Big-dollar upgrades to start at Underground Railroad Center

By Evan Goodenow -

About $575,000 in improvements around the former Gasholder Building and future Underground Railroad Center are expected to begin in April.

Oberlin planning commission members on March 2 approved Phase 2A and Phase 2B of the work. Phase 2A costs $241,645 and includes construction of a 20-space parking lot, sidewalks, and pathways connecting the parking lot to the building at 273 South Main St., according to Oberlin offiicials and planning department documents.

Phase 2B costs $333,765 and includes construction of a 2,081-square-foot building on the north side of the site. The building will contain bathrooms, bicycle parking, a picnic pavilion area, and a storage room. The work is being paid for with state and federal taxpayer money.

The building’s design is intended to reflect the site’s industrial past and will resemble the Depot Building in Depot Park across from South Main.

Both phases are sceduled to be completed by the end of the year, said public works director Jeff Baumann.

The work is part of efforts that began in 2009 to make the site a cultural facility and tourist destination celebrating Oberlin’s involvement in helping runaway slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. “It’s been a long time in the making,” Carrie Handy, Oberlin planning director, told commission members before the approval.

Built in 1889, the Gasholder Building stored manufactured coal gas used for heating and light until 1918. The building, listed on the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places in 1998, was located next to a railroad line that has been converted into a bike path.

Phase 1 cost $399,678 and involved exterior work. It was completed in 2012.

Phase 3 will involve converting the Gasholder Building into the center. Members of the Oberlin Underground Railroad Committee said last year that they need to raise about $1 million to do the final phase.

Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or on Twitter @GoodenowNews

By Evan Goodenow