By JORDYN GRZELEWSKI
A public hearing on proposed zone changes for a HomeGoods distribution center TJX is looking to build in the village drew a smaller crowd than previous meetings on the topic, but still featured passionate remarks from both supporters and opponents.
More than 50 people attended the hearing at the village administration building Saturday, and 16 people spoke. Following the public hearing, council had the first of three readings of the ordinances that would rezone 290 acres on Ellsworth Bailey and Hallock Young roads from residential to industrial.
Council is expected to have second readings of the ordinances Monday, then final readings and a vote Thursday.
Community members who spoke against the zone changes cited concerns about stormwater issues, the impact a zone change would have on nearby residences, the quality of the jobs the distribution center will bring to the area, and the fact the company has not yet submitted in writing some of the assurances it has made to council and residents, among other issues.
Supporters of the project pointed to the economic benefits. TJX has said it plans to invest $160 million in building the facility, that the distribution center will create up to 1,000 jobs within five years of opening, and has promised $500,000 in donations to Lordstown schools, in addition to the tax revenue the facility and its jobs would generate.
“This is not a TJX issue. This is not a jobs issue. This is a zoning issue,” said village resident Kathy Dickson. “There’s plenty of other property on the other side of the turnpike that would suit this company.”
Mark Walker, vice president of real estate for HomeGoods, said later in the meeting that the company had looked at other properties in the village but determined none of them would work.
“This is the only property that works for us,” he said. “We have not spoken to any of the other property owners for several months.”
Another village resident, Gary Kohut, also protested the zone changes, saying he purchased his property 21 years ago because the area was zoned residential, which he viewed as protection.
“Here’s what I say to, ‘No big deal,’” he said. “Thirty years I served in the military. I did that to provide for my family. I went to places I didn’t know if I was coming back from to provide that for my family.”
State Rep. Glenn Holmes of McDonald, D-63rd, and state Sen. Sean O’Brien of Bazetta, D-32nd, spoke in favor of the zone changes.
Holmes said approval of the zone changes would be the best outcome for everyone, as there likely will be a referendum vote if council approves the changes. State legislators wrote legislation that was signed into law last week that expedites the referendum process.
“I’m here to implore you, to encourage you, to allow citizens to vote,” Holmes said. “There is an extreme amount of polarization on this issue here in Lordstown. In a perfect world, everybody would have a chance to participate in the process. You’ve been given the mechanism now to participate in the process. A “yes” vote to the zoning changes allows everyone in Lordstown to participate in the process. I think that’s fair to everyone in Lordstown. It’s fair to the region. It’s fair to HomeGoods.”
O’Brien noted reductions in the workforce at the General Motors Lordstown plant, which will be down to about 1,500 workers starting June 25.
He also said TJX has been responsive to questions and concerns, and the project would benefit a school district grappling with losses in state funding.
“We have an opportunity. A lot of areas would die for this opportunity,” he said. “We have to do what we can to work with them to be good neighbors.”
The issue of how the project would benefit the schools came up numerous times, with some questioning how significant the benefit of the 10-year, 75 percent tax abatement the company is seeking would.
Mayor Arno Hill pushed back on that, saying, “Nobody likes abatements, folks. But you’re giving up money you didn’t have in the first place.”
He said the schools still would receive approximately $400,000 a year from the facility, compared with the several thousand per year they currently get from the property.
Community member Jim London agreed.
“If you, a community in this state, refuse to give an abatement, guess what happens – they’ll go to Warren. They’ll go to North Jackson. They’ll go to Austintown,” he said. “Abatements are necessary if you want to provide jobs and better your community. Abatements are a necessary evil.”
Another issue raised at the hearing was whether TJX will follow through on its promise to build a buffer zone around the facility.
TJX representatives said they can put that intent into writing, but at this point cannot reveal what third-party organizations might take ownership of the buffer area.
“We have started the process with a group that will accept the land,” Walker said.
He also addressed concerns about who will fund a realignment of Hallock Young Road that is in the company’s plans.
“That will not be a village cost,” he said. “We’ll design it and we’ll build it.”
Following the meeting, HomeGoods released a statement saying, “We are pleased with the progress being made in this process and are grateful to the council for taking the time to consider our proposal.”
Village solicitor Paul Dutton clarified the process of the referendum.
If council approves the zone changes, residents will have 30 days to gather signatures for a referendum petition and file it. The special election would take place 60 days after passage of the ordinances.
Council member Ronald Radtka will abstain from discussing or voting on anything concerning the project, due to his family owning some of the property in question. The legislation that expedited a referendum also clarified the number of votes needed to approve the zone changes with an abstention. Three “yes” votes are needed to pass the ordinances.