Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Delaware County: Two Counties In One

Standing on the corner beside Delaware County Courthouse on a cold winter day, it is easy to get caught up in the quandary that is Ohio.

Delaware, the Sunday-afternoon drive type city, serves as the county seat of the 10th fastest growing county in the country and the fastest in the state. But on this quiet winter day it is hard to see the hustle-and-bustle of the big city just 25 miles south as the northern suburbs of Columbus continue to encroach upon the county.

Hop onto State Route 23, and head 15 minutes south and suddenly the housing developments form and large retail locations explode onto the horizon. It is an area with formerly tiny towns that have grown into medium-sized cities fighting for their identity survival as the retail giants look to build another strip mall in the community.

Powell is battling against the onslaught and has turned down the rising tide of Wal-Mart (at least for round one) in an attempt to retain its quaint charm, granted a trip down Powell Road at 5:15 p.m. heading towards or away from State Route 315 would not bring kind words from any traveler. An example of the growth, Powell had 2,315 residents in 1990 and by 2000 it had grown to 6,247; an example that is repeated throughout the southern section of the county.

Head about 10 minutes east will lead to the intersection of Powell Road and Route 23, or Lewis Center and begins the section referred to as Polaris. Polaris was nothing. Five years ago, I remember taking a lady-friend to a country concert at Polaris Amphitheatre (now Germain…the same people that sell you a car are making $7 off that beer, something about the irony of that isn’t lost on me.) and we drove about 25 miles north to find a restaurant to eat at after the show. Now the area has become the ultimate women’s dream and one man’s attempt to up-stage a counterpart leading to the establishment of the Polaris Fashion Place Mall. Along with the surrounding retail locations it is a one-stop smorgasbord for the wealthy or those not afraid to go into debt. The area continues to grow and it seems there is another “new development” announced on a weekly basis.

The tale of two counties can easily be seen if we headed north on 23 rather than south. Heading north will lead you into plush farmlands in the Delaware Lake watershed region of the Olentangy River. The communities here are left alone, no $300,000 houses, no big-box retail stores. There are lots of churches and cemeteries and great people. The Delaware Lake and Alum Creek flood basins keep the central and east sides of the county busy, while the Scioto River keeps the west side watching the skies – especially in the small town of Prospect. Travels through northern Delaware County resemble Appalachia more than they do the rich suburbs of the south. Small towns like Ashley, Radnor, and Prospect dot the landscape between large fertile farms.

Caught in the middle of these two extremes are Delaware and the county government. The city of roughly 25,000 is famous as the birthplace of former President Rutherford B. Hayes and the Little Brown Jug harness race. Downtown resembles this battle between two powers. The shoppers – and thus retailers – are moving south to the Polaris development. Downtown has become a small collection of antique shops and a favorite for those that grew up enjoying Buns Restaurant or The Brown Jug Restaurant. Eastern Delaware resembles the cities of northern Delaware County, while the West side has exploded into large housing developments – enough that the city enacted a moratorium on building in 2004 to allow for a planned city infrastructure that could handle the expected growth to come.

A trip down Route 23 towards Polaris shows the farms up for sale and the large “Development Property for Sale” signs dotting the roadway. It is only matter of years before the city of Delaware becomes just another suburb of Columbus.

And what a sad day that will be.

Key Facts (from The Ohio Almanac)
Population (2000): 109,989
Established: April 1, 1807
Per Capita Income (1999): $35,042
Persons Below Poverty (1997): 4.5%
Items of Interest: Hayes Birthplace; Alum Creek State Park; Delaware Lake State Park; Perkins Observatory; Wyandot Lake and Columbus Zoo; Jack Nicholas Golf Memorial Tournament; and Little Brown Jug Harness Race.

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