The connection is clear Featured

10:04am EDT July 22, 2002
Call him an opportunist if you want, but you've got to hand it to Don Casto. He's one shrewd businessman.

Imagine what will happen to that nearly forgotten property of his, Graceland Shopping Center, if the proposed Morse-Bethel connector road ends up running through its parking lot. That lifeless chunk of outdated real estate could become a pot of gold.

Not only would Casto get paid by Columbus for the land he'd give up to make way for a couple miles of city-poured asphalt, but also the resulting thoroughfare would bring a new crowd of potential shoppers zooming by his storefronts daily.

You know he's drooling at the thought. In fact, I have to wonder if he had a hand in stirring up the Second Coming of this crusade to bridge east and west. It certainly seems he has the most to gain by such a connector.

Apparently Casto was ahead of the mayor in studying the plausibility of using Graceland in the on-again, off-again connector campaign. Rumor has it he brought his own study to a closed-door meeting at City Hall to discuss the connector this summer. Within days, Mayor Greg Lashutka had asked his friends at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission-or "MORP-C," as insiders like to call it-to take a more detailed look at a couple options for using Casto's land. Never mind that there's already one proposal pending at the ballot box in November.

But what are the chances of the so-called Rathbone Road connector plan passing at the polls next month when another, seemingly more humane plan is already in the works? Given the choice between tearing down 40 homes in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood or dropping a road through the center of a vast, empty shopping center parking lot, I know I'd choose the latter. It's the only way I could sleep at night. But then, let's not forget the choice of no connector at all.

It will be interesting to see if Casto hits the jackpot on this one. The $500,000 MORPC study isn't due out until later this month-just in time to let voters know what alternative plan is likely to await them on the May ballot if the November proposal fails.

Should next month's Rathbone Road connector plan get tanked, should one of the Graceland options pass MORPC's logistical test, one real question remains: What will happen to Graceland's current merchants? Will those few who have stayed loyal to the aging shopping center all these years get squeezed when Graceland's property value skyrockets? The bigger mainstays like Drug Emporium and Big Bear might be able to weather the significant rent hike that's apt to go along with a better-traveled location (though with the recent financial difficulties of Big Bear's parent company, even that isn't necessarily a given). One has to wonder, however, if longtime tenants like The Fontanelle Restaurant, the Singer Sewing Center, Graceland Jewelers and Hobbyland will be forced to find space elsewhere. I hope not. I like to think loyalty counts for something. If Casto's connector eventually gets the nod, we're sure to find out where his loyalties really stand.

Nancy Byron, editor of SBN Columbus welcomes your comments by fax at 842-6093 or by e-mail at nbyron@sbnnet.com.