Butler County approves public funding for Liberty Center

The decision ends negotiations that have lasted more than a year to close on public financing incentives for the mega retail complex being built at the intersection of Ohio 129, Interstate 75 and Liberty Way in Liberty Twp.

Commissioners committed approximately $10 million via a bond issue. The total project cost is expected to be more than $350 million, including private and public sources.

Liberty Twp. trustees previously approved around $5 million in funding.

“It’s exciting to have brought the largest retail development in Butler County history here,” said County Commissioner Cindy Carpenter. “We believe that reducing our liability has met the satisfaction of the board and that the county’s interests are protected.”

Scheduled to open in fall 2015, the mixed retail, residential, office and dining center is set to receive up to $43 million in funding backed by taxpayer dollars.

It’s expected a total $31 million worth of public bonds will be issued by Butler County Port Authority, on behalf of Liberty Twp., Butler County Commissioners and the Liberty Community Authority.

That funding pays for the center’s infrastructure such as streets, parking, utilities and sewer and water systems, and is part of a Master Development Agreement signed between the township, the county and Columbus-based private developer Steiner in July 2013.

The rest of the $43 million in public dollars committed to the project includes a $12 million loan approved by Ohio Water Development Authority.

“I think our county residents can be assured that the due diligence has been put into this project and we’ve had the expertise on board to deal with it,” Commissioner Don Dixon said.

Before any taxpayer dollars are borrowed, the Master Development Agreement contains a list of requirements for the developer Steiner to meet first. The list includes: having the project’s private financing in place; for so many anchor tenants to have signed leases; and for a quality mix of in-line retail tenants to be approved by the local governments.

“We just try to think of every possible scenario which could come up and with that, whether it’s this decision or any other ones made in recent past, they protect the citizens of Butler County, and that for the long-run, is positive,” Commissioner T.C. Rogers said.

Last week, county commissioners tabled a vote on the funding and trust agreements for Liberty Center. Dixon said developers had remaining contingencies to meet concerning private financing.

An executive session was held over the weekend, Carpenter said.

“As part of that Master Development Agreement, we had established close to 27 contingencies that were related to the financing as well as the commencing of construction,” said Thomas Gabelman, an attorney hired by Butler County as private counsel in negotiations, on Monday morning. “All those contingencies that are capable of being met, as of today, have been met or satisfied.”

Now with approvals in hand, the next steps are to market bond documents to investors, and price and sell the series of bonds, said Andrew Brossart, vice president and public finance manager for Fifth Third Bank, which is working with local governments on the bonds.

If everything goes the way government officials and the developer hopes, the project will pay for itself from increased property values and generate millions in new sales and income tax revenues. Liberty Center sits in a Tax Increment Financing District, which means new tax revenues generated from the center will pay for the debt (bonds) Butler County and Liberty Twp. committed to the project.

Other funding will be generated by a 0.5 percent sales fee charged on purchases made at the retail center and an assessment on property owners. The Liberty Community Authority, similar to a homeowner’s association with a seven-member board, will control those funds.

The developer is required to make minimum annual payments of approximately $2 million on the $43 million debt, beginning when the center opens in 2015, according to the development agreement.

“Today’s vote to approve infrastructure financing for Liberty Center marks a major milestone for the project,” said Beau Arnason, executive vice president of Steiner + Associates, in a statement.

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