Council OKs up to $242K for Underground Railroad Center

By Evan Goodenow -

A center commemorating Oberlin’s abolitionist past is closer to fruition.

City council members have agreed to pay Don Mould’s Plantation up to $242,000 for improvements around the future Underground Railroad Center located in and around the Gasholder Building, 273 South Main St.

Phase 2A work by the Amherst-based construction and landscaping company will include construction of a 20-space parking lot behind McDonald’s next to the site. Additional work includes building benches, bicycle parking, and a kiosk as well as significant debris removal.

The city had to rebid Phase 2A after bid applications exceeded the architect’s cost estimate by 10 percent. Don Mould’s was the only company to submit a bid in the second round, said public works director Jeff Baumann.

The work will be partially paid for with a $200,000 state taxpayer grant from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission. Council approved accepting the grant after approving the bid.

City taxpayers will pay the remainder through Oberlin’s income tax capital improvement fund. The work is expected to begin within a month and be completed by mid-summer, Baumann said after the council meeting.

Council delayed deciding until its May 16 meeting on whether to include a decorative lantern fountain court, costing an additional $34,330, or build an extended sidewalk around most of the building for $26,589, or have extensive landscaping done for $63,780. Money for the additional work would come from the capital improvement fund.

Councilwoman Sharon Soucy recommended approving the fountain alternative, saying it would better illustrate to residents the project goals. However, councilmen Scott Broadwell, Bryan Burgess, and Kelley Singleton said they wanted to see an artist’s rendering of the fountain court before voting on it rather than the schematic slide show Baumann presented.

“How do you expect to sell this to the public without a proper picture of what it looks like?” Singleton asked Baumann after Baumann said an architectural rendering would cost extra.

“We’ll get something that will work and doesn’t break the bank,” acting city manager Sal Talarico responded.

Phase 2B, which hasn’t been bid out yet, is estimated to cost $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 1,200-square-foot picnic pavilion area, and a storage room.

It will be covered by federal and local money. Baumann said after the meeting that he hopes it will be completed by year’s end.

Phase 1 of the project cost nearly $445,000 for exterior restoration of the Gasholder Building, including brick masonry repairs and replacement, a new roof, and doors. Eighty percent was paid for with federal money and the remainder locally. It was completed in 2012.

Phase 3 is the interior renovation of the Gasholder Building. Built in 1889, the distinctively-shaped building stored manufactured coal gas used for heating and light until 1918.

The work is part of efforts begun in 2009 to make the site a tourist destination celebrating Oberlin’s involvement helping runaway slaves escape plantations on the Underground Railroad. 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 @GoodenowNews on Twitter.

By Evan Goodenow