Butler County gets another $2.5M to eliminate eyesores, remediate brownfields

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Nov. 2—Butler County is receiving another $2.5 million cash infusion from the state to clear the way for redevelopment, similar to the windfall received to down the old Forest Fair Mall, which is a work in progress.

Gov. Mike DeWine announced this week applications are open for a new round of the Ohio Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program, which provides $150 million in grants to raze dilapidated commercial and residential buildings.

Each of the 88 counties are guaranteed $500,000 and the rest of the money will be doled out on a first-come-first-served basis. The applications are due April 1 and the money must be spent by June 30, 2025.

"Blighted buildings have no place in our vision for Ohio's future," DeWine said. "These dilapidated eyesores continue to stand in the way of progress, and by helping local communities take them down, we can open these areas up for new economic development."

Seth Geisler, executive director of the Butler County Land Bank, has been culling applications since the money was approved in the state budget in June, to ensure the county won't leave any money of the table and can get in line for the remaining $106 million.

So far he has 23 applications for demolitions in Hamilton and Middletown that total around $300,000 but he is still collecting applications. The average price per take-down is $16,000.

"I do expect we'll use the entire set aside," Geisler said. "And I do hope to be awarded some above and beyond that. It depends on when I get the applications in from the cities and hopefully by the time we get it in all the funds aren't used up."

Since the land bank was born in 2012 the two largest cities have received the largest share of demo dollars, for a host of reasons. Geisler said he is working to make sure all member communities can take advantage of all the land bank offers.

"We will strive to do this by collaborating with local governments to remove blighted property, repurpose vacant property and return last resorts into new beginnings of productive use," Geisler said. "We hope that this will improve the safety of our communities, increase land values, return properties to the tax rolls and help spur economic development that will ultimately bring jobs to our communities."

This is the second round of state funding for the purpose of sparking redevelopment, in the previous biennium budget the legislature also allocated $150 million demolitions and $350 million for brownfield remediation, which is removal of hazardous materials left when industrial blight is downed.

The state again earmarked $350 million — $175 million in each of the two-year budget — for brownfield elimination. Geisler said Butler is guaranteed $1 million in both years of the state budget. State guidelines are still being finalized.

The county was very successful in the last round of eyesore eradication funding, the land bank won $8.7 million — only $500,000 was guaranteed and didn't require a local match — of it and $7.9 million was earmarked for the old Forest Fair Mall demolition, there is a $2.6 million local match the developer Hillwood Investment Properties pays.

The demolition of the former Forest Fair Mall that straddles the border of Fairfield and Forest Park has been delayed — the land bank received a grant extension until the end of 2025 — as the developer works out tax incentive packages with both entities to facilitate redevelopment of the 90-acre site.

Since about 90% of the site lives in Forest Park, Hillwood is negotiating with them first. Chris Anderson, Forest Park's director of community development, told the Journal-News Hillwood is still negotiating — and has been for months — a tax incentive package with their city manager.

"I think they're still trying to make their financial package works and they haven't submitted for zoning yet," Anderson said. "I know that they are trying to get a better handle on their job numbers. They have projections for the number of jobs, if you're evaluating a tax incentive that's an important number."

Ben Davis with Hillwood couldn't be reached for comment, but told Fairfield officials in April they would retain and improve the existing Kohl's department store and plan to build four speculative buildings. Closest to I-275 will be two buildings, one 300,000-plus-square-feet and the other 262,000-square-feet. The other two buildings would be nearly 354,000 and nearly 269,000 square feet.

He told the land bank board previously these would be light industrial buildings that could have a value of $150 million and potentially produce 900 to 1,500 jobs.

Fairfield Development Services Director Greg Kathman told the Journal-News there has been "no real change in status" on their end.

"We have had some preliminary discussions but they need to come to agreement with the other community before they can really move forward," Kathman said. "Because just so much of it is on their side of the line."

He said generally speaking the jobs discussion going on to the south is key to any incentive package, especially because the current plan calls for building speculative buildings.

"On these buildings because they would be built as speculative and there's still a number of years away, you don't know who the tenants are going to be," Kathman said. "So when a city is looking at it the income tax — I believe Forest Park is the same as us 1.5% — you want to have some baseline guarantee. If you build a big warehouse and all you do is store a bunch of boxes in it, the city doesn't get a whole lot out of that. You want people working there."

Geisler said he has also had interest in tapping the brownfield money. In the last round the individual entities applied for the money — Fairfield was the only entity to receive the county's no-match $1 million allocation — this time the land bank is in charge.

Lauren Nelson, who handles land bank business for Hamilton, said the city is hoping to receive brownfield funding for the parking lot at Martin Luther King Boulevard and High Street that is slated for a hotel development; the old Cohen Recycling plant that is being redeveloped by Crawford Hoying, environment assessment dollars for remaining structures on the far west side of the Spooky Nook Champion Mill property and possibly the old Mohawk Paper property.

She said they don't have dollar amounts yet, but no doubt the county's no-match guaranteed money won't cover all of the county's clean-up needs.

"There is way more need not just in Hamilton but across Butler County," she said adding "I anticipate Butler County having projects that far exceed the available no-match dollars."