Standing on the ground floor of a $26 million parking garage and bus depot, U.S. Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood declared PARTA's Kent Central Gateway transit center a shining example of the success of the Stimulus Act.
LaHood, who was in Kent to tour the new transit center this morning, pointed to Congress passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that funneled $800 billion in stimulus money to local communities for projects like Kent's and, like many local leaders have done for months, credited that with supercharging downtown Kent's redevelopment.
The U.S. Department of Transportation alone received $48 billion from the Stimulus Act to help spur projects like Kent's transit center and stimulate local economies.
"In that plan was an opportunity to start the TIGER program," LaHood said. "And in two years from the time (Congress) voted for the economic recovery plan … we were able to put 65,000 people to work at 15,000 projects, one of which is right here."
Kent, through collaborative efforts of local officials with the city and Kent State University, PARTA and Congressman Tim Ryan, landed the first official TIGER grant for $20 million to build the new transit center, which many in Kent credit as the catalyst for prompting the city's more than $100 million redevelopment of downtown.
"If you build it, they will come," LaHood said. "That’s what this is about. None of these businesses, none of these buildings existed until you had the vision for this facility, and the connectivity. This is an economic engine now for this community. Think of the jobs that are provided by these small businesses that did not exist.
"Who said the stimulus didn't work?" LaHood said.
During the past four years, the department of transportation has provided $3.1 billion to 218 projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico through the TIGER grant program, according to LaHood's office. In four rounds, the U.S. DOT received more than 4,050 applications requesting more than $105.2 billion for transportation projects across the country.
Numbers are fluid in Kent, but city officials have said all the construction projects alone downtown have created as many as 800 temporary jobs. The new businesses those workers have built are expected to create as many as 700 permanent jobs.
PARTA officials say the transit center alone is responsible for 250 construction jobs.
Perhaps equally as important, the new transit center — which will have 10 bus bays and serve as a hub for PARTA routes — brings with it 365 new public parking spaces when it opens later this month.
The opening of those parking spaces is an event city officials are eagerly anticipating.
"It should be dramatically better," Kent City Manager Dave Ruller said. "People have been unbelievably patient. We've done our best to try to be as flexible as we can to squeeze parking in where we can, but it was all with the goal in mind of getting this building operational.
"You're talking about 300-plus parking spaces. It should be a huge relief," he said. "It should really change the supply of parking."
The new transit center should lessen the strain on Kent's parking, but it's not the final solution.
"We'll always monitor our parking," Ruller said. "The strategy behind most of what we're doing down here is to create a platform for growth. As that continues, it's very likely there will be other parking issues we'll have to address. Not the least of which is the metered parking."
Later this year, the city will start charging for on-street parking spaces on several streets downtown via a new pay-station parking management system. That system will manage 262 of the 1,100 spaces available downtown.
"I wish I could say this is the end, but it's not," Ruller said. "It will continue to be a work in progress."
But for most of Friday morning those who gathered for LaHood's visit focused on the grand economic redevelopment effect that transit center has had on Kent.
Kent Mayor Jerry Fiala called the new center the cornerstone of Kent's revival.
He suspects the ability for people to park, hop on a bus and travel to destinations throughout Northeast Ohio via PARTA will only further the economic recovery in downtown and throughout Portage County.
"What it's going to mean is, when it's done, you can park. You can eat. You can dine. You can study. You can have a job down here," Fiala said. "It's a tremendous thing just for the quality of life of Kent and Portage County as a whole."