Butler County commissioners approve $2.5M Spooky Nook payment

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Now that Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill construction payments have topped $100 million, and $27 million more are set aside for spending, the Butler County commissioners have forwarded their $2.5 million contribution.

The commissioners want their contributions to be “the last money in” for projects, and County Administrator Judi Boyko told them last week $100 million has already been spent on construction and another $27 million is encumbered in contracts “so a construction value of about $127 million and this value does comply with the conditions of the board’s pledge.”

The commissioners agreed to forward the funds to Hamilton for road improvements after the construction investment reached $117 million, the total cost estimate for the project is $165 million. The massive sports and convention complex was supposed to open by the end of March and the hotel and convention side looks like it will, but the sports complex has been delayed, in part because high winds caused a partial collapse last year, according to Hamilton City Manager Joshua Smith.

“They were targeting an end of March beginning of April on Mill 2 which is the hotel and convention center and they were still working on a recovery schedule for Mill 1,” Smith said. “I think their contract said it was supposed to be open at the end of March this year and just with a pandemic, supply chain issues, labor shortages, the building collapse it’s just a very difficult environment to build in.”

Mackenzie Bender, Spooky Nook marketing director, confirmed Mill 2 is on schedule but said “we have no updates on Mill 1 at this time, but expect a new timeline within the coming weeks.” She said they have had to notify six event organizers of the delay.

The Butler County Visitors Bureau board also approved a $1.5 million Spooky Nook contribution for parking, one that will be paid out over 15 years. Mark Hecquet, president & CEO of the BCVB, said the payments for the first five years will be $75,000, $100,000 the next five and $125,000 at the end of the term. Their payments won’t begin until Spooky Nook opens.

This payment represents the first in the commissioners’ debt-free plan. The county has been on a healthy budget trajectory for several years now after years of bloated budgets, unrestrained spending and borrowing. In 2015 the commissioners introduced their debt-free by 2020 plan and made the Spooky Nook commitment in 2018.

When the county’s general fund debt rolled to zero in 2020 it freed up about $10 million annually that isn’t needed to repay bond and note obligations. The commissioners intended to use that money to invest in economic development-type projects countywide. Boyko said the pandemic somewhat sidelined the plan and the county is currently focused on distributing $75 million it was awarded from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“Because COVID hit obviously the commissioners back in 2020 didn’t know what the revenue sources would continue to be,” Boyko said. “So they kind of paused on that debt-free program. Other priorities have surfaced over the last two years that a lot of any available funding has been looked to stabilize the evolving economy. With the source of ARPA that certainly is a source of funding we can look at some of those capital and economic development potential projects.”

The commissioners invited communities and groups countywide to present ideas for spending the money. They received half the ARPA funds last year and the rest is due in May. They have received about $143.7 million in requests, several looking for economic development projects like $6.6 million from the city of Middletown to help the city “transform and redevelop” the Ohio 4 corridor entrance to the city and also support the Oakland Neighborhood revitalization.

The commissioners say they plan to meet soon to divvy up the money, they all have their own preferences. Requests run the gamut from new educational and economic development opportunities to addressing social service needs of the county. The largest pitch was for $24 million from Butler Tech to create a workforce pipeline to advanced aviation and manufacturing jobs, with new training facilities in Middletown and Hamilton.

Commissioner Don Dixon said through the years they have had some casual requests for funding but no hard inquiries other than Hamilton for Spooky Nook. Now, since jurisdictions countywide as a whole have been awarded $155.6 million in federal COVID-19 relief, he said they aren’t really looking to the commissioners for help, “I don’t anybody right now needs a lot of cash.”.

“I think there’s so much money going around right now I don’t think anybody know what they need,” Dixon said. “they’ve got plenty of money they just don’t know what they can pay for. What used to be hard-to-get-dollars for the other communities they’re getting more than they can put into use.”

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