

The hopeful successors

City Finance Director Bill Logan said Smith often downplays his intelligence, with the line he’s been known to utter when describing the city’s successes — “I’m just a barber.” But Logan said Smith’s successor will have big shoes to fill.

“Even though he says he’s just a barber — that’s his line — he understands business,” he said. “In the early ’90s, more than half of these developments weren’t here … He has truly guided the city through some major growth, but he’s made it very attractive … for these businesses to locate here.”

Smith’s popularity was such that he was unopposed during the last two elections. The last time he faced an opponent, he came away with 73 percent of the vote.

But when Smith announced he was retiring — really retiring — four hopeful candidates threw their hats into the ring.

Three City Council members — Dan Zegarac, Bryan Jensen and Kevin Ward — and Parma Assistant Law Director Rich Summers are hoping to take the position. Smith, who said he’s had an opportunity to work with the three Council members and meet with Summers, said one candidate stands out.

Smith announced his endorsement of Jensen on Oct. 10. He said Jensen, president of Pinehaven Garden Center and Greenhouses in Avon, is the best candidate for the job because Jensen has strong ties to the community.

Jensen was born in Avon and has lived in the city for most of his life. His 25-year-old daughter and grandson still live in the city, and he has run Pinehaven Greenhouses with his brother, Bruce, for 28 years.

Smith, whose own family settled in Avon years ago, said there is an importance to having close ties in the community.

“You feel obligated to do what’s right when you have such a vested interest. If I was not really attached to the community, if I screwed up, I could just move away,” he said. “I have a vested interest. Plus, if I did something wrong, my brothers would beat the hell out of me.”

Logan said he hopes the next mayor will continue the legacy of Smith, whom he said is committed to business and building the city’s income. He said he hopes that Smith will be available to help the new leader.

“Whoever the next mayor is, I would hope (Smith) would let the next mayor give him a call,” he said.

Smith said he will be around to help out, if asked, but he said the years of being center stage in Avon have taken a toll on him.

“I’m tired of sleepless nights. I’m tired of getting up at 4 … I can’t go back to sleep, because all of a sudden, your mind starts wandering. There are unanswered questions that you have,” he said.

Saying goodbye

Smith, who recalls calling his work at 4 a.m. to leave messages for himself during his term, said it’s time to give his family and himself a break. Taking vacation time or working less wasn’t an option for the mayor, who considers himself a perfectionist.

“There’s no getaway unless you get away, and I’m not gonna do it half-go,” he said. “That’s not my personality.”

Smith said he plans to spend time with family, but he will continue working part-time at the family’s Lear Road Barber Shop in Avon Lake, cutting hair as he had done whenever he found himself with some free time during his term in office.

Daniel Stringer, who served as Smith’s law director for 10 years, said Smith has shown his dedication to the community. Stringer, who remembers receiving some of Smith’s late night phone calls, said Smith’s dream was always to be the head of Avon.

Stringer said Smith wanted to keep his hands in all things Avon — even making sure that the city handled landscaping by the interchanges so that people would have a “good impression” of Avon driving into it.

“He really treated Avon like his own shining diamond,” he said.

Logan, who has worked with Smith for almost six years, said Smith is the best boss that’s he’s had. In addition to being able to tear a phone book in half — a unique skills Logan said Smith picked up from his bench-pressing days — he said Smith has a good sense of humor.

“He’s the type of person who likes to surround himself with good people, and he has,” he said.

Stringer, who said he understands Smith’s need to focus on his family, said he doubts that Smith won’t have some part in local government after his retirement.

“He’s going to be around. He’s not packing his bags and going south,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how long it will be before he visits City Hall.”

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaMillerCT.