See Liberty Center from the air

Big projects have exploded in Butler County. Here’s what it means for the area.

Liberty Center, the rebirth of downtown Hamilton, the AK Steel Research & Innovation Center and more big commercial developments have been pursued since 2013, when the value of commercial permits totalled more than $185.5 million before ballooning to more than $417 million last year (data for Butler County communities does not Oxford, whose data were not available).

The city of Monroe pulled in the largest estimated commercial value total last year with $135.7 million. A good deal of that is due to the huge Amazon Fulfillment Center, which is going up in the Warren County side of the city but will have a profound impact — 1,000 full-time jobs — on the region as a whole.

RELATED: How did Monroe land Amazon?

Bill Brock, Monroe’s city manager, said commercial development doesn’t just have geographically confined benefits.

“Growth in any community positively affects the region. Building permits reflect investment in our community,’ Brock said. “The most exciting part of these numbers is that most of our 2017 investment will result in increased job opportunities for area residents, and that benefits all of our surrounding communities.”

Other major developments, like Liberty Center, the $350 million mega mixed use development along Ohio 129, not only provide jobs but sales tax, which makes up a big chunk of the county’s operational fund that provides services like public safety, the courts and other county services. Officials have said the center is delivering about $2 million to county coffers in sales taxes annually.

Commercial building permit values — the number developers say their project will be worth once built — filed with the county jumped from $60 million in 2013 to $191 million and $180 million in 2014 and ‘15 respectively, largely because Liberty Center developer Steiner + Associates started pulling permits.

The county handles building permits for all of the townships, villages and the city of Trenton, while the cities handle their own.

MORE: Here’s how Liberty Center will change the local community forever

The Liberty Center opened in 2015 and continues to expand, including more development on the south side of Liberty Way. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

Liberty Twp. Trustee Board President Tom Farrell said many people look at the hulking mall and apartments on Liberty Way and think the township should be rolling in money. That’s not exactly true, at least not yet, he said. The county, the township and a few other entities were all involved in the development, but the property lies within a county tax increment financing district, which means new tax revenues generated from the center’s property appreciation will pay for the debt (bonds) local governments committed to it. That was set up years ago to pay for infrastructure to support that area.

That TIF ends in about 14 years, and then the township will reap the benefits of higher property taxes. Farrell said it is hard to say how much money that might be, but Liberty Center is responsible for a domino effect that has spawned more growth.

“When you are looking at 2032 it’s really hard to do anything but get your crystal ball out,” Farrell said. “Liberty Center benefits the entire region, it is a regional draw both from a user standpoint and from an income standpoint. All the businesses that have popped up, from Chick-Fil-A to Cabellas, to the hotels to iFLY, none of those businesses are in the area without the infrastructure to support it and the head count to support it, and Liberty Center gives you both of those.”

Townships generally cannot collect income tax but because Liberty Center is in a Joint Economic Development District. Liberty was projected to earn $500,000 to $800,000 in income taxes from the development.

The county’s two biggest cities don’t have vast expanses of open land ripe for development, but Hamilton has been successful in recent years in redeveloping existing areas, which the city’s building official Ken Rivera said has been a boon for everyone concerned.

RELATED: With 1,000 new jobs on way, Hamilton targeting rebirth

Redeveloping vacant store fronts and buildings raises property values for surrounding buildings, and new businesses provide more jobs and increase traffic to other existing commercial properties, especially in the “reborn” downtown, he said.

“There’s more people downtown and that has a positive impact on the amenities like the restaurants, they are able to do a lot of business during the week because of the commercial crowd that’s downtown,” Rivera said. “Up until now it’s been the chicken and egg discussion, the businesses don’t want to go to a place where they don’t have the restaurants and the amenities and restaurants don’t want to go to a place where there are no businesses to support them. A lot of that has happened at the same time so they are able to support each other, it’s been great.”

A Grand Opening ceremony was held, Friday, Apr. 7, 2017, on the new world-class AK Steel Research and Innovation Center in Middletown. GREG LYNCH / STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

Middletown has seen the biggest jump in commercial growth, from $7 million in value five years ago to $74 million last year, thanks in part to the $20 million Kettering Health Network facility, $14 million Middletown Energy Center and $13 million AK Steel research facility.

“The city of Middletown recognizes that our commercial development, as evidenced by the permits pulled, is robust and has been in a steady growth mode over the past four years,” Economic Development Director Jennifer Ekey said. “Projects like the AK Steel Research and Innovation Center, Middletown Energy Center, Kettering Health Network, and the Middletown City Schools project are significant drivers of this growth.”

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