Most downtown Middletown building projects are moving forward

6:00 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015 Local News

Slow progress is being made on several key building rehabilitation projects in the downtown Middletown core, while others, such as the much-anticipated redevelopment of the historic Manchester Inn hotel, have stalled for various reasons.

Revitalizing the downtown is one of the key strategies city officials are pushing in an effort to return Middletown to vibrancy. City officials have invested hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in the purchase of vacant buildings that they’ve turned around and sold at a reduced rate, and in some cases given away, to investors and groups to redevelop.

City officials are banking on success stories like Cincinnati State Middletown and the Pendleton Arts Center to be catalysts for change downtown. And there has been some momentum with a number of new businesses and restaurants opening during the past few months and more events and activities being planned downtown.

But progress has been slow, or as City Manager Doug Adkins is fond of saying,”you can’t change Middletown on Thursday.”

Local developer Mike Robinette who has been working to redevelop the Goetz Tower, located at the southeast corner of Central Avenue and South Main Street, said it has taken his group three years just to get the project to the construction phase.

“If it were easy, then everybody would be doing it,” Robinette said of downtown redevelopment. “Redevelopment is much more difficult than greenfield development.”

In addition to the demolition, painting, rehabilitation or other construction going on downtown, the city is in the midst of creating Ohio’s first Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area in which the downtown core would become an open container area for patrons purchasing alcoholic beverages from designated bars to enjoy outside. The DORA could be in operation in the next few months as it completes the city’s legislative process.

In an effort to gauge the progress of the city’s downtown redevelopment plans, the Journal-News spoke with city officials and developers last week to get the latest updates on the status of various building projects in downtown Middletown.

According to Robinette, the Goetz Tower is the midst of an ownership transfer. The seven-story Art Deco building was awarded $600,000 in Ohio Historic Preservation Tax credits and is qualified for an additional $600,000 in federal historic tax grants.

Robinette declined to discuss the status of the new ownership group as those details will not be finalized for several weeks.

However, he expects the project will proceed as previously announced to redevelop the building into 24 market-rate apartments as well as 2,000 square feet of retail/commercial space. The building currently houses a Fifth Third Bank branch. The cost of the project has been estimated at more than $2.5 million, with nearly 50 percent of the cost being covered by the state and federal tax credits.

Robinette said all of the building code issues have been resolved and construction documents and plans are in the process of being drawn up.

Robinette, a former Middletown and Franklin economic development director, said the city can only do so much for a development project and that the state officials have been very cooperative in assisting with the project and providing “clear guidance” in obtaining the competitive historic preservation tax credits.

Robinette’s group is also working on rebuilding the former Rose Furniture building for retail space.

The building, located at 36 S. Main St., was heavily damaged by rain in fall 2013. The damage included a collapsed roof.

Robinette said the demolition work has been completed behind the facade, which also included the removal asbestos from the site.

He said all three floors of the new building will be used for retail and that construction plans are also being prepared for this project.

In less than two weeks, the former Bank One/Barnitz Bank building will reopen as the The Windamere, the city’s newest event venue and art gallery.

“It’s crunch time,” said owner Mica Glaser. “We open in two weeks.”

She said the first event will be a networking event for 100 to 125 wedding vendors in the Cincinnati/Dayton region. Glaser said the venue will be decked out as a wedding reception.

“I’m really looking forward to introducing our building to people in the Middletown and surrounding area,” she said. “We’ve already had a lot of interest from the Cincinnati and Dayton areas.”

The Windamere’s first wedding reception will be on Oct. 24.

Glaser said renovations have been ongoing for nearly four months after the purchase was completed on June 15 and has cost about $250,000. Some of those renovations at the new venue will incorporate many of the former bank’s features such as the two balconies that overlook the main room as well as the vault.

In addition, the renovation also uncovered a terrazzo floor that is being refinished as the dance floor, Glaser said.

“It’s perfect for dancing,” she said.

Glaser said the 12-foot-by-24-foot vault still has all of its safe deposit boxes and keys and is being offered to couples to store their wedding keepsakes.

“I already have two brides who have picked out their safe deposit boxes,” she said.

During the renovations, some former bank employees have stopped in to take a look at where they used sit when they worked there, Glaser said. She said sections of the bank teller windows as well as some of the safe deposit privacy walls have been incorporated into the décor to take advantage of the old bank’s characteristics.

Glaser said she’s always looking for photos and stories about the building when it was a bank.

In addition, Glaser said venue will also feature the gallery of local artist Chris Walden, which is becoming another attraction for Windamere. She said 55 people from the Cincinnati Art Club will be taking a bus trip to Middletown in the coming weeks to see Walden’s work as well as visiting the Sorg Opera House and the BeauVerre Riordan Stained Glass Studio.

Windamere will also host art shows and exhibits as well as other community events.

A grand opening and an open house are being planned for November, Glaser said.

As the Middletown campus continues to grow in enrollment, Cincinnati State will have options to accommodate that growth and be a catalyst in driving economic development efforts in the downtown area.

The buildings include the former Cincinnati Gas & Electric Building, 1 N. Main St.; the former First Financial Bank, 2 N. Main St.; the former Butler County Job and Family Services building at 1021 Central Ave.; and the former Middletown Senior Citizens Center at 140 Verity Parkway.

Jean Gould, the college’s vice president of marketing and communications, said the Middletown campus and its programs are growing.

As of now, Gould said the only real development at the downtown campus has been some repairs at the former Butler County JFS building where the Midd State Academy is located.

She said there were plans to house a welding lab in that building, however, the college felt that would not be a good use of that space as Butler Tech had built new welding bays at their facility. Gould said the Middletown City Schools approached the college about housing 150 students for its Middie Academy where they can earn high school and college credit.

The college and the school district signed a five-year agreement in June.

“It’s a great partnership with the high school,” Gould said.

Last week, it was announced that plans to transform a vacant Middletown building into a brewery and hotel are on hold, according to the developer behind the project.

A lack of support from the city is among the reasons William Grau said he is putting the Snider Building microbrewery and Manchester Hotel projects on hold. However, city leaders say Grau is expecting too much financial support from the city to keep his project afloat.

“The Manchester Hotel and Snider Building/Brewery are currently on hold pending an increase in outside support and interest in the projects … ” Grau recently told the Journal-News. The Illinois-based developer also said he is considering selling both properties.

For the second time in the past several months, Grau did not submit an application for Ohio historic preservation tax credits for the latest funding round that had a Sept. 30 deadline. Last spring, Grau opted not to submit the tax credit application for Manchester Hotel, saying the strategy then was to get the microbrewery in Snider Building up and running first to create a destination venue before starting the hotel portion of the project.

Grau said he also could not get grants from the Duke Energy Foundation or interest from JobsOhio and the Ohio Development Services Agency for the projects. The state agency oversees job creation and the historic tax credit programs.

Both buildings are structurally sound, according to Grau, and roof leaks have been repaired. Ongoing inspections and repairs are being completed as necessary, he said.

In the past year, Grau has run into snags getting through the pre-application process with the State Historic Preservation Office to get the projects cleared to allow the historic tax credits application to be submitted.

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