The Oberlin Gasholder Building (AKA the “Round House”) was constructed in 1889 for the purpose of storing manufactured coal gas to produce light and heat in the City during the 19th century. As technology advanced, the Gasholder Building no longer served a practical purpose, but in the late 1980s, a group of Oberlin residents united to save the Gasholder Building from demolition. Due to the efforts of the residents, the US Department of the Interior listed the Gasholder Building on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
In 2004, the family of A.H. (Kenny) Clark donated the building to the City and the notion of repurposing the building as an Underground Railroad Center and Park-N-Ride facility garnered the most support within the community. Five years after having secured funding for the project through NOACA, the Underground Railroad Center Design Team was established by City Council in 2007 to serve as the primary advisory board during the design phase of the project.
In 2009, the City commissioned a strategic planning process to establish mission and vision statements. More than 200 people participated in the process and the following statements were established:
Mission Statement: Serving as a tourist gateway and transportation hub, the Oberlin Underground Railroad Center celebrates Oberlin’s rich history in the anti-slavery movement and honors African American heritage to promote a better understanding of the past and provide a pathway to our future.
Vision Statement: Pride in African American heritage is restored, cultural experiences enhanced, good citizenship and social justice promoted; making Oberlin an internationally recognized cultural center and tourist destination.
As a result of these vision meetings and subsequent meetings of the OURC Design Team, it was recommended to Council to disband the Design Team and establish the Oberlin Underground Railroad Center Implementation Team (OURCIT) to move the project forward. The OURCIT, working with a dedicated staff member to coordinate the project, would serve as the primary advisory board to Council during the planning, fundraising, and organizational phases of the Oberlin Underground Railroad Center.
In 2012, the City completed Phase I of the project, the stabilization and rehabilitation of the exterior of the Gasholder Building, utilizing funds granted through NOACA and ODOT. The building rehabilitation included a installing a new roof utilizing sustainable materials, complete tuck-pointing (masonry work), and the installation of newly fabricated windows and a door.
In an effort to establish a governance structure for the OURC which would enhance future fundraising endeavors, the City acquired the services of Heritage Ohio to conduct stakeholder interviews with varying community representatives. This process identified the current strengths and weaknesses of the project and resulted in the recommendation of establishing a steering committee to develop a business plan and fundraising strategy for the OURC. The Steering Committee was established in 2014 and includes representation from City Council, OURCIT, NOACA, Nord Family Foundation, Oberlin College, Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin African American Genealogy & History Group, and Visit Lorain County. The Steering Committee is currently still active and is developing a business plan and governance model for the OURC.
The OURC project has recently secured additional funding through the State of Ohio Capital Budget and is working toward completing Phase II of the project (development of the grounds and Park-N-Ride facility), expected to break ground in 2016. Site plans are available to view here.