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Worried Squirrels

Kent residents say nuts to a new shopping mall.

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The Black Squirrels mess with Texas. - WALTER  NOVAK

The revolution begins with sparkle glue and Magic Markers. "We're making puppets for next week's protest," says David Badagnani excitedly.

He's fashioning a giant bulldozer out of cardboard and yellow paint. The bulldozer represents Progress. "We'll be going around, threatening people with it on the march," he says. "I'll be walking inside it, pretending to drive."

Badagnani is a member of the Kent Black Squirrels, the arts-and-crafts contingent in the battle to keep the city a shopping-mall-free zone. Last week, the Black Squirrels made posters and became human billboards, standing on street corners in front of the mom-and-pop stores downtown. This week, they're marching in a protest parade for their cause.

"We've also made a strip mall out of cardboard, with jaws chomping on the Kent small businesses," says Badagnani. "It's going to be good."

A Texas company called the Tara Group recently announced plans to build a shopping mall in a Kent meadow. The townsfolk, however, were less than thrilled about having a new place to purchase Gap khakis.

Ten years ago, Kent residents pretty much spat on another mall proposal on the same piece of land, overwhelmingly voting against tax breaks that would have made the town a better place for the Limited, Limited Express, and Limited Too.

This time around, the developers tried to quietly get Kent City Council to approve the mall. But that was like trying to quietly lead an elephant through a library. Citizens flocked to a public hearing to speak out against it.

Kent Councilwoman Kathy Guckelberger, who supports the mall, says she hasn't heard such an uproar since council voted on a cat leash law. But the cat leash law passed anyway.

In recent months, mall-busting groups have mobilized to fit every fancy. The Kent Citizens for Responsible Development don't like the tax incentives. Another group, Save Our City!, scorns low-paying retail jobs. The Kent Environmental Council, formed in 1970, represents the old-school greensters. And for the hippie youths and biker types, there's the newly formed Black Squirrels.

"Some of the older people don't want to spend their time making a bunch of funny puppets, so that's what we're doing," Badagnani says.

Badagnani's expertise is in playing an Asian harmonica called a "sheng." Though he doesn't play the sheng at protests, he might bring out his banjo or fiddle for the anti-mall parade.

"We'll play the 'Yellow Rose of Texas' and dress up like Texas developers," he says. "I'm gonna get my suit from Goodwill. We've already got the foam-rubber ten-gallon hats -- the really big ones."

According to Squirrels President Fred Pierre, a ponytailed computer technician who smiles even when he talks, the cuddly name fit because "there are black squirrels everywhere in Kent; you just don't notice them."

The Squirrels also include Gary Lockwood, a tattooed vet who's tied himself to trees for Earth First, and a gaunt, long-haired man named Jimi Imiy, who says he runs a group called the Ohio Hysterical Music Society.

They meet at a Kent gallery run by Jeff Ingram, an artist who leads a puppet theater for children. He crafts fanciful characters from recycled materials and writes plays to put them in. "One was called Juliet's Balcony," he says. "It was pretty much the Romeo and Juliet story, but it all took place on Juliet's balcony."

Ingram has a seven-sided mask perfectly suited for the parade, though he's already used it for other protests.

"The sides represent the seven city council members, who all think alike and vote alike," he says. "The very front of it has a piglike nose, which I made out of a deli container. The eyeballs are painted money signs."

The Squirrels are worried that family-owned downtown businesses will tank if the cookie cutters move in. Plus, with more traffic and more paved-over land, they're concerned about the welfare of an ice-age bog that's across the street from the mall-to-be.

As far as bogs go, the Kent bog is particularly bitchin'. Labeled a "Sensitive Natural Area" by the state, it's described in brochures as "a living postcard from the ice age." Its climate and vegetation are more akin to Maine than Ohio, with wild cranberries and otherworldly, insect-eating plants thriving in the crisp air. Rare spotted yellow turtles crawl through man-made "turtle tunnels" that run beneath a wooden public walkway. Smooth emerald snakes slither among tamarack trees, the kind with slight, silvery needles native to Washington.

Much like the rare spotted turtle, Tara Group President Dave Morgan has made himself scarce in Kent. So if the Black Squirrels want to model their parade personas in his image, he won't be around to inspire them.

Recently, though, Morgan chatted one-on-one with a few Black Squirrels. Not that he volunteered that listening ear. Badagnani found the Tara Group's general number on the Internet. He called, pressed one, and got Morgan.

"We talked for 20 minutes. I told him I thought [the mall] was not a good idea," says Badagnani. He then posted the number on the bulletin board at the Kent Natural Foods store, with the heading "Call This Guy!"

Morgan says he's developed 18 shopping centers and never encountered such a ruckus. "Nothing of a public nature like this," he says. "Quite honestly, it's much ballyhoo about nothing. I own the land, so this is not a question of backing out. I own it, so I must do something with it."

Oh yeah? Well, he'd better watch it. Hell hath no fury like a puppet brigade scorned.

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