Imagining a future for The Ridges

What will The Ridges look like 150 years from now?

That’s the question community members gathered to answer at the Southeast Ohio History Center Thursday night for the sixth and final installment of the Athens Asylum Sesquicentennial Series.

The Ridges Framework Plan co-chairs Shawna Bolin and Joe Shields recounted a brief history of the former Athens psychiatric asylum over the course of the past 150 years and revealed plans for the grounds’ future.

Since Ohio University received the property in 1988, amidst renovations including the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, there have been ongoing talks of tearing down some of the buildings due to asbestos concerns. That proposal was met with vociferous opposition from community members who have insisted The Ridges is an integral part of Athens’ identity.

One such building, a former tuberculosis ward, was torn down in 2013 due to its deteriorating condition and the presence of trespassers.

“The Athens Asylum is an American treasure,” said Tom O’Grady, executive director of the history center. “It’s important to the identity of this town. What is done there will have a great deal of influence on what happens to the rest of the community.”

Bolin said she once worked at The Ridges as an OU student and fell in love with the history complex and its story. Nineteen years later, as the associate vice president for university planning, she is working on The Ridges Framework Plan that will stand for the next few decades and beyond.

Setting sights on their future, Bolin and Shields discussed how The Ridges will evolve decade by decade.

By 2020, once the current asbestos removal is complete, a ward wing of the main building will be renovated. The $14 million project will create open-office space for various departments, including the Ohio University Police Department. There are also possibilities of an outdoor museum to display the natural environment, as well as the start of ballroom renovation.

The 10 years following will be focused on sustainable housing and establishing an eco-village, they said. By 2030, perhaps commercial development such as wineries and breweries will be built at The Ridges.

As for the long-term future, plans are for the most part up in the air. Bolin and Shields poked fun and created their own vision for the future: one that included innovations such as jet packs and harvesting cells in research centers to cure diseases. Their outlandish suggestions elicited laughter from residents in the crowd, but in all reality, their ideas might not be too far off in 2168.

“By the 300th anniversary, much of what we’ll be celebrating is the same,” Bolin said. “Preservation of land, historic buildings, academic advancement and community engagement.”

Originally published on the front page of The Athens Messenger on Nov. 19, 2018.

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