ZANESVILLE — A joint Gateway project between the City of Zanesville and the Muskingum County Convention Facilities Authority could transform a major entrance to downtown Zanesville.
The area around the Zanesville-Muskingum County Welcome Center and Secrest Auditorium could become a new entertainment district, with improvements made to the auditorium and a new open-air market and restaurant on the grounds of the Welcome Center.
Each entity would develop a portion of the project, with the CFA’s efforts focused on the area around the Welcome Center, and the city’s portion focused on Secrest Auditorium.
“We are looking at doing a project in our footprint around the Welcome Center,” said Mike Bennett, a member of the Muskingum County Convention Facilities Authority Board of Directors. With other projects underway downtown, now is the right time to start looking at ways to develop their properties, including the former Ohio Power garage on Fourth Street, he said.
The project would include renovations to the garage, upgrading things like the electrical system to make the building more attractive to potential tenants. The board is also looking at a long pavilion in the parking lot of the Welcome Center, which would provide a covered space for vendors or demonstrations during various events. Landscaping would make “a nicer, more aesthetically pleasing and functional gateway into the heart of downtown,” Bennett said.
The pavilion project would lead to the removal of the section of Elberon Avenue that connects Fifth and Fourth streets. A sidewalk would replace the road, the removal of which would allow for more room around the pavilion area.
The Secrest Auditorium parking lot, already a busy place this summer with various events including the Summer Concert Series, would get a makeover by the city, with landscaping work and other improvements. The work will be paid for by $50,000 allocated by the Ohio budget.
In an effort to make Secrest itself a better venue, Zanesville Mayor Don Mason would like to see a new pre-event venue added to the southern side of the building, allowing for a much larger lobby and entrance way.
“We are still planning but determined to move forward with the renovations that will allow for a better experience,” he said. The improvements will also make the building more ADA accessible, and easier to access to older residents and those with health needs.
“It is a great, historic building which needs to be refreshed so that it can cover the span of activities that artist and entertainers would like to hold there,” he said.
The former Ohio Power garage has three sections, two of about 1,800 square feet, and a larger section in the middle of about 4,000 square feet. The CFA acquired it in the late 1990s, Bennett said. “We are looking at how we can develop that property in a way that would benefit downtown Zanesville and bring people off the interstate and into the city’s central business district.
“We reached out to a number of local restaurant operators,” Bennett said. As a result, the board is reviewing a proposal and has started negotiations. “Hopefully we will have a tenant in the next several months.”
A new restaurant would be the focus of the entertainment district, and help build momentum for the rest of downtown, Mason said. “Millions of dollars leave our town every year” as residents go out to dinner in surrounding areas like Newark, Cambridge or Coshocton, Mason said. “We can build this area up, and make Zanesville more lively again, more entertaining again.” Mason said in addition to the possible tenant in the former AEP garage, another restaurant downtown is expected to announced soon, he said.
Bennett said he anticipates the renovations to begin in the first quarter of next year, and any tenant improvements completed by the end of 2023, with a new business opening in early 2024. The pavilion project would be done during the same time frame, he said.
Although still in the design phase, early estimates for the total cost of the CFA’s portion of the project are about $3.5 million, Bennett said. That includes the building renovations, pavilion construction and the removal of Elberon Avenue.
With bed tax starting to increase following COVID-19, and frugal operations over the years, “We are in a pretty strong financial position,” he said. “Whether we finance the rest with savings or financing, I feel confident we will be able to handle the overall project, especially since we got two very generous grants from two local foundations and the state involvement.”
The CFA received a $500,000 grant from the Straker Foundation, and a $250,000 grant from the Rogge Foundation.
“We are excited,” Bennett said. “I think this fits in well with the overall momentum downtown.”
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