BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — When the US 24/SR 64 interchange opened a decade ago, Waterville Landing had just two occupants: Kroger and Farmers & Merchants State Bank.
Now the development has 64 homes, 108 villas, 252 apartments, a senior living community, 21 businesses and more on the way. A dental practice, a Mercy Health facility, an Auto Zone and an amphitheater are all possibilities for Waterville Landing, an area valued at over $33 million. Overall, the city’s property values are over $226 million.
“It kind of developed the way we thought it would,” said Tim Guzman, who was on Waterville Village Council from 1996 to 2011.
As Tom Schlachter and Dick Moses began their purchase of 350 acres of farmland around the future interchange, council and the community were introduced to the concept of what the area would look like some day, in terms of zoning for residential and commercial areas.
“As things developed, I think the city, Planning Commission and council has done a pretty good job,” Guzman said. “It’s not been runaway development. We did all this planning to have businesses off of 24 and some multifamily housing and commercial. It made sense.”
Kroger was the first to build, opening its new store in 2010, knowing the bypass would bring traffic. The store’s move stirred up debate at the time, Guzman recalls.
“The biggest concern was, if Kroger left, there would be nothing in Waterville Plaza,” he said. “Now we have a disaster relief company. When Rite Aid said they would build a new place, people thought that would be the end. Now it’s a YMCA that greatly benefits the community. People are sometimes fearful of the unknown.”
The bypass itself generated a lot of protest, but with numerous traffic fatalities on the stretch of US 24 winding through downtown Waterville, a Fort to Port Committee formed to collaborate with ODOT and community members to see it to fruition.
“I saw too many people lose their lives in Waterville,” Guzman said. “From my perspective, the bypass was a big victory. It was too treacherous for us to have a highway through downtown.”
Today, US 24 has 23,758 cars a day traveling west between the Anthony Wayne Trail/Dutch Road exit and SR 64. That’s up from 20,007 in 2015.
It was US 24 traffic that sold Heather and Kent Robertson on locating the area’s only Biggby Coffee in the commercial center next to Kroger.
“Paying $2,300 to put signs on US 24 right when we opened was the best investment we made,” Heather said of the coffee shop, which opened in March 2017.
While she expected to get some travelers in addition to regulars from the area, Heather has been surprised to see how many Biggby customers exit SR 64 as they’re traveling between Fort Wayne and Detroit or on their way to or from Cleveland, Indiana, Michigan and even Canada.
“We added breakfast sandwiches, snacks and candy bars to our menu,” she said. “We also have a lot of people who stop in to buy bagged coffee beans.”
At the time the Robertsons signed their lease, four other parties were expressing interest in opening a Biggby franchise in the Anthony Wayne area.
“It was all cornfields around when we moved here,” Heather said. “I’m surprised it hasn’t grown faster.”
Like the Robertsons, Dr. Tyler Schwanz decided to relocate Rebel Chiropractic to Pray Boulevard in order to capture more business. So far, that decision has paid off, with 7 percent of new patients stating they chose Rebel due to its location.
“They drive down Pray Boulevard on their way to the highway or Kroger,” he said. “Moving here has helped our business visibility and accessibility tremendously.”
People typically go to a chiropractor close to where they live or work, so the more businesses and homes that are added to the area will only help business. It also helps support the community, Schwanz said.
“We want to provide great service, amazing jobs for great local people, and we want to be able to support those in need and those who are doing good around us,” Schwanz said. “The better local business does, the more generous each business can be to give back to the community.”
Food drives, charity golf outings, 4-H groups and kids’ sports programs get support from area businesses. So do churches that send people on mission trips in Ohio and across the globe, he noted.
“We are very thankful for the development and how it has allowed many businesses to continue to support the community through good times and bad,” he said.
Brad Wilson, Mike Wilson and Nate Wilson of Climb Investments now have three businesses and 50 employees on Pray Boulevard: AW Auto Spa, NPC and NuPay Technologies.
“We chose Waterville because we like it here,” said Brad, who founded the former National Payment Corporation and moved it into an old bank in downtown Waterville in 2003. The company moved to Dutch Road for a few years and began looking at opening an auto spa with the latest technology.
Last year, the AW Auto Spa and the corporate offices for NPC and NuPay were completed. Locating directly across from Kroger made sense.
“This is the best place. There’s low-speed traffic coming through,” Brad said. “We paid a pretty penny, but it was worth it. You pay for the land once, but it continues to reap benefits.”
Both Brad and Mike remember the uproar from some in the community about the relocation of US 24 and Kroger but point to the opportunities it created. The Wilsons are supportive of the amphitheater project for the same reasons.
“People will go to restaurants and stay in hotels. The opportunities are endless,” Brad said. “You’re either pro-growth or you’re stagnant. I’m a naked capitalist. If you’ve done your due diligence and want to risk your capital, you should.”
“The only constant is change,” Mike added. “Something is going to come in. You can’t say no to everything.”
Gary Yunker, vice president of real estate for Devonshire REIT, has an idea of what’s to come along Pray Boulevard. Since Schlacter sold off the 125 acres of commercially zoned land in Waterville Landing to Devonshire in December 2013, Yunker has been working to attract a variety of businesses.
Restaurants and hotels have expressed an interest over the years but seek that sweet spot between a growing market and a mature market.
“It’s always been, ‘there’s not enough rooftops yet for fast food.’ The traffic, even though it’s building, is not quite there to support a freestanding Burger King or Taco Bell,” Yunker said. “Now, we’re starting to get some inquiries. We’re getting calls from restaurants that we weren’t before. I think something like the amphitheater would help that. If we identify an area as an entertainment area, that would certainly spur the interest in hotels and food users.”
The increase in traffic between Waterville and Whitehouse is also a factor because it shows an increase in food users, he said. According to the Ohio Department of Transport-ation, the average daily traffic between Finzel Road and the bypass has grown from 6,939 a day in 2010 to nearly 11,000 vehicles a day in 2021.
The parcel for the proposed amphitheater is zoned C-4, which allows a wide range of uses: automotive sales, bars, department stores, missions or temporary shelters, RV dealers, warehouse clubs, hotels, performing arts and sports-related industries, animal shelters and veterinarians, to name a few.
On Monday, September 12 at 6:00 p.m., the Planning Commission will meet to make a recommendation to city council on the application by Hunter Brucks, Chris Campbell and John Henry to build a 7,500-seat amphitheater on South Pray Boulevard.
Zoning allows an amphitheater with a conditional use permit, explained law director Phil Dombey. That means the Planning Commission will make conditions for its use, including traffic, landscaping, lighting, public safety, noise and parking. Council meets at 7:30 p.m. that same night and will weigh the Planning Commission’s recommendation to make a decision.
The Planning Commis-sion and council members are following the process afforded to all applicants: listening to the evidence, looking at the zoning, weighing public comments and considering the Land Use Plan that will be going through its every-decade update in the next year, said Mayor Tim Pedro.
Many of the comments in public meetings and online have been passionately for or against the amphitheater, while others are still seeking more information.
“I welcome all of the questions and comments,” Pedro said. “I’m already looking ahead to when this is voted in or out. The question is how do we begin the healing process? I want to harness all this energy from people who are interested and want to do something. Let’s harness that into something more productive instead of name-calling and bad stuff.”