The economic impact of Liberty Center in its first year spawned retail, medical, office and residential projects, boosted employment levels, generated millions of dollars in revenue for local governments and hatched a growing impact on local tourism.
The $350 million mega mixed use center officially debuted Oct. 22, 2015, with a first phase of 1 million-square-feet spread over about 65 acres.
Since then it has built its retail presence to 96 stores and restaurants, filling it to “the high 80s” in terms of occupied existing space, according to Beau Arnason, executive vice president of asset performance for developer Steiner + Associates. Eight new stores are planned to open between now and February.
Constructing lodging other than AC Hotel by Marriott had been planned for Liberty Center’s second phase, but with interest “ramped up” for that kind of development, the center recently announced plans to add two additional hotels, Arnason said.
“It’s gone very well, obviously, or we wouldn’t have all this interest,” he said. “We’ve been extremely pleased with the market response and the reviews. We were hoping to sort of begin to transform the community in that area and I think we really have, just in terms of how people have gotten to used to spend their leisure time and their shopping patterns. Think of it, all those people in that area, where did they go to shop before for their quality retail?”
Abby Rose, of Colerain Twp., stopped by Liberty Center on Thursday and said she enjoys visiting it “a lot,” especially Charlotte Russe, Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
“I come here to eat a lot, but also to shop,” she said. “I like it so much better because it’s indoor and outdoor, so it’s just really open and everyone’s so nice and welcoming.”
But Liberty Center has seen more than shopping thrive during its first year. Office space — 75,000 square feet of it — is controlled by Daimler Group and already is 50 percent leased, according to Jackie Reau, spokeswoman for Steiner + Associates.
The residential component of the site is up to 75 percent occupancy of the 239 apartments between two apartments buildings — The Fillmore and The Grant — with a plan to add 60 more units at the latter.
The additional apartments and hotels are expected to create more ground-floor retail space at Liberty Center, which could eventually include as many as 500 residential units as part of an approved planned unit development, Arnason said.
Since Liberty Center opened at the intersection of Ohio 129, Liberty Way and Interstate 75 with anchor tenants Dillard’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods, has also welcomed movie theaters CineBistro and Cobb Liberty Luxury 15 and a mix of retail storefronts and restaurants.
That combination of sales and salaries helped boost revenues for a special tax district where the lion’s share of revenues go to Liberty Twp. for upkeep of infrastructure in and around the Liberty Way interchange.
While the district amassed nearly $1.52 million in the first nine months of this year alone after revenues of nearly $1.57 million for all of 2015 and nearly $1.05 million for all of 2014 after collecting less than $1 million a year since collection started in 2007, according to tax district statistics obtained Thursday by this news outlet.
Trustee Christine Matacic said the dining, shopping and lodging options that have debuted in Liberty Center’s first year have done more than raise tax district revenues. They’ve made the massive mixed use project the township’s “crown jewel” and “a new game changer” similar to Cincinnati Children’s Liberty Campus opening in 2008, Matacic said.
Having Liberty Center so close to Children’s, which recently opened its Proton Therapy Center, means having something appealing for more than just local residents and regional shoppers.
“They (the Proton Therapy Center and Liberty Center) complement each other,” she said. “I know that that sounds strange to some people but when you have families that are coming in from all parts of the country and possibly the world for treatment … you need activities, you need places to go to make things a little bit nicer for them at the end of the day. Instead of going back to the hotel and twiddling your thumbs, you can be out enjoying some of the niceties of the area.”
Mark Hecquet, executive director of the Butler County Visitors Bureau, told the Journal-News that Liberty Center put Liberty Twp. and Butler County on the map from beyond the Cincinnati-Dayton market.
That’s because Liberty Center is “more than just a collection of stores, restaurants and entertainment options,” he said.
“With its ‘Life Centered’ approach, Liberty Center is focused on creating unique and authentic experiences unlike anything we have in our county,” he said. “It is these unique and authentic experiences in addition to the collection of retail, dining, entertainment options that visitors have been drawn to.”
It’s also a catalyst that’s sparked further development in the surrounding area, including hotels, hospitals and retail projects and led visitors, businesses and residents to plan their vacations, open business operations and purchase homes in the area.
Liberty Center also has generated money for businesses beyond its own retail base and become “a key driver of tourism in Butler County,” helping promote area attractions such as Pyramid Hill, Fitton Center for Creative Arts and Pendleton Arts Center to a larger audience, Hecquet said.
“By aiming to extend a visitor’s stay in our region, Butler County can grow the impact of tourism regionally and therefore create a larger economic impact for all of our communities,” Hecquet said.
KEEPING IT RELEVANT
Arnason said Liberty Center’s popularity is partially due to a backlash against shopping centers that have focused solely on tenants and enough space for parking. That, he said, isn’t enough.
“For a long time now, people have wanted more,” he said. “I think the market response has been telling that, yes, that is what people want. It’s about an environment that people want to be in.”
That, he said, is a result of the center’s “energy,” and that it’s always providing something to do, from farmers markets and movie nights to concert series and art shows.
Arnason said Steiner + Associates are the center’s long-term owners and plans to add to and evolve the site in a similar fashion to Easton Town Center, which opened in the Columbus area in 1999, launched a second phase of development in 2001 and continued to “add and evolve and tweak” ever since.
“That’s the best part about it is that operating it and continually keeping it relevant. That’s also the beauty of this physical infrastructure (at both centers),” he said, noting that if some offering doesn’t work anymore, it’s simple for Steiner + Associates to make a change to something that does. “You can cater to the guests and adapt to what they’re interested in.”
Arnason said Steiner + Associates is “very patient” with all aspects of growth at the center and although it still has six acres to development at its front door, “there’s no need to go so fast” when it comes to developing parcels ahead of their time.
“We’re on track certainly for where we think it’s going to be every bit as successful and have as every bit of an impact in the community in the Cincinnati-Dayton region as Easton has in Columbus,” he said.
Steiner + Associates previously mentioned the site’s second phase on 35 acres to the west of Phase One could include 100,000 square feet of retail space, another department store, additional office space and more apartments with larger units.
But Arnason said that tract of land will be developed as the market dictates and not in “one big chunk.”
“What it will end up being … we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “You’ll kind of add as it goes. We’ve already built the critical mass needed in Phase One, so now you just add on. It’s always subject to, at the time you’re pulling the trigger, what’s best for the market.”
But just because that land isn’t seeing any action in the near future, doesn’t mean Steiner + Associates is taking a break from Butler County development. Far from it.
A 19-acre site just across the road from Liberty Center in West Chester Twp. is in the preliminary stages of road layout for the site.
Steiner + Associates is in “active negotiations” with retail users for the development, which is planned to include approximately 100,000 square feet of retail, 20,000 square feet of office space and 100 residential condominium units, Arnason said.
“Those are just kind of working numbers now,” he said. “We haven’t submitted a final development plan.”
Development there does not preclude the planned second phase of Liberty Center itself, he said.
“We always wanted to make sure we controlled that site to the south of us so we could do things that are complimentary to Liberty Center, so that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “Because you wouldn’t want to have somebody come across the street from you and build something that’s either ultra-competitive with what you did or detracts from it. that was our main goal, frankly, and that’s why we bought that property.”