What's happening in Aurora? Mayor shares highlights in State of City address

Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin gives her annual State of the City address Wednesday during the Aurora Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Bertram Inn & Conference Center.
(Photo: Jeff Saunders)
Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin gives her annual State of the City address Wednesday during the Aurora Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Bertram Inn & Conference Center. (Photo: Jeff Saunders)
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Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin says that her mission is to continue taking the city into the future while honoring its past.

"I have been committed during my tenure to taking us well into the 21st century while preserving the historic character and rural charm which make Aurora so unique." she said. "Therefore, my priorities have included bold strides to improve and modernize the city’s infrastructure, build connectivity, control development through acquiring green space, and enhance amenities and services for our community."

Womer Benjamin shared this vision during the annual State of the City presentation Wednesday at the Aurora Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Bertram Inn & Conference Center.

Here are some highlights of her talk:

What's happening at Geauga Lake?

Womer Benjamin said Aurora has been heavily involved with development at the former Geauga Lake/Sea World property. After seven years of negotiatiuons, the city and Bainbridge Township completed the formation of a joint economic development district, which provides tax benefits for Aurora.

Redevelopment there includes high-end apartments and the possibility of a couple of large retailers on the Bainbridge side, the mayor said. On the Aurora side, there is a Liberty Ford dealership and homes have been under construction for two years.

Additional land on the Aurora side is still available for development, said Womer Benjamin.

In addition, in 2022, the city received a $2.3 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to purchase especially flood-prone homes at Geauga Lake from willing homeowners in order to improve stormwater control . That plan is expected to be executed this year.

What happened with the controversial FirstEnergy electrical transmission lines along the railroad corridor?

When FirstEnergy Corp. proposed placing electric transmission lines along the railroad corridor that runs through Aurora six years ago, the city commenced several years of litigation and negotiations with the utility. This resulted in a settlement agreement which included placing limits on the heights of poles and requiring landscaping mitigation. Both FirstEnergy and the city have provided funding for landscaping in the corridor.

"FirstEnergy has planted many trees along that corridor since the poles were installed and we continue to watch the area to make sure the poles don’t overwhelm the landscape," said Womer Benjamin.

The settlement also required a recreational easement along the cooridor's entire length and the city is now in the initial steps of constructing a bike and hike trail along the cooridor. A feasibility study was done in 2022 and design work now is beginning for the first 2.8 miles from Chamberlain Road in Mantua to state Route 82.

"Based on data from other communities hosting trails, such a trail could bring new opportunities to the city and invigorate the historic Depot District at 82," said Womer Benjamin.

Why is the city buying hundreds of acres of land?

Aurora has bought more than 200 acres of land since Womer Benjamin first took office in 2014.

"We continue to watch for new opportunities that align with our plans for our parks, connectivity, and the city," said Womer Benjamin.

Recently, City Council approved the purchase of two properties just north of Fire Station 2 to allow for the possible future expansion fo the station. This week, council authorized the purchase of two additional properties, said Womer Benjamin.

One property is for the potential eventual expansion of Aurora Memorial Library just to the west on East Pioneer Trail. The other, said Womer Benjamin, is the "iconic" Hanes Building at the entrance of Aurora's Historic District. The plan is to preserve "an important part of Aurora’s history and eventually lease to an appropriate tenant in the future," she said.

"All of these purchases are consistent with Master Plan recommendations to enhance the town center, promote historic preservation, and plan for anticipated future needs," said Womer Benjamin. "To help finance such purchases, we have sold off lots to create a fund restricted for the purpose of acquiring properties that hold strategic value for the community."

In the past, the city has also purchased property to expand city parks, she said.

Will a rec center be built in Aurora?

Womer Benjamin said discussions continue on the possible construction of a recreational facility.

Voters rejected levies to build a rec center by more than 60% in 1996 and 2002. Council removed a ballot initiative on the matter in 2011.

"Undaunted, shortly after I became mayor I created an ad hoc rec committee which made recreation recommendations to the city, all of which have been implemented except for a rec center," said Womer Benjamin.

In 2021, a rec center demand study was conducted and in 2022, Womer Benjamin created an ad hoc rec center commitee, which will oversee and evaluate a feasibility study that was recently approved by council. The committee will also review options and alternatives and solicit public comments.

What other development is planned in Aurora?

"We are always watching potential development and work with property owners and developers to make sure that what comes in is appropriate for our community," said Womer Benjamin.

For example, she said, the city worked with the owner of 25 acres on the west side of South Chillicothe Road and instead of the construction of proposed 57 homes there, the property was rezoned for undustrial use. This was deemed appropriate because the land abuts an industrial district to the soputh and east.

Womer Benjamin said that business development is important because businesses provide 84 percent of income taxes for the city, the most significant source of revenue for the city.

What else is going on in town?

Womer Benjamin said that when she took office, she was handed the task of replacing water lines that dated back to the 1920s. She said it was both an urgent issue and an expensive one that she was told would require borrowing the money to do it.

Since then, the city has replaced four of the five aging watre lines, on Harmon and Hurd roads and Shawnee and East Pioneer trails. The last waterline project, on Maple Lane, is expected to be done this year.

"Better still, though, is the fact that despite the early admonitions I received, we have installed these water lines without the necessity of borrowing money, and I am proud of that achievement," said Womer Benjamin.

Other projects include:

• Since 2014, the city has installed more than 2.5 miles of sidewalks with plans to put in more. The city also hopes to design decorative lighting to continue down South Chilicothe Road.

• In the works are plans this year to repair two bridges at Paddock River Preserve and Bretschneider Park, which have been closed since last year for safety concerns, and the design of a third bridge repair. The total cost is $730,000, but Womer Benjamin said this is "well worth the expense to again allow the full use and enjoyment of these parks."

• The police department recently added two new officer positions and the fire department a new firefighter/paramedic position, "in light of the increasing calls being received from the public," said Womer Benjamin.

Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at jsaunders@recordpub.com.

This article originally appeared on Record-Courier: Aurora mayor shares highlights during State of the City speech