Thursday, May 24, 2001

New homes, people, challenges

Mason strikes balance between too much growth, and not enough

By Cindi Andrews and Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MASON — Yost Pharmacy looks like an old-fashioned drugstore in a town that time forgot. Its Main Street neighbors include a saloon, a salon and lawyers' offices.

        In reality, downtown is the calm at the eye of this Warren County city's hurricane of new homes, new businesses, new people.

        In the past decade, the city that gobbled large chunks of Deerfield Township has increased its territory 50 percent, to 18 square miles. Mason's population has almost doubled, to 22,016, according to the 2000 Census, making it Ohio's second-fastest-growing city for the second straight decade.

[photo] Pharmacist Richard Yost's business in downtown Mason has benefitted from new development.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        The growth here, while impressive to newcomers, has come at a price. Schools bulge with new students, affordable housing is hard to find and traffic is everywhere. But the expansion of the tax base, especially new, high-tech businesses, has helped pay for many of the services — such as expanded police and fire, and parks — that residents demand.

        At the center of it all, Richard Yost dispenses pills and potions from his drugstore as his family has done for more than half a century. He has a little more traffic to fight on the drive home, but he has no complaints about Mason's growth.

        “Business-wise, it has been a boon, as for a lot of other businesses,” Mr. Yost said.

        While neighboring cities such as Lebanon struggle to reconcile progress with their past, in Mason long-timers and young families alike are content with the direction their city has taken.

        “I knew about everybody in Mason 30-40 years ago,” said James Hagood, a retired trucker. “But it doesn't bother me much. It's still a nice place to live.”

        Even the city's infrastructure has felt little of the pain that typically accompanies growth.

        Take the streets, for example, which are a typical trouble spot in booming suburban communities. Mason residents praise their leaders for anticipating the need to widen such roads as Tylersville and Mason-Montgomery before it became critical.

        “I'm happy with the way the city has kept up with the roads,” said Barb Williams, a seven-year resident. “As soon as traffic starts to increase, they start to build. And yes, it's going to be an inconvenience, but it's ultimately worth it.”

        Police and fire protection also have kept pace. Mason's fire department was all volunteer just 15 years ago. Today — after the dismantling of a joint Mason-Deerfield Township department — the department has 76 full- and part-time firefighters.

        The police department has gone from 16 officers to 32.

        The city's fattened budget also has funded a host of new amenities.

        “We have a swimming pool (at Corwin M. Nixon Park) we didn't have 10 years ago,” Vice Mayor Jim Fox said. “We have a civic center being built. Those things would not have happened as quickly without the growth.”

        Services added in the past decade include curbside brush chipping, Christmas tree pickup and additional recreation programs, City Manager Scot Lahrmer said. Almost 60 acres have been added to two existing parks, and this month, the city agreed to buy 125 acres just north of the city limits for a future park.

Room for students

        Next up is an $80 million joint high school and community recreation center, now under construction on Mason-Montgomery Road.

Along with growth in the community came a surge of students in the Mason schools.

        Enrollment in this fast-growing district has increased 153 percent in the last 10 years, going from 2,651 students in 1990 to 6,711 last fall. Another 600-650 students are expected by the start of the 2001-02 school year, said Craig Ullery, the district's human resource director.

        That growth has put a strain on all aspects of the district. In the last five years the district has added 200 teaching positions, nearly half of its 407 teachers. Seventy percent of the staff has been teaching in the Mason schools four years or less and 54 percent are teachers with five years or less of experience, Mr. Ullery said. The district plans to add another 45 teaching positions for the 2001-02 school year.

        Transportation Director David Foster said the district now has 71 bus routes, an increase of 87 percent from 1996 when there were just 38 routes. Another 10 routes will be added for the upcoming school year. He plans to hire 15-17 additional bus drivers.

        Despite the tremendous growth in enrollment, teachers and busing, the district is committed to high academic standards. Mr. Ullery pointed to the 2000 Report Card, on which Mason was one of only 30 districts in Ohio rated as “effective” by meeting all 27 criteria.

    Mason's population has soared in the past 40 years.
    • 1960: 4,700
    • 1970: 5,677
    • 1980: 8,692
    • 1990: 11,452
    • 1995 est.: 13,244
    • 2000: 22,016
        In addition, the board this week authorized 12 new coaching positions, which will allow the addition of 10 teams for students, Mr. Ullery said. Next month additional positions will be added for non-athletic after-school programs.

        “This board is committed to increase opportunities for kids,” Mr. Ullery said. “We're real sensitive to making sure that as we grow kids can still participate in athletics or school clubs.”

Shifting tax burdens

        The money to expand services has largely come from the companies the city has attracted. Cintas, a uniform supply company, has its headquarters here. Procter & Gamble has built a $300 million health-care research facility in Mason, and Mitsubishi Electric Automotive America Inc. is on its sixth expansion.

        “Mason cannot be called a bedroom community because of the corporate high-tech growth,” Mr. Lahrmer said. “... It shifts the tax burden from residents to businesses.”

        Indeed, earnings tax revenue leapt from $2.3 million in 1990 to $12 million last year, Mr. Lahrmer said. Accordingly, Mason's spending shot up from $3.6 million to $21 million in that period.

        The biggest problem has been finding people to fill all the newly created jobs. Low unemployment — an issue for companies throughout Greater Cincinnati — is creating a particularly acute labor shortage for service and entry-level jobs in Mason.

        Experts say it's because lower-income workers can't afford to live here.

        “When you get to entry level or even slightly above entry level, employees have to travel a distance to get to work,” said John Harris, president of the Mason-Landen-Kings Chamber of Commerce. “People won't ride a bus for three hours to get to a $10-an-hour job.”

        Paramount's Kings Island has resorted to recruiting out of state and even out of the country to fill its 4,500 seasonal jobs. It offers those workers dorm housing a half hour away, at the University of Cincinnati.

More room, less homes
        Undoubtedly, the rapid flow of new residents has been a significant growing pain for Mason, where an estimated 9,000 people have landed since 1995. City officials have tried to control the influx of new residents with large lot requirements and steep connection fees for new construction.

        “We encourage low density,” Mr. Lahrmer said. “Mason has never had an interest in or a reputation for quantity.”

        But the requirements have not stopped people from moving here in quantity. The city issued 342 permits for single-family homes in 2000, officials reported, compared to 69 housing starts annually a decade ago.

        Instead, the restrictions have shrunk the labor pool by pricing moderate-income families out of Mason. Warren County has the most expensive housing in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky, thanks in large part to Mason and neighboring Deerfield Township.

        Even those who moved in decades ago, when Mason was a small town surrounded by farms, are feeling the pinch. Mr. Hagood, 67, worries about higher taxes because of increasing land values and the school system.

        “On a fixed income, it kind of hurts,” he aid.

Investing in downtown

        As new subdivisions continue to rise in concentric circles around downtown, there's a growing interest in Mason to revitalize its downtown.

        Despite its nostalgic feel, it is not the focal point that it should be, Mr. Yost said. He's part of a committee that's studying how to change that.

        “A city doesn't survive just by having a strong base of residential and industrial,” he said. “The third corner” is a vital downtown with strong retail.

        Despite his long history here, Mr. Yost isn't nervous about the prospect of change.

        “It's nice to remember the past, but I don't think we want to live in it,” he said. “That's really small town.”

       Enquirer reporter Jennifer Mrozowski and Sue Kiesewetter contributed to this report.

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