2010 to 2020: How Butler County has changed in the past decade

Steel is being delivered for construction at Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill Monday, Dec. 2, 2019 in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Steel is being delivered for construction at Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill Monday, Dec. 2, 2019 in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

What a difference a decade makes.

Butler County stumbled into 2010 with a dismal 10.9 percent unemployment rate, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. But by last month, the county enjoyed a 3.5 percent unemployment rate, a significant feat considering economists at the start of the decade had predicted that jobs would not return to pre-recession levels at any point over the next 10 years.

Over the past 10 years, Butler County served as a reflection of the ever-improving overall U.S. economy, including gains in manufacturing, health care, retail, the introduction of new industries and the need for industrial space, according to Melissa O’Brien, business services manager for OhioMeansJobs-Butler County.

“Businesses want to come to Butler County because of our strong economy,” O’Brien said. “I think that’s helped our unemployment rate when you look at those bigger industries, also the industries within Butler County that are expanding, as well, staying local and expanding within places like Fairfield and West Chester Twp. and other communities.”

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The county’s population, too, expanded in the past decade, but not quite at the same breakneck pace. The amount of Butler County residents increased by 13.8 percent between 1990 and 2000 and by 10.4 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of July 2019, Butler County’s population measured 382,378, up by 3.9 percent compared to the 368,135 recorded in April 2010.

Butler County’s cities and townships also have seen considerable growth, not only in population and employment, but also in economic development.

Both Hamilton and Middletown have worked to grow their downtowns by helping small business owners set up shop there, by establishing Designated Outdoor Refreshment Areas, or DORAs, and by creating events and opportunities.

Arguably, no other community has spawned as roaring resurgence as Hamilton. In 2012, it became a city without a paper mill for the first time since 1848. But before the decade’s end, construction started on the $144 million Spooky Nook Champion Mill project, which will be the largest indoor sports complex in the nation when it opens in late 2021.

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Projected to have a massive economic impact across the city, county and region, it already has generated buzz and business throughout the city’s downtown, two things noticeably absent in the city’s downtown when the decade began.

Hamilton’s four biggest changes in the past decade were its financial stability, sense of place, planning and the creation new entities with singular mission, according to City Manager Joshua Smith, who was sworn into office in September 2010.

The city entered 2010 with declining revenues and a general fund reserve that was well below Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) standards. It enters 2020 with increasing revenues and a general fund reserve that is close to what GFOA recommends.

“While successfully growing the topline, we have been sensitive to what we are spending annually,” he told this news outlet. “Our 2020 expense budget is very close to what we spent in 2008, without adjusting for inflation.”

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Hamilton, instead of worrying about imitating the growing townships along I-75, realized its strength was connected to its past, specifically its architecture, traditional neighborhoods, history and authenticity, he said.

“Armed with that knowledge, most of our success this decade has come from adaptively reusing buildings, and recognizing our ‘first ring’ neighborhoods were assets and not liabilities,” Smith said. “We slowed the demolition of our historic buildings from the decade prior, and instead focused on how to reposition them for success.”

Hamilton officials, after stabilizing the city’s budget, focused on developing long-term plans based on citizen input, he said.

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Since 2012, three new-to-this-decade entities have made “very positive changes” to Hamilton, he said. Those new entities include RiversEdge Summer Concert Series, the Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment Efforts (CORE) and Hamilton Parks Conservancy.

“By identifying areas which needed more focus and effort, three key individuals — Adam Helms, Mike Dingeldein and Steve Timmer and their respective boards — have supercharged our park system and our urban center,” Smith said.

Susan Cohen, Middletown’s acting city manager, said the city has had a decade of “robust” change and looks forward to continuing that.

“During the last decade the city has enjoyed renewed downtown development and opening of numerous stores and restaurants,” Cohen said. “The city has had renewed investment from AK steel in our research and development center. Our medical facilities have grown and developed with continued investment from both Premier Medical and Kettering Health Network.”

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In addition, Middletown is seeing increased interest in industrial development in locations like the MADE Industrial Park, she said.

“All of these development opportunities have helped put the city in its strongest financial position with record balances in the general fund,” Cohen said.

Middletown also has seen increased investment in staples of the city with new investments in facilities for Middletown schools, and investment in its historic assets, such as the SORG Opera House and the Carnegie Library, she said.

“The city has spent recent years working on new master plans for the city, for the downtown, and for housing. We look forward to completing Master plans for the airport and the parks and recreation system in 2020,” Cohen said. “Having increased growth and strong plans to move forward will help usher Middletown into the new decade.”

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But the amount of employment isn’t the only thing that changed. The type of jobs available here has shifted, as well, according to an Ohio Economic Profile of Butler County issued in 2019 by ODJFS’ Office of Workforce Development.

While manufacturing jobs grew by 11.6 percent between 2010 and 2017 and salaries grew by 12 percent, retail trade positions increased by 19.9 percent and salaries grew by 14.7 percent. Outpacing both those kinds of careers were health care jobs, which grew by 27.1 percent and salaries in that field grew by 15.3 percent.

Much of that health care growth was generated by a slew of new facilities opening across the county in varying sizes, from full-fledged hospitals to physicians offices and buildings designed to provide growing communities with outpatient services.

New housing in the county is also drastically different in Butler County compared to the dawn of the decade. The amount of single-family permits issued in 2010 totaled just 360, down from 529 in 2009, a 31.9 percent plummet, according to the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati.

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Fast forward to the end of the decade and the amount of permits issued for such housing had rebounded significantly, with year-to-date numbers by October showing 502 permits issued with steady growth forecast for the near future.

“We anticipate that the last two months of (2019) will demonstrate similar gains, and we will end … in positive territory,” said Dan Dressman, the HBA’s executive director. “(2020) promises to be an excellent year for home builders, due to healthy consumer confidence, low-interest rates and high employment levels.”