Do or Die: Can Whitehall Find Its Way Back?
Photos by Tessa Berg
People who grew up in Whitehall pre-1990 remember it as a safe, respectable town where hardworking families could live the suburban dream. Then things changed. Families bought nicer houses elsewhere. Retailers fled to malls. Crime became more prevalent. What happened, and who is going to fix it?
Sun streaks through the mature trees that line the curving lanes of the Woodcliff Condominiums development on Whitehall's northwest side. A few children play in front of the cookie-cutter duplexes, placed at perfectly even intervals. The picture is one of a mid-century suburban aesthetic, preserved in time.
But another story emerges upon closer inspection-in house after house, windows are bare, rooms clearly unfurnished. Perhaps a third of the condominiums are vacant. In a few cases, windows and doors are boarded up. Last year, county health inspections found shifting foundations and mold and water damage in some basements. In two units, inspectors found violations so serious that tenants were asked to leave until repairs could be made.
Hauled to court in 2007 by the city and declared a nuisance in 2008, Woodcliff got a new lease on life in November 2012, after owners promised to make repairs and clean up the place. Woodcliff had a bad reputation in the past, one of its managers told Whitehall city council members last year. But now, things would change.
Woodcliff is a rough microcosm of Whitehall itself: built up in years of prosperity, dragged down by ensuing years of economic changes, making an effort to improve.
In the 1950s and through the 1980s, Whitehall was as respected as any blue-collar Columbus suburb. It was low-crime, clean, a good place to raise a family. Today, though, the city has a reputation that development director Zachary Woodruff put this way while describing his own childhood in the '80s: "People felt safe. They felt there were good jobs. You didn't have the perception that, 'You live in Whitehall? Ew.' "
Outdated housing, a transient population, language and cultural barriers and a high crime rate are phenomena that chase each other in cities like Whitehall. Breaking that cycle means improving housing, giving people incentives to put down roots, persuading businesses to open and serve a newly stable customer base, and engaging new residents, even when they're from a country you can't easily find on a map.
Landlocked and unable to expand with new development, Whitehall must look inward for change. Its leaders seem to be doing just that, frankly acknowledging the city's problems and seeking creative solutions to them.
Whitehall could be on its way back.
FORGING AN IDENTITY
Mayor Kim Maggard has a knack for finding the silver lining in the city's challenges. Whitehall's relatively new cultural diversity? Wonderful, and a draw for younger homebuyers who want to live in a community of many perspectives. The low rate of home ownership? An opportunity for creative solutions that entice buyers to consider Whitehall. The city's landlocked position? Perfect for the weekday commuter and the weekend mall shopper. It's just 10 minutes to Downtown or Easton.
But she's not a Pollyanna. Maggard and other Whitehall leaders candidly and routinely acknowledge it took 20 or 30 years for problems to emerge and become entrenched, and it could take that long to solve them.
"If we do not do anything, things will never get better. We need to move forward," Maggard says, tapping manicured fingernails on a glass-topped table for emphasis. "We want to be known as a progressive urban city that still can have a small-town atmosphere. We're eclectic, I think you could say."
Maggard moved to Whitehall 32 years ago from Ashland, Kentucky-her Southern twang persists. She and her husband, who works at the Defense Supply Center Columbus, raised four children who attended Whitehall schools. Over the years, she got more involved in public life, campaigning in the 1990s for a schools levy. She won a seat on the school board in 1996. Then, the former circulation manager at the Whetstone branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library was elected city auditor in 2003. She won an unopposed election for mayor in November 2011.
Within months of being sworn in as mayor, she had rounded up city leaders for come-to-Jesus-style strategic planning. They articulated in stark terms threats to the city: defeatist mentality, crime, lack of teamwork, revenue stagnation, lack of quality housing, lack of long-term planning, transient population. They also listed perceived strengths: strong fiscal history, loyal citizenry, innovative leadership, ability to quickly adapt. They decided on big-picture goals to improve the city and wrote detailed plans to reach each one.
Near the top of the list was improving the city's image, redefining its identity and clearly communicating to potential residents and businesses that things were on the upswing in Whitehall. "We needed to put a breath of fresh air in the city and keep that breath of fresh air coming in," Maggard says.
The city hired Kansas firm Civic Plus to bring its outmoded website into the 21st century and paid Creative Spot, a small marketing firm in Columbus, $25,000 to remake the city's brand.
"When a company is going through some hard times, what do they do? They regroup and they rebrand. Our city image was this seal that … you could not even know what was on it. It has a church with a steeple that cannot be Whitehall anymore because we have a lot of religions," Maggard says. "How can they see that and say that's my city?"
The palpable result of the rebranding project was a new logo and tagline, but there are results the public can't see. In rebranding, Whitehall examined its identity and declared-tangibly and intangibly-a significant cultural change.
"It is as much strategic as it is the actual physical elements," says Don Nixon, a principal at Creative Spot and the Whitehall project leader. "Brand strategy is the overarching guidelines behind everything."
Nixon and his team interviewed city leaders and some of the many people with an opinion about Whitehall, asking what they think it stands for, what its past means and what its future holds.
Opportunity kept coming up in discussions, Nixon says, and Creative Spot encouraged city leaders to seize on it. It's a word that Whitehall can apply to schools, businesses and housing, and one that can be used for years. Now promotional materials, business cards and other materials are emblazoned with a tri-color contemporary W and the tagline "Opportunity is Here."
" 'Opportunity is Here' applies to so many facets," Woodruff says. "We have this problem that has lots of different avenues and different factors. How do we tie a brand-new motto into that as well? There's opportunities for everything here. There's opportunities for home ownership, for jobs, for commercial business property. There's opportunities for great recreation that's expanding and growing. There's an opportunity to be a 7-minute drive from Downtown."
Nixon was impressed with the focus and outlook of the people he met in Whitehall.
"I'm a Hilliard resident and I had not been to Whitehall all that much," Nixon says. "I look at the number of new schools that have been built, the number of businesses that have moved in, the infrastructure, that collective decision. There's a lot of energy there, a movement, if you will, of going in a positive direction."
HOW WE GOT HERE
To understand how Whitehall became a place that people associate with broken sidewalks, empty storefronts and seedy bars and motels, we have to go back to World War II. That's when the Defense Supply Center Columbus on Whitehall's north side, was at its peak. That employment boom was followed by the return of soldiers to the States, where they started families and sparked a suburban housing explosion in Whitehall.
The town, a farming community and stagecoach stop on the National Road in the 19th century, grew from 4,100 residents in 1950 to 20,800 residents in 1960. Growth peaked in 1970, when the U.S. Census recorded 25,000 residents. Today, about 18,100 people live in Whitehall.
In 1949, just as the city was starting to grow, developer Don M. Casto Sr. opened Town & Country Shopping Center, dubbed the "Miracle Mile." A strip-mall-style shopping center was a foreign concept to retailers of the time, who were accustomed to locating in downtown shopping districts. JC Penney and Lazarus were tenants over the years. The pioneering shopping center is still bustling today, though it's been significantly remodeled and its department-store anchors have migrated outward to malls.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the stretch of Main Street through Whitehall was known as "the strip" and was home to modern motels, nightclubs and restaurants that attracted travelers. The famous Kahiki Supper Club opened just outside Whitehall city limits in 1961.
Whitehall was Caucasian, blue collar, family-oriented and filled with three-bedroom, one-bathroom slab housing that was built quickly to meet the demand (there are pockets of larger and, in some cases, older homes, particularly near the Columbus Country Club). By the 1980s, the nation's demographics had changed, and so had consumers' buying power. Outer suburbs like Dublin and Westerville with open land to develop, grew significantly while Whitehall's population contracted from more than 25,000 in 1970 to 20,500 by 1990.
"People wanted homes that were larger, had more yard space and more amenities," Maggard says. "As the older people moved away or died, our property and homes became less interesting to the regular home-buying population. It's just what it is. So then we had people with a lower income coming into Whitehall and we saw more of a transient society."
The face of the city was changing, too. In 1980, Whitehall was 95 percent white, 4 percent black and 1 percent Asian; the 1980 U.S. Census did not break out people identifying as Hispanic. By 2010, that picture had changed radically: Whitehall was now 59 percent white, 29 percent black, nearly 10 percent Hispanic. More than 5.5 percent of all respondents identified as "some other race," an indication, perhaps, of the influx of Eastern African immigrants into the community.
More than 30 languages are spoken by students in Whitehall schools, a shift that district superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy recalls began around 2005.
"Hispanic was really our first population, and that didn't seem all that unusual, because we're experiencing that across the United States," Dobbert-Meloy says. "But when we started getting some of these kids from all over the world, from areas we really weren't familiar with, we thought, OK this is a little bit different. Something else is going on here."
Businesses bear out the ethnic diversity, too. In Whitehall's 5 square miles, shoppers can visit Caribbean, African, Asian, Latin and halal (suitable for Muslims) markets, restaurants serving Ethiopian and Vietnamese food and the occasional real-deal taco truck.
"We are now a magnet. We went from an almost all Caucasian city to a very diverse city within 30 years," Maggard says. "And how have we kept up with that as a city? Well, we didn't, and we haven't. That has been a weakness for us. But now we realize that our diversity is our strength."
The schools hired social workers, to connect families with social services, and teachers who specialize in English as a second language. They've reached out to colleagues in Columbus schools for help finding translators for essential communications that are sent home with students whose parents don't speak English.
In the same time frame, less of Whitehall's housing has been owner-occupied. The 2010 census showed about 58.4 percent of housing was renter-occupied and 41.6 percent was owner-occupied. In 1990, the difference was 45.1 percent owned and 54.9 percent rented. At the same time, more homes are being left vacant: In 1990, 4.7 percent of homes were vacant. That rate had tripled by 2010 to 14.4 percent.
Woodruff points out that, even if every single-family home in town was owner-occupied, the number of renters in Whitehall would be high because of large rental communities like Woodcliff and English Village (now dubbed Estates of Eden at Whitehall), built in the 1950s primarily to accommodate DSCC employees. In other suburbs, the home ownership rate can reach past 80 or even 90 percent.
"What we have seen is the transient renter," Woodruff says. "The transient renter has a detrimental effect not only for economic development, because typically if you're a transient renter you don't have a high income. You typically haven't attained high education. If you're a transient renter and you have kids, typically your kids are moving in and out of the school district."
A transient population sends ripple effects across all aspects of life in a city. People in neighborhoods don't form long-term friendships. Businesses don't see the kind of invested, rooted consumer they desire. Schools' standardized test scores are lower in part because a chunk of the student population is not receiving continuous education.
If a kindergarten class in Whitehall schools starts the year with 100 students, 30 of those students will leave sometime in the school year and be replaced with 30 new students. Sometimes students leave and return to Whitehall schools in the same year.
"We enroll all year long," Dobbert-Meloy says, "That's just become part of the way we do business."
The number of crimes committed in Whitehall between 2003 and 2011 has stayed relatively steady, according to crime data sent by Whitehall police to the FBI for its annual Uniform Crime Report. There are years in which there have been increases and other years that saw decreases in overall crime. More telling is the city's crime rate compared with cities of similar size. In Whitehall in 2011, there were about 95 crimes per 1,000 people. In nearby Pickerington, also a city of about 18,000 people, there were about 20 crimes per 1,000 people. A Columbus Monthly analysis of crime rates in 18 suburbs found Canal Winchester had the second-highest rate, at 53 crimes per 1,000 people.
Sgt. Randall Snider, a 29-year veteran of the Whitehall police department, grew up in the city and remembers his hometown as a family-friendly community that observed all the best rituals, like Little League baseball and a massive fireworks display on Independence Day. A number of factors create opportunities for crime in the city, Snider says. Some can be changed, and some can't. The city is bordered by three major roads-Broad Street, Main Street and Hamilton Road-and is surrounded by highways, giving criminals a quick escape route. Though it's a generalization and not a rule, crime tends to rise in correlation with rental housing, and Whitehall has swaths of it.
But the department has found ways to counteract some of the challenges, engaging residents as crime-preventers through a citizen police academy and a uniformed volunteer citizen patrol with its own special vehicle-six residents are participating in that program now, and two more slots have been approved. Officers patrol neighborhoods on bicycle, getting face-to-face contact with residents and learning of problems as they emerge. And, when police notice a specific place becoming a problem, officers will saturate the area with patrols. One recent directed patrol near an apartment complex where residents were complaining of drug deals and loitering resulted in 21 stops and eight arrests, Snider says.
Redevelopment is its own crime-prevention tool, he says, invoking the "broken window" theory that holds when people see a place with a broken window, they are less likely to respect it and even more likely to damage it further.
"The continuing beautification has contributed to the uplifting of the community," Snider says. "Some apartment complexes have done a decent job of cleaning up, and that adds to reducing crime."
The once-snazzy motels on Main Street became shabby and were used for prostitution in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Snider recalls. A combination of sting operations and demolition of some of the motels-and the subsequent redevelopment of those sites into other businesses-helped dramatically reduce prostitution in the city, he explains.
"A lot of people we arrest in Whitehall don't live in Whitehall," Snider says. "Are they specifically coming here because it's an easier group to target? Is it because we have a sizable number of seniors? Is it because they're coming to visit friends who happen to live in the neighborhood? I don't know, exactly, but Whitehall has done a nice job of offsetting those negative aspects with positive beautifications, including the new five schools."
Like Maggard, Woodruff sees ways to take challenges and turn them into-you guessed it-opportunity. That same opportunity that city leaders kept coming back to when working on their rebranding campaign.
"We can't tell people, 'You can't rent,' " Woodruff says. "We're going to have to do it the other way. How do we make it more advantageous? How do we make it more affordable and attractive to buy? That's what we need to change. We have to change what it means to live in Whitehall."
Newlyweds Brandon and Alisha Pittman were in the market for a house in 2012, and they found one in Whitehall in November. They'd lined up their financing and were ready to seal the deal when Brandon found out about the city's My Home program.
Whitehall launched the home-buying-incentive program last year, setting aside $150,000 initially. The program offers up to $5,000 in down payment or closing cost assistance to people who buy a home in Whitehall. Homebuyers must finance through program partner Huntington Bank. Stay in the house for five years, and the money is given free and clear.
"We're betting that if we can get them to stay for five years that they will stay here," Maggard says.
The Pittmans found an older home with plenty of character and land (for Brandon) and charm and updated interiors (for Alisha). She works at the newly constructed Franklin County Children Services building on East Main Street, and Brandon commutes Downtown.
"I'm liking it a lot," Brandon says. "I see the improvement in the city. It's funny, because we moved to Whitehall and people who have been here a long time, they say, 'Oh, Whitehall?' But when they come to see the house, they say, 'I didn't know this was going on in Whitehall.' They're building schools and fixing up homes."
The My Home program is something tangible city leaders can show potential businesses when courting them. Encouraging home ownership can drive up the median income in Whitehall.
"You start to raise the median income, you start to get young families moving back in, you start to get people to reinvest into their own homes in the residential corridors and the business community will say, 'Oh, wow, there's something going on here,' " Woodruff says.
Real estate developers and brokers told Woodruff they'd had bad experiences trying to work with the city, or they knew someone who told them Whitehall wasn't worth a look. Among the biggest gripes was a bellicose document that specified building standards to the nth degree.
"That document would work if you were master-planning a community from scratch like New Albany, but in Whitehall, where most of your growth happened between the '50s and the '80s, that document didn't work," Woodruff says. "There was a whole section about how brick raised [property value] that read like a brick industry sales pitch."
The city wanted to improve the aesthetics and appearance of thoroughfares like Main Street, but it also needed to listen to the needs and wants of developers and potential businesses. Woodruff and a task force of city and business folks are close to producing a revised building standards document around 12 pages, about 80 pages lighter than the last one.
And development is coming to Whitehall, in many forms. The new $17.8 million Franklin County Children Services building is one of the first things people like Maggard and Woodruff mention. The three-story brick building sticks out-in a good way-from the fray along East Main Street.
The Columbus Metropolitan Library is building a new $7.6 million branch in Whitehall, replacing and expanding the existing branch at Broad Street and Yearling Road. The Town & Country Kroger on East Broad Street just unveiled a $2.6 million expansion and renovation.
And Whitehall voters have been in the mood to support tax increases for some projects. All five of Whitehall's schools are brand-new because voters in 2008 approved a ballot measure to raise $30.5 million in bond money. In 2010, voters approved an income tax increase to help pay for a recreation center that's being fashioned from a former National Guard armory next to John Bishop Park.
"Economic development isn't checkers. It's a Rubik's cube. [You're] trying to get different pieces to play in so that you can create this product where economic development wants to occur," Woodruff says. "We need to make ourselves the appearance of business-friendly and at the same time work to raise the median income."
Though the city hasn't actively promoted the My Home program, Maggard estimates there have been about 19 closings using program funding. The program and other development have grabbed headlines in The Columbus Dispatch. The message Whitehall is trying to broadcast seems to be getting through.
"We have to think progressively and out of the box to entice other businesses to come here," Maggard says, "because if we don't, we die. We are building a sense of hope here in the city that we have not had here in many years."