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City's Visionary

Andy Ouriel • May 19, 2014 at 4:40 PM

Look no further than the names of Eric Wobser’s children to measure his affinity for Sandusky and the surrounding greater area.

With wife, Jen, he has two sons:

•Perry, 2, named after Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who captained a monumental American naval victory during the War of 1812 on Lake Erie, just off South Bass Island’s shore.

•Hayes, 5 months, named after Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th U.S. president, who was born in Fremont.

Beyond names, the area is also home for the newly named city manager, who grew up in Sandusky and Perkins Township but graduated in 1997 from Edison High School.    

A week ago, city commissioners unanimously voted 7-0 to name Wobser (pronounced “whoop-sir”) as Sandusky’s next visionary, spearheading public efforts revolving around economic development and neighborhood revitalization. He replaces Nicole Ard, who commissioners fired in March.

Who is Eric Wobser?

•RESIDES IN: Cleveland. He will move to Sandusky once he starts his job as city manager sometime in early July.

•CURRENT JOB: Ohio City Inc. executive director since 2009. He spearheads a nonprofit agency overseeing the city’s economic development and neighborhood revitalization efforts.

•EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Ohio University (2002); juris doctor from University of Michigan Law School (2005).

•EXPERIENCE: AmeriCorps member in Cleveland (2001 to 2002); University of Michigan office of the general counsel law clerk (2003 to 2004); special projects manager for the mayor of Cleveland (2006 to 2009).

In almost five years, Wobser quarterbacked efforts to elevate the profile and quality of life in Ohio City, near Cleveland.

During his time leading the nonprofit Ohio City Inc., Wobser transformed the now-booming municipality by:

•Leveraging about $200 million in public and private investments.

•Attracting more than 70 local businesses to the area.

•Reducing the commercial vacancy rate from more than 30 percent in 2010 to less than 5 percent in 2013.

•Maintaining the neighborhood’s housing stock through single-family rehabilitation, foreclosure prevention and community outreach.

Commissioners selected Wobser on the basis that he’ll achieve similar and even more impressive feats for Sandusky, a city with eerily similar demographics to Ohio City. He aims to start his post in Sandusky sometime in early July.

This past week, Wobser sat down with the Register during an exclusive 90-minute interview at Mr. Smith’s Coffee House. Throughout the dialogue, Wobser seemed passionate and eager to lead Sandusky’s revitalization efforts.

“I love this area, and I’m glad to be here” Wobser said.

Q: Why did you want to become Sandusky’s city manager?

EW: Sandusky is home for not only me but for my wife and our extended families. Our families are still in the area, and it was an opportunity for us to come back, and we thought that was special.

But I wouldn’t have come back just for family if I didn’t see the opportunities ahead in this city. You can’t help but to see the good timing right now in Sandusky. There is a spark of entrepreneurialism in downtown. The community is investing in its school system. The beginning of the revitalization is here. There are a lot of things being underutilized, like the land and the waterfront. But there is so much momentum in the right direction.

Also, cities are coming back. The 21st century is going to be America’s story of its revitalization of its cities. The 20th century was all about people leaving cities for the suburbs. But Sandusky is in a position now to grow again.

Q: What do your mother and father do?

EW: My mom, Marlee, is a teacher at Oberlin High School. She went to Cleveland State to get her teaching degree. My dad, Gene, is a school bus driver for Edison Schools. They live in Berlin Heights.

Q: Why would a person with a law degree choose a career path based on economic development and neighborhood revitalization?

EW: After I graduated from Ohio University, I knew I wanted to go to law school, but I didn’t want to go right away. So I was able to enlist with AmeriCorps in Cleveland for a year. I had friends in Cleveland, and we had five guys move into a three-bedroom house in Lakewood.

It was at this time that I fell in love with cities and neighborhoods. I always had an admiration for Cleveland, making trips to games, museums and events. When I went away to law school, it was at this time I really wanted to live in a place like Cleveland. By my second year of law school, I realized that the practice of law might not be my long-term goal.

Q: So then what happened?

EW: When I realized that I was more interested in the revitalization of the cities than the practice of law, I started to look at other options, and The Cleveland Foundation created a program for people that wanted to transition into careers of public service.

I did a yearlong fellowship with the foundation, and from there found an opportunity to work in the Cleveland mayor’s office on infrastructure and economic development initiatives.

Q: Many people remember Sandusky as a place where most homes were owner occupied. Will it ever be like that again?

EW: I’m worried less about the makeup for renters and homeowners and more about creating a strong demand for housing in Sandusky. Sandusky needs quality housing that is well maintained, whether it’s occupied by renters or homeowners.

Communities need a good mix of rental and homeownership. The for-rental market is very strong, and the for-sale market is coming back. The redevelopment of the city will lead to a healthier balance for these markets. Like Sandusky, Ohio City has a 70 percent rental rate, but that ranges to include apartments that are $1,500 a month with doctors, attorneys and other professionals renting them.

Focusing on the housing stock in Sandusky is going to be a critical issue. We need to create a city that people want to be a part of and want to live in. When people buy a house, it’s as much about what is around that house than what the house is itself.

You will see demand go up if we commit to a vision for this city that focuses on the quality of life and quality of the amenities that include schools, parks, small businesses, the waterfront, downtown and more.

Q: In Erie County, at any given time, there are about 2,300 tax-delinquent parcels, translating to about $11 million owed in back taxes. This money helps schools, parks and local governments operate. Half of these delinquent parcels are located in Sandusky. In your experience, what are the best ways to address the challenges this represents?

EW: The challenge is we don’t have enough demand for housing that exists. Ultimately, what we need to do is to develop a strategy for every neighborhood in the city of Sandusky. All neighborhoods need investment. The solution for one neighborhood is not the solution for every neighborhood. We need to have the courage and focus to make those choices.

Q: In your opinion, what is neighborhood revitalization, and how in your mind does that apply to Sandusky?

EW: Our regional economy does not just include Sandusky. It includes a four-plus-county region (Erie, Huron, Ottawa and Sandusky counties and the western portion of Lorain County) influenced heavily by the Toledo and Cleveland regions. The region should come together around a strategy to rebuild fundamentals of its economy.

People say Sandusky is in crisis. I don’t think areas on the Cedar Point Chaussee or parts on Columbus Avenue or Wayne Street are in crisis. There are still safe, attractive neighborhoods all throughout Sandusky. But there are many parts of Sandusky that are struggling very badly, and the housing stock is in very bad shape.

The schools play a critical role as well. There are some communities in Cleveland that don’t have a lot of character but are doing well because they have strong schools. You can’t divorce what’s happening in Sandusky Schools or Sandusky Central Catholic School from neighborhood revitalization. Schools help neighborhoods become stronger. As neighborhoods become stronger, other things will start to improve.

Q: You’ve been with Ohio City Inc. since 2009. During that time, what do you believe was your greatest challenge, and what’s the accomplishment for which you are most proud?

EW: The greatest challenge: If you remember, in 2009, we were in the midst of a national recession. Banks weren’t lending, and very little housing was being built. It was difficult for larger projects to get funding. So we focused on smaller businesses that didn’t need $1 million to get started. Maybe they needed $50,000 or $100,000 to get started.

At this time, many traditional jobs weren’t available. So Ohio City needed to figure out how does the neighborhood grow in ways that are sustainable.

We also passed a special improvement district. Property owners assessed themselves at a higher property tax rate and then they used those funds to provide specific services in that area, including cleaning and safety services.

In the last four-plus years, we were able to attract 70 small businesses into the neighborhood. With that momentum, we helped revitalized the city’s economy.

The accomplishment I’m most proud of is organizing the West Side Market’s centennial for 2012. We used this as an opportunity to take a step back and see what the assets are of this neighborhood. Residents and businesses all helped out with this, and collectively we accomplished something that was greater than the sum of the people or organizations. We told a story of the neighborhood.

We created deadlines from the date of November 2012 to work back from. We partnered with the city to rebuild a park across from the market. We raised several hundreds of thousands of dollars in neighborhood institutions to create a small business development platform. We landed grants for existing businesses to reinvest in themselves or for others to open new businesses.

Q: What’s your take on the challenges in Sandusky?

EW: I don’t have a silver bullet. I don’t have a magic wand. I don’t have all the answers. Sandusky faces major challenges, but it has unique assets. I would argue the challenges Sandusky faces aren’t as unique as people think they are. Sprawl has hit every urban community across the heartland.

Compared to Ohio City, Sandusky finds itself in an incredibly similar situation in that, inarguably, there are assets here. The downtown. The tourist attractions. Cedar Point. I’m going to be spending a lot of time listening and learning about what people perceive are the assets and challenges here. And then I’ll ask people to forget everything they think they know about the community and put together a plan based on the objective strengths of our people and our assets.

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