Ward 5 council member works toward better housing, walkability for residents

Located in downtown and the commercial center of Kent, Ward 5 has a mix of both business and housing.

By Holly Liptak, Wyatt Loy and Cameron Miller

The city of Kent is subdivided into six regions called wards. Ward 5 covers downtown, the residential neighborhoods to the north and south, as well as a portion of Kent State’s front campus. Each ward elects their own member of city council–Ward 5’s council member is Heidi Shaffer.

“I recognized really early on that [Kent’s] the kind of place where one person can make a difference,” Shaffer said. “You know, anybody that wants to step up and get involved can actually be seen, can help get something done, make a mark on the town.”

After seeing the potential downtown Kent had, but was not living up to, Shaffer joined city council in 2008 to help make change.

Shaffer’s passion lies in improving Kent’s housing, both in supply and quality.

“We’ve made it so there’s a lot of people that want to live in Kent, but they’re not finding the right kind of house,” Shaffer said. “We need good housing for working people.”

Puff ‘N Stuff, a smoke shop on East Main Street, opened in Kent in 1975 and moved to its current location in 2004. The store manager is not permitted to give interviews, but Jae Lerer, a senior sales associate, is also a Kent resident. He’s worked at Puff ‘N Stuff for six years.

Kent is split fairly evenly between college students and elderly residents, Lerer said, and because of that, the store is able to rely on the business of Kent State students.

“The nature of our business in a college town has been to reliably cater to the college students in the area,” he said.

Shaffer, while pushing for stronger housing in Kent, said it’s difficult to find development locations.

“Kent is pretty well built out, so it’s hard to locate where we can put housing. My hope is that we can start focusing on redevelopment, right? This is not necessarily something that’s been talked about a lot for housing, but I keep looking around at some of these houses that are just beat up. And just think, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to just take them down and put up something that’s better?’”

One redevelopment project Shaffer helped facilitate is the development of Hasawi’s: The six-story, mixed-use building under construction on Franklin Avenue. The building will feature a bakery, a wine shop, a restaurant and four floors of apartment space. Next door to that project, Fairmount Properties has plans for a six-story apartment building they call “Kent West End.”

“We want people to really want to live in Kent, right? People want walkability, and that’s one of the best things about Ward 5,” Shaffer said. “Anywhere you are in Ward 5, you can walk downtown to the heart of that community, and to many of the other amenities.”

Acorn Alley is one of many iconic areas in downtown Kent, with local shops and restaurants like Twisted Meltz and Off the Wagon.

Lerer said Kent officials need to improve foot and car traffic for residents.

“I think Kent needs to figure out what they want to do with the roadways and traffic flow in order to invite bike and foot traffic and decrease the congestion on Main Street,” he said.

Shaffer also stressed the importance of Kent’s art scene.

“Kent’s not a wealthy community. But we have culture, we’re culturally wealthy. The thing is, we need to make sure that our arts community thrives,” Shaffer said. “That’s what makes Kent unique: The arts, one-of-a-kind businesses and restaurants, just the funkiness.”

Residents of Ward 5 also enjoy living downtown. Jarret Wonders is a student at Kent State and is living off campus.

“I would say I’m pretty satisfied with the location for one, its pretty close to downtown and it’s easy to walk there. There’s also a good amount of restaurants down there and there's different varieties of stuff, so you don’t always have to get the same stuff. So, definitely pretty satisfied with the proximity and options of different activities to do.”

Terrance Boles is a former Kent State student and is living off campus.

“Personally, I like how close I am to everything. There’s a lot of restaurants, but then I could honestly walk if I wanted to, but I drive a lot of places. I just like how accessible everything is where I’m at, that’s mainly the biggest thing for me. If I want to hang out with friends we can go downtown and do something or just go over to their place since it is really close. Like I said the accessibility to everything is really the biggest plus for me.”

As a college town, a large portion of Kent's residents work in education, but employment demographics are spread out over a range of sectors.

“I think one of our major points for Ward 5 and the city is we really honor and celebrate our diversity. We all recognize that that's one of our strengths," Shaffer said. "You know, it takes all kinds of people to make a city and that's one reason why I love Kent so much.”