Aurora mayor highlights a decade of accomplishments in State of the City speech

Aurora City Hall. Paige Fisher/The Portager

In her 11th State of the City address, Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin celebrated a decade of accomplishments and looked forward to even more.

In 10 years, the city has gained almost three miles of new sidewalks, replaced four century-old water lines and completed and opened Hartman Park, Paddock River Preserve and Pioneer Park.

Roads have been paved and plowed, a citywide traffic signalization system is complete, a $9 million wastewater treatment upgrade project is done and “a variety of stormwater improvement measures” have been implemented, she said.

Also in 2023, the city installed electric charging stations at Aurora Memorial Library’s parking lot.

Business openings in 2023 included K&M Tire, Ashley Furniture, Aurora Meadows, Orchid House Winery, Vital Flooring and Renovations, Carrie’s Weight and Wellness Coaching, Spirit Gear and Lotus Wellness and MedSpa.

Womer Benjamin highlighted Atlas Cinemas, which is renovating Aurora’s former theater building into a 10-screen facility that is expected to open this spring. The theater is located in Barrington Plaza.

Also last year, LayerZero and AIM expanded their operations in Aurora.

Safeguarding some of its land from development, the city has purchased more than 200 acres of greenspace, and last year made three more strategic purchases:

  • A house next to Aurora Memorial Library “to have that property available for future options at the library;”
  • Two lots next to Fire Station 2 “looking forward toward possible expansion there;”
  • The former Sutton/Hanes building, a circa 1825 structure at the corner of routes 82 and 306 “to preserve the iconic structure at the entrance to our historic district,” she said.

Plans are to obtain a state historical marker for the building, showcasing it as the James Converse and Hopson Hurd Store. Doing so will memorialize the original retailers that operated there in the early 1800s, she said. The city is exploring lease options for the building.

Progress — and projects — cost money. Womer Benjamin lauded her leadership team, singling out city council, Finance Director Tim Clymer and Economic Development Director Holly Harris Bane.

“In 2023, almost 83% of our general revenue funds came from income taxes, and the business sector contributed 83.6% of those taxes,” she said.

Looking forward, this year, Aurora Dental will invest $5 million in a new facility on Route 306 across from Heinen’s. Salon Patrick will erect a new building on Route 43 at the entrance to Hawthorne, and MJ Property Group will build a new facility in Aurora’s industrial park.

City leaders have gathered an advisory committee to explore the possibility of a rec center, taking into account initial and ongoing costs, features and voters’ willingness to support tax levies.

To keep the city’s finances sound, and anticipating what Womer Benjamin characterized as “two very major and world-class projects,” city leaders cut $2.5 million from this year’s capital project plans.

The “world-class projects” include phase one of Aurora Trail, a hike-and-bike trail in the former Norfolk Southern Railroad right-of-way. The Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s Clean Ohio Trails Fund has kicked in $500,000 toward the trail, which will run 2.8 miles from Chamberlain Road to Route 82, where Aurora’s historic station district features “interesting old buildings and opportunities for rejuvenation,” she said.

Also dubbed a major project is the city’s proposed purchase of part of the former SeaWorld amusement park and all of Geauga Lake itself.

“We have been negotiating intensely for the last several months and are closer to resolving some outstanding issues,” she said.

Anticipating a successful conclusion, city leaders are already developing a conceptual plan for the park, demolition of existing structures and designing new utility infrastructure, she said. Funds are already set aside for the project, which includes a purchase price of more than $4.5 million.

Also in the coming year, the city plans to install a sidewalk on the west side of New Hudson Road, connecting the East Pioneer sidewalk and Route 82. Thanks to a $450,000 grant, East Pioneer itself will soon be paved from Page Road to the city limits, she said.

“We also plan to design a sidewalk to extend further on Aurora Hudson, from the schools to Four Seasons,” she said.

Because fire and EMS calls have increased 42% in the past decade, the city in 2023 added one full-time firefighter/paramedic and plans to add another this year, she said. Calls for law enforcement have also risen, so 2023 saw two new full-time police positions added. The police department will also receive a new dispatch console.

Since finding firefighter/paramedics who are willing to work part time is becoming increasingly difficult, Womer Benjamin said city leaders are working toward having a completely full-time fire department.

Aurora is working on its $2.6 million Geauga Lake FEMA project, which includes purchasing flood-prone homes in the Geauga Lake neighborhood.

“We have had 10 flood-prone homes and five vacant properties appraised,” she said, noting that ultimately “this is an incredible opportunity to improve stormwater management in a neighborhood that is one of the lowest in Aurora.”

Funding the project is a $2.36 million FEMA grant and $257,000 in city money.

To alleviate backup issues in the city’s Sherwood and Cochran neighborhoods, Aurora is also designing and building a new pump station. Plans are also in place to build a 1 million-gallon water tower that will replace the 350,000-gallon south tower in Aurora’s industrial park. Wastewater and water funds have already been set aside for that project, she said.

Having recently approved $50,000 for a solar panel array for Fire Station 1, the city anticipates installing similar panels on the city’s two wastewater treatment facilities, she said.

Concluding her remarks, Womer Benjamin said “the really fun aspect of being mayor is being able to recognize potential opportunities, seize those opportunities when they appear and then work industriously to lay the groundwork for them so they ultimately become realities.”

Aurora’s future, she said, “continues to be promising.”

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.