A Year in the Life of the Kilbourne Project
Three longtime friends want to turn a forgotten Delaware County town into the coolest little community you’ve never heard of—yet.
It was originally called Eden.
When Daniel Greene Thurston and Isaac Leonard settled in Delaware County in 1836, they named their community after the biblical paradise, inspired by the sylvan setting along Alum Creek. These days, that historical tidbit can feel like an ironic joke. Coming in at 0.45 square miles along state Route 521, the Brown Township community (population 139) is a hodgepodge of old, dilapidated houses and businesses, many of them uninhabited for decades.
Yet a ray of hope can be found amid this desolate landscape. On the edge of the town’s commercial district sits Kilbourne Market, a thriving small business. The store went through several owners and by different names before Garrett Gandee, Nate Hatfield and Aaron Heydinger purchased, remodeled and reopened it in November 2018. Today, the market is fresh and airy but still manages to look like it has always been there. Old pictures of Kilbourne line the walls, and there are still hitching posts out front. (Nowadays, however, horses are used to carry riders along neighboring Alum Creek State Park’s bridle trails, not as a primary means of transportation.) Locals can stop in for pizza and subs and carryout beer and wine. On weekends when the weather is nice, musical acts perform outside.
Ezekiel 36:35 reads, “And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the Garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’” That’s kind of the goal of Gandee, Hatfield and Heydinger, three longtime friends with backgrounds in business and engineering. But they didn’t set out to simply fortify Kilbourne’s only business. They set out to revitalize the whole town.
In a move reminiscent of an earlier time, when pioneers could set up camp in a promising wilderness location and start a town, these three friends bought roughly 90 percent of Kilbourne’s commercial district and set out to create something new. They envision a place grounded in community, free of corporate entities and full of local charm. A place that doesn’t just acknowledge its roots but pays homage to them. A place that can be enjoyed by those whose families go back generations in Kilbourne and those who stumble upon the town while exploring Alum Creek State Park. Now, almost three years later, they are well on their way.
So why is the town no longer called Eden? Turns out another place already had that name, most likely Eden Township in Seneca County, says Paul Clay, the town’s de facto historian. Instead of sharing a name with another place, the area’s early leaders wanted their community to stand on its own. Which is exactly what its 21st century re-founding fathers hope to see happen again.
The biblical allusion was lost, but perhaps paradise won’t be.
It’s March 4, 2020, 15 days before the start of spring. In eight days, Gov. Mike DeWine will close schools and ban gatherings of more than 100 as COVID-19 cases begin to pop up across the state. For now though, on this slightly chilly but sunny day in Kilbourne, the coronavirus still seems blissfully far away. Heydinger says that his wife, Cheryl, an ICU nurse at the James Cancer Hospital, told him to avoid shaking hands, but we all do so anyway. (The perils of Midwestern niceties.)
As we walk around the town, the story of what’s become known as the Kilbourne Project—and the extraordinarily close families behind it—comes out. Heydinger, Hatfield and Gandee have been friends for 20-plus years, first as classmates at Colonel Crawford High School in Crawford County (Heydinger and Hatfield) and later as Ohio State students (all three). They also work together at the environmental engineering firm Gandee & Associates Inc. and surveying company Gandee Heydinger Group. In 2016, the friends and their families purchased plots less than 2 miles from Kilbourne and built houses, thus adding neighbors to their long history together.
“I think Aaron one day was driving by, and the auction sign had just gone up,” recalls Gandee, referring to a 2018 sale of several Kilbourne properties. “It was just one of those things where we kind of laughed, and then decided to drive up and walk around and kick the tires.”
During that initial visit to Kilbourne, Heydinger, the civil engineer of the group, pointed out what the town lacked: stormwater drainage, parking, sanitation—or, to put it simply, infrastructure. “From one standpoint, we’re like, well that would make this a horrible investment,” Gandee says. “And from another standpoint, we’re looking at it going, well maybe that means we’re the only ones that are gonna try to fix it up as it is.”
Between August 2018 and January 2020, Browntown Investment Group (i.e. Gandee, Hatfield and Heydinger) purchased 13 parcels—a mix of residential and commercial—for $583,700. Four of the properties—two lots, a house and a former pizza restaurant—were purchased at the the August 2018 public auction, the result of the May 2017 death of Kilbourne resident Bronislaw “Bruno” Arbesfeld. He owned several properties in town, and they were sold to settle his estate, Gandee says.
The Kilbourne Project was born.
“We’ve been in business together or college roommates together for 20 years. I don’t think any of the three of us took a bit of convincing,” Gandee says of their decision to go all-in on the town. “We each kind of have our lane, and we saw the opportunity.”
The three did, however, have to convince their wives and families. (All of them have children.) “They’ve seen us pull stuff off. We have a good track record. We have good credit with our wives,” Gandee says with a laugh. “I think it was sort of like, ‘here we go,’ but they were supportive.”
Heydinger, the quiet one of the group, quickly deadpans, “We leveraged our credit.”
As wild as the idea sounds on the surface, the overall reaction among those familiar with the project—from locals to county officials—is excitement, mixed with a heavy dose of relief. Finally, someone is going to save Kilbourne.
“It’s always been supportive,” Gandee says. “Very much so.” Early on, the group began sharing their plans with residents and addressing any questions people had. That openness from the beginning worked in their favor, and by the time the township voted to rezone some of the buildings for the project, the few residents who were initially against it moved to support the project, Gandee says.
That support is on full display on the Kilbourne Project’s Facebook page, where the group shares photos of the restoration progress. “My girls and I have loved this house since we moved here 15 years ago. I hope it gets restored,” reads one comment on a photo. “Great to see the local collaboration of minds on a fresh vision for Kilbourne’s future, while preserving its heritage!” reads another.
“When we heard from the ownership group that they were interested in moving a project forward in Kilbourne, we thought it was an amazing opportunity [and] the right partnership group, so we were happy to work with them, to try to see some new investment occur within the Kilbourne area,” says Bob Lamb, the economic development director for Delaware County.
During the March 2020 tour, Heydinger, Hatfield and Gandee are joined by Josh Scheutzow, the owner of the furniture company A Carpenter’s Son. Scheutzow became friends with the three men when he and his family moved into an old farmhouse down the road from them in 2018. After a year of getting to know each other, Scheutzow became the fourth partner in the project in the summer of 2019. “It was just kind of forgotten about,” Scheutzow says of Kilbourne. “It was the town that never quite took off.”
Although Scheutzow was the last to join, he is the voice of the project. With his acumen for social media and his growing small business—A Carpenter’s Son has completed projects for The North Market, the Columbus Crew and Root Insurance—he leads the tour of the town with ease and warmth. “This seems like one of the craziest things we can do,” he says. “The motivation is, we want a place for our families to hang out. … And then to have a place where we can live and work and get good barbecue and drink a beer. To have that place right at the end of our road.”
At this point, the town looks pretty similar to what it looked like when the guys bought their properties. That’s because much of the initial work is of the unsexy variety, the part that HGTV shows tend to skip. Knocking down walls and painting will come, but first, they’ve got to get the town up to modern codes. Kilbourne’s crumbling infrastructure was the reason the group had to purchase as many properties as it did. Renovating one building would not solve issues like a lack of parking or green space. Fixing up one building wouldn’t do much for the town’s curbside appeal when five other neighboring buildings were set to be torn down by the county. For the four of them to see their vision come to fruition, they needed to save a lot of buildings.
Gandee says six of the historic buildings they purchased were set to be razed by the county. In other words, this isn’t the type of project that appeals to the typical Delaware County developer who’s more interested in replacing cornfields with shopping centers and half-million-dollar homes. “Our hope is that in the middle of all this growth and development, we can maintain this quaint little place,” Scheutzow says.
Indeed, you can see the charm of Kilbourne under the paint-chipped siding and crumbling porches. This is a town with a story. As we approach a white building with a red storefront, Gandee explains that it was built in the late 1800s and served as a general store for much of its history, and later as a pizza shop.
Next to it sits a small home they’ve taken to calling the Cross House, because it looks like a cross from above. Built in 1859, the home is still full of debris and belongings from whomever used to live there, as if the former owners disappeared in the night.
Across the street next to Kilbourne Market sits the Ohio House, a former inn that once had a sign advertising “accommodations for man and beast.” The four would like to see the squat, square house serve as accommodations for travelers once again, this time as an Airbnb.
The last stop on the tour is Scott’s Garage. Of all the buildings, it is the one that looks most untouched by time. An old desk covered in yellowed receipts and order forms sits in one corner. Scheutzow says it was built in the late 1800s and operated until 1974. In the attic, receipts dating back to 1931 can be found. In the middle of the garage is a 1960 red Corvair. It’s covered in a thick layer of dust, the tires flat and the hood popped. Much like the belongings in the Cross House, it looks as if someone dropped the car off for repairs and never returned to pick it up.
If you want to know about the history of Kilbourne, you have to talk to Paul Clay. Every town has a Paul Clay—the local who knows everyone and their family history.
Though Clay grew up in the Hilltop neighborhood of Columbus, his family comes from Kilbourne and the surrounding area. He’s a direct descendant of Daniel Greene Thurston, who laid out Kilbourne, and his wife, Frances Thayer Thurston. Like many rural families, Clay’s left the countryside for better job opportunities in the city. But Clay returned to Delaware County, building a house in 1995 on land that his great-grandfather purchased in 1897.
Clay’s passion for genealogy and Kilbourne history is evident in his Sunbury home. Photos of people and places from Kilbourne line the walls of one room in his house. He has more than a dozen thick binders devoted to his research. As he talks, he clicks through his impressive family tree, complete with dozens of photos and documents, which is displayed on a large television in his living room. He pulls up a detailed spreadsheet of all the original landowners in Kilbourne and proudly shows off a photo from the 1919 Kilbourne High School yearbook that features his grandfather.
Clay says his wife told him not to talk too much and to stay on track during the interview, but it doesn’t take him long to go down a Kilbourne history wormhole. His excitement is palpable, matched only by his extensive knowledge of and intense devotion to this small town.
He first learned about the Kilbourne Project while having a drink at the market. With his love of history and his local involvement—he served as a Cub Scout troop leader in Kilbourne from 1999 until 2005 and as a Brown Township Zoning Board member from 2005 until 2009—he was the perfect source and local connection for the project.
“Paul was just somebody that came in one day and said he had neat photos and stories of people in the township,” Gandee says. “His specialty is the people. At the time, we were really looking for architectural historical information on the buildings, but as we got to know him, it became quickly apparent that the stories of the people were equally as interesting and tied to the history of the buildings.”
For years, Clay hoped that someone would come in and restore Kilbourne’s historic buildings. “They don’t want to make it into a McDonald’s down the block,” Clay says of the Kilbourne Project. “They want to make it a nice area for the community. … To me, that’s where they have everything going for [them]—and the fact that they came in and they talked to people.”
Clay isn’t alone in his excitement. Lauri Ebright, who runs Kilbourne Market, says people constantly ask her about the status of the project and when businesses will start to open again in Kilbourne. “I think it’s great what they’re doing. People actually slow down now,” she says during an interview in early May 2021, referring to the cars that used to buzz right past the town on 521.
As a longtime resident, Ebright has watched Kilbourne change through the years. Her family moved here from Vermont when she was a child. As she leans against a table at Kilbourne Market, she runs through the store’s history, ticking off a long list of owners. She started working here in 1997 when it was Hall’s Market. Besides a stint at BP, she has worked at the store since then. She’s been a customer for even longer.
“None of this was here. There was a dirt floor,” she says of the market of her youth. “I remember coming over with $5 and getting [my parents] cigarettes and taking the change back.” Aside from a short stay in Delaware (“It was too crazy, too noisy,” she says), Ebright has called Kilbourne home for much of her life. “This is about as country as I get,” she says.
Kilbourne’s location—in the country but close to city amenities—is often touted as a selling point for the project, both by its investors and government officials. Lamb, Delaware County’s economic development director, says the pandemic’s work-from-home shift makes Kilbourne’s setting more appealing, along with other Delaware County communities with small town centers, like Ostrander and Galena. “I think reinvestment in those locations will become more and more attractive, because people will be looking for those types of little areas that they can go frequent when wanting to stay close to home, but not wanting to work inside their home,” he says.
Lamb has worked with the Kilbourne Project’s investors on “making it financially feasible to develop the area.” This includes securing community development block grants, creating a tax increment financing agreement and establishing a special improvement district in Kilbourne, which Lamb says will allow the group to get a more competitive rate on a loan to reinvest in their property.
The Kilbourne Project appears to tick all the boxes you would want in a successful community development project. It has local support. Its investors are committed to preserving the town’s history and charm. Right now, the Kilbourne Project is a unique experiment in Central Ohio. But it’s easy to imagine other towns and cities looking to it as a future model.
“I think they’re going to start to get held up as an example of what people can do in other places,” says landscape architect Jason Kentner. His firm, Implement, helped with the preliminary site planning for Kilbourne.
Kentner continues, “If we didn’t need to make every roadway 60 feet wide, and if we didn’t need to make everything this or that, there could be a lot more of these little villages. But it’s also a totally unique place right there along Alum Creek. There are so many great potentials just in terms of what the context of the place is.”
It’s May 10, 2021, and much has changed for the Kilbourne Project. While the pandemic slowed down some things and altered others, the town looks different. The Ohio House has a fresh coat of navy blue paint and a new front entrance. About 41 parking spaces will go in this summer, thanks to a community development block grant. The Cross House, now with new windows, hosted a cheerful display of Christmas lights in the winter and front porch concerts in the summer, but what’s most impressive is what you can’t see. The back of the property was collapsing. At one point, Hatfield says they were unsure if they could save it. But they managed to lift it up 6 inches and put in a new foundation.
The most noticeable change is the fresh patio on Kilbourne Market. When the pandemic hit last year, the partners decided to pivot and update the market’s outdoor space sooner than originally planned as a way to bring people in and keep them safely socially distanced. And while they would still like to see a restaurant open at the old general store, for now, it’s the future home of their two businesses, Gandee & Associates and Gandee Heydinger Group. “In a way, I think we’re taking the ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach. There was so much blight in this corridor that we wanted to start to get it fixed up so people could visualize it when they come,” Gandee explains.
The group behind the Kilbourne Project looks different as well. At the end of 2020, Scheutzow left. At one point, he purchased Scott’s Garage with a plan to move A Carpenter’s Son, but his fast-growing business outgrew the space before he could relocate. In June, he announced that he was moving A Carpenter’s Son to Worthington. When asked why he left the Kilbourne Project, Scheutzow says he was unhappy with “some things that had gone down in that partnership.” (In a follow-up text, Scheutzow apologizes for being so vague. “We are on good terms with our neighbors and just aren’t cut out to be business partners. … I can’t wait to see what Kilbourne becomes, and I wish the team the best in the restoration project.”)
In an early July interview, Gandee echoes Scheutzow’s sentiment that there are no bad feelings among the four of them. He says with the growth of A Carpenter’s Son, it made sense for Scheutzow to step away from the project. “There’s still a lot of support from them,” he says of Scheutzow and his family. “While they might not be officially involved in that group of buildings that we’re working on, they’re still playing a big role in the promotion of the township and Kilbourne.”
For now, progress is being made in the town where time once stood still. By this fall, parking, sidewalks and the village green will be completed in Kilbourne. By the time summer 2022 hits, Gandee says landscaping and streetscaping details will be implemented and a couple residential properties will be available for short-term vacation rentals. He also says there are plans to open an art gallery and semipermanent sites for seasonal vendors.
Another developer is restoring Kilbourne’s former post office. (It closed in 2017.) Half a mile down the road, Nick Sheets recently opened Henmick Farm & Brewery on land that has been in his family since 1916. Even Scott’s Garage has a new owner. A friend of Scheutzow’s purchased the property but isn’t ready to announce plans for the space. “We think it’s the more the merrier,” Gandee says of people’s growing interest in the town.
Even with the pandemic-related setbacks, the exit of Scheutzow and the challenges that come with a project of this scope, Gandee says the three of them still view Kilbourne as a great investment. “We want to hold these properties for decades,” he says.
The Kilbourne Project started as a lofty and unusual idea: to quite literally save a town. Three years in, that vision is inching closer to completion. Paradise might be within reach, after all.
This story is from the August 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Correction: The print version of this story stated that Josh Scheutzow and his family were moving back to Columbus. Scheutzow and his family are moving but will remain in Delaware County.