Parents and children walking in Kent’s Franklin Mills Riveredge Park (photo by Kevin Kopanski)
Ohio Life

Best Hometowns 2022: Kent

The relationship between college and community is strong here, thanks to a downtown design that connects campus and city, innovative collaborations and new development.

A weekday morning in downtown Kent is anything but sleepy inside Over Easy at the Depot. Students and residents alike dig into morning favorites alongside railroad tracks that locomotives still frequent. The restaurant space is full of exposed brick, railroad relics and colorful chalkboard signs. Periodically, diners feel the rumble of a train passing by.

Built in 1875 as the Atlantic & Great Western Co. Railroad Depot and used for nearly a century, the Tuscan Revival-style structure was almost demolished before the Kent Historical Society purchased it in 1975. The place has been home to a few different restaurants over the last 40 years. The railroad-themed Pufferbelly Ltd. opened in 1981 and operated until the end of 2016. The upscale Italian restaurant Trento Ristorante followed in 2017, while Over Easy at the Depot arrived in late 2021.

The historic train station sits along Franklin Avenue, a brick-lined street that is also home to Ray’s Place (a pub that has become a landmark of its own over the years), as well as the hip, Mexican-inspired eatery Taco Tontos. Most of downtown Kent is arranged around Franklin, Water and Main streets, and it’s about a half-mile walk from one end of it to the other.

“Our whole downtown is like that: easy,” says Heather Malarcik, executive director of Main Street Kent, an organization that focuses on downtown beautification and revitalization. “It’s walkable.”
      Customers eating at Kent’s Over Easy at the Depot (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Over Easy at the Depot opened in Kent’s historic train depot in 2021. It is popular with both full-time residents and Kent State University students. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

The city of over 28,000 full-time residents was incorporated as a village in 1867 but reaches back to 1805 when Joseph Haymaker established his gristmill in the Ohio wilderness that surrounded a stretch of the Cuyahoga River. Kent State University was founded in 1910 and today has more than 25,000 students, which effectively doubles the city’s population between late August and the middle of May. 

Kent State University is the city’s largest employer with approximately 3,860 employees. Davey Tree Expert Co. is the city’s largest private employer. John Davey, who began studying trees while working at Rock Cemetery in Kent and taught others how to care for them, started the business in 1880. It is still headquartered in Kent and has more than 11,000 employees nationwide.

The university and city have long been joined together, but in 2013, that connection between campus and community was made stronger when local officials unveiled the Lester A. Lefton Esplanade. The pedestrian walkway extends across the Kent State University campus to the edge of downtown.

“The Esplanade, that connection, and even the look of downtown is all intended to be very seamless with campus,” says Kent city manager Dave Ruller. “It’s all meant to really emphasize the college-town feeling, flavor, personality.”
      Acorn Alley seating area in downtown Kent (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Acorn Alley is a popular spot for shopping, dining and relaxing in downtown Kent. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

A pocket of downtown known as Acorn Alley opened its first building in 2009 and a second building in 2011. Construction of the esplanade followed. Acorn Alley sits about a two-minute walk from the end of the pathway. Its name is a nod to the city’s unique and beloved black squirrels (brought to the university in 1961 from Ontario, Canada, as part of an attempt to save the species from extinction) that have become an unofficial mascot of Kent State students. Acorn Alley’s assortment of small businesses includes student favorites such as The Fruit Stand and Twisted Meltz.

During winter 2021, the city, university, Kent State Hotel and Conference Center, Kent Area Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Kent collaborated to create Kent Skates, an outdoor ice-skating rink along East Erie Street that was free and open to the public.

“It just exceeded every expectation,” says Dana Lawless-Andric, associate vice president at the Office of University Engagement & Outreach. “We’re really just [doing] whatever we need to do … to take care of each other, to uplift. I really feel like that’s the spirit.”

Such collaboration can be found throughout Kent. The Haymaker Farmers Market, under market manager Andrew Rome, sets up at the edge of Franklin Avenue every Saturday from April through November. In 2020, mayor Jerry Fiala and city manager Dave Ruller requested Franklin Avenue be blocked off as a Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area, complete with picnic tables that have turned the well-known street into a public gathering place seven days a week from noon to 11 p.m. On summer evenings, the district is populated with students and residents alike, often enjoying food and drinks from Zephyr Pub, Taco Tontos and Ray’s Place. (Although the weather may not cooperate for outdoor seating year-round, DORA laws are in effect 365 days a year.)
      Kent’s North Water Brewing Co. beer flight (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

North Water Brewing Co. is part of downtown Kent’s Mill District. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Other new additions to the college town include Bell Tower Brewing, which opened in the former First Congregational Church of Kent, and Battleground Taproom and Mexican Kitchen, an authentic Mexican restaurant in the city’s historic South End. 

“Vibrant cities, vibrant downtowns are great for commerce,” explains Michelle Hartman, interim executive director of the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce, “but they’re even better for a sense of community, and we have that here.”

Despite the changes that have occurred downtown over the years, those who last set foot in Kent a generation ago will still see names they recognize. Woodsy’s Music has been selling instruments and offering lessons since 1972, while the Venice Cafe has been open since 1941. In 2002, a 642-seat theater built in 1927 was remade as the Kent Stage, which offers a slate of live performances by national touring acts.
      Woman sorting through records at Kent’s Last Exit Vinyl House (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Opened in 2019, Last Exit Vinyl House is next door to Last Exit Books and Coffeehouse, a favorite independent book store among locals since 2004. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

“We definitely looked at the preservation piece of it first,” Hartman says of downtown. “We’ve blended the best of the old with the best of the new [and] brought them together.”

That mix is perhaps best encapsulated in Kent’s Mill District, a section of downtown that surrounds the historic Star of the West Flour Mill, established on North Water Street in 1879. The area, which is under ongoing revitalization efforts, is home to Scribbles Coffee Co. and Bent Tree Coffee Roasters as well as Kent Cycle and North Water Brewing Co.

“It feels ‘small town,’ it feels like your hometown, even when you’re a student,” Ruller says of Kent. “And that’s the goal. We’re always trying to strive to be a welcoming city, a friendly city.”

More Best Hometowns 2022: Athens | Bellefontaine | Kent | Perrysburg | Versailles