If you happen to drive into Cuyahoga Falls from the north or south on State Rd, you get a sense that not much has changed over the past 25 or 30 years. Fast-food restaurants. Gas stations. Second-hand shop. That was how it looked when we arrived from Columbus for a job at the Beacon Journal. And except for a new look to an Acme market, the place seems spent as an invitation to experience the second largest city in the county. (pop: about 50,000)
For the past 27 years Mayor Don Robart, now 67, has sat in the CEO's office at City Hall, a fellow who now places his stake in another term in a 240-acre moonscape on State Rd. Rd. called Portage Crossing, which has been around conceptually ever since the Old West shopping center was razed for a new - yet unbuilt - shopping paradise for what Robart insists will jump-start the city into a new economic future.
That remains to be seen. First, he must win another election on November 5. And for a politician who ran unopposed four years ago - thanks in part to an indifferent
Democratic party - Robart faces a stiff challenge from what has his opponents ready to proclaim victory. (That, too remains to be seen.)
The candidate of the hour is Council President Don Walters, 50, a fully accessible and experienced guy who has been in touch with the city's issues and residents for all of his 12 years on Council. Nor does he show a lack of energy and enthusiasm in carrying out his block-by-block plan to return, as he puts it, city hall to the residents, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Is this the year for the municipal revival? Walters doesn't hesitate to tell you that it is, with polls showing him 6 points ahead of the Republican mayor. How can that be? Former Democratic councilwoman Diana Colavecchio, now Stow Clerk of Courts and a strong Walters supporter, says one of the mayor's problems is "Robart fatigue. No mattter where I go, that's what I hear."
When I first met Robart as a Falls resident more than a quarter-century ago, he impressed me as a moderate politician. He even mentioned to me the city's food kitchens that are so important "even though as a Republican I probably shouldn't be mentioning this."
But he appears to have been caught up in the headwinds of the Tea Party. In April 2012, he welcomed several hundred teeps at a rally at the Riverfront Mall, exuberantly praising their value as the "social, fiscal and moral conscience of America." Try that one on the many folks who have lost their jobs because of the Tea Party-inspired government shutdown." (That mall on the Cuyahoga, built back in the 1970s with such great expectations, is faltering badly as a retail lure.)
The mayor has also divorced the city from friendly relations with Akron and Stow and, as more than than one witness has told me, created an island for himself.
Although the Falls has a tiny African-American minority (about 3 pct) Barack Obama has twice carried the city. So, unlike neighboring Hudson and Silver Lake, the demographics favor Walters.
"It's time to get the city moving again," Walters says and this time the standby political promise may indeed be true on Nov. 5.