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Transplant wants to harvest cheap city property for a tree farm

By Doug Livingston • Nov 30, 2017 at 8:00 AM

AKRON (TNS) — A Californian real estate broker with Akron roots is buying cheap city land to grow pine and oak trees. Apparently, state officials steered him away from his original plan to farm Chinese hardwood trees for Japanese musical instruments.

It's an odd business plan that blossomed this year when this Akron native with a love of forestry and real estate stumbled on a strip of land in the city's portfolio of nearly 3,000 properties valued conservatively at $604 million.

In his regular trips to see friends and family or check on rental properties, James Robinson has always marveled at the thick foliage from the airport in Cleveland to Akron, where he graduated from St. Vincent-St. Mary in 1985 and earned a degree in finance from the University of Akron.

"Trees grow great here," he said, better than in San Jose where as a real estate broker Robinson helps Japanese corporations, from Toyota to Panasonic, find office space and housing for their employees. Robinson's career connections have afforded him excursions to Japan, where's he's nurtured an appreciation for forestry by learning about the Paulownia tree -- the seed from which his business plan has grown.

The Chinese tree blooms fragrant, pink and purple flowers in the spring before budding leaves. It's sturdy, water-repelling lumber is ideal for making boxes to store kimonos. Robinson thought of growing them to carve kotos, 13-stringed Japanese instruments with curved bodies.

So, he went on the hunt for undeveloped land in Akron. While scoping out property being repurposed by the Summit County Land Bank, he clicked nearby on the county's interactive map. There, he found 16 plots of land acquired by the city in 2002.

The chunk of empty woods is barely visible from Memorial Parkway through a thickly forested embankment that borders a scenic valley with a dog park and a housing development that never developed.

At the top of that embankment, "it's kind of a dead-end street," City Planner Jason Segedy said of driving west along Plymouth Avenue. Some of the residential plots are abandoned. The city tends to acquire the vacant blotches between the rows of houses, often assuming ownership to tear down blighted, tax-delinquent homes.

City-owned land

As of May 1, when the Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com last reviewed all Summit County property deeds under municipal ownership, the city of Akron owned 2,868 properties appraised at more than $604 million -- about $500 million of that in government or office buildings downtown and public parks across the city.

Recently, the city traded a couple buildings with Akron Children's Hospital for some land and cash. Taxpayers lost close to $1 million on the deal but avoided the possibility of hundreds of good-paying jobs in the medical field -- and the income taxes collected on their salaries -- leaving downtown.

Still, the bulk of the city's real estate holdings are public parks or vacant properties, the latter worth little to nothing, costing money to maintain each year and waiting to be developed.

No private developers showed interest in the 16 parcels at the end of Plymouth Avenue for 15 years, said Segedy and Mike Antenucci, the city's zoning manager. So they're recommending next week that City Council sell them -- cheap. (See a map of all city-owned property with this story at Ohio.com.)

Robinson would pay $5,700 for the land, or less than $2,000 an acre. The city paid $39,000 for the property in 2002 to a couple who had purchased it in 1999 for $20,700. Ellen Lander Nischt, spokeswoman for Mayor Dan Horrigan, said the city bought land at the height of a real estate boom, expecting development on Cuyahoga Street that never happened.

Robinson's plan

Robinson's already contacted the state to see if he can plant his Asian trees, which exist in Ohio as an invasive and exotic species.

"To be honest, I talked to a couple of foresters from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources because it's a tree native to China," Robinson said of the billowing Paulownia tree. "They are not so big on the idea. They would prefer that I plant something native to Northeast Ohio."

"Quite frankly, most of the buyers for that [Chinese] timber are in Japan. Trying to export that to Japan is not an easy thing to do today," Robinson said. "And who knows how it will be in 20 or 30 years."

So he's switching to oaks and pines, more suitable for shipping to local furniture makers, if not as lucrative. Robinson owns a couple apartments and a duplex in Akron and Stow. But this purchase, which would restart tax collection on the property once under private ownership, isn't all about the finances.

"For me, I grew up [in Akron]," Robinson said. "I lived there until I was 25 or 26. I guess I owe Akron a little bit. If there's something I can do to be helpful and maybe help myself at the same time, that would be great."

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or http://www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.

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(c)2017 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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