Norwalk is a great place to live, work and visit; but there is room for improvement that's the consensus of a group of business leaders and officials from Salem, Ohio.
Downtown needs an upscale restaurant. Zoning confusing with industry, mixed housing levels and recreation areas jumbled together. Directions and signs important locations hard to find. But overall a friendly town with great potential is still priceless.
Under the First Impressions Community Report Program adapted by Ohio State University Extension offices, teams from Salem and Norwalk made incognito visits to each other's cities to give each community a look at itself through the eyes of visitors.
The Salem team first visited Norwalk in February, 2006. They visited Norwalk again Wednesday to report their findings to about 30 people, including city and county officials, department heads, members of the Main Street Board and the Norwalk Economic Development Corporation, business leaders and interested citizens.
"They did a good job," Mayor Sue Lesch said. "They reinforced the good things we have. They also highlighted some weaknesses we knew we had to work on and pointed out some things maybe we need to think more about."
Lesch said the Norwalk team reported its findings to Salem citizens about a month ago. Jim Wiedenheft, economic development director for Huron County, organized the exchange program and data was collected and organized by OSU.
The Salem team, consisting of the chamber of commerce executive director, four business people and the director of the public library, spent five hours driving and walking around Norwalk during the middle of the day on a Wednesday.
They then developed a 20-page report for Norwalk officials and business leaders. The report gives detailed quotes from each Salem team member, but doesn't identify which person gave each quote.
Aside from the limited choices for eating downtown and not enough diversity in retail stores, the Salem team members heaped praise on the downtown district. They loved the clean sidewalks, wide Main Street and the attention to details such as color and trim that the downtown revitalization project encouraged.
"The downtown business area is very impressive," one quote said. "Banners are eye-catching, as are brick sidewalks."
The Salem team said they couldn't find any newer, upscale housing developments with homes in the $250,000 range. Lesch attributed that to the fact that the team had only five hours in Norwalk and no local guides. She pointed out that Norwalk has several developments such as Sycamore Hills, Executive Estates and Eagle Creek to fill that housing niche.
Lesch added that the team's perspective on signs around town is valuable "both the lack of signs and areas where we might have too much clutter."
As for the Salem team's concern about zoning and the proximity of industry, housing and recreation areas, Lesch said part of that problem is unavoidable. "A lot of that is just the way the town's grown up," she said, adding the city should keep a close eye on zoning in the future.
The mayor said the Salem team's advice to build a unified program to promote local attractions such as drag racing is important. Year-round tourism promotion is also an interesting concept, Lesch added.
Even with their constructive criticism, members of the Salem team said they will be taking some tips from Norwalk back to improve their community. They admired the unique architecture and detail they saw in many Norwalk buildings. They would love to develop a Main Street program as successful as Norwalk's. The comprehensive development plan for Norwalk is serving as a guide for the plan Salem is now creating.
"We're taking a lot of the ideas that you gave us," team member Dan Moore said.
Visitors' first impressions of Norwalk
Downtown high marks for looks, cleanliness and spaciousness; lower marks for variety in restaurants and retail stores
Signs few coordinated or distinct signs to direct visitors to sites of interest; visitors found their way to Fisher-Titus Medical Center, but discovered high school and other sites by accident; government buildings such as county courthouse, airport and fire department not well-marked; not effective signs welcoming visitors to Norwalk
Housing loved large, old Main Street homes; liked availability of apartments downtown; couldn't find any newer, upscale homes
Industrial development industry spread throughout the city so concern that industry, housing and public parks and facilities not separated; great access to transportation
Zoning concern about zoning as moderately-priced housing next to manufactured homes; repeat of concern with industry, housing and recreation in "hodge-podge" arrangement
Schools impressive high school complex; neighborhood elementary schools good for community; strong parochial school presence
Tourism problem since Norwalk's two big "draws," racing and Maple City status, are not effective in winter
Suggestions from Salem team
Publicity get signs on major roads, including Ohio Turnpike, to promote Norwalk instead of just listing it as an exit; put information on Norwalk in turnpike service plazas
Downtown needs an upscale restaurant and more diverse retail stores
Housing zoning could be used to keep similar properties together and industry away from housing, parks and recreation facilities
Tourism lacks winter appeal; "build a brand" by promoting Norwalk as a destination 365 days a year; use proximity to Lake Erie, Cedar Point and other tourist destinations to advantage
Development encourage entrepreneurial spirit by getting people with vision together with investors; build on regional perspective of proximity to Cleveland, Toledo and other cities
Signs let visitors know how to get to important sites with legible signs