Butler County communities want money to expand public gathering spaces

West Chester Twp. officials have debated providing public gathering space for years, several other Butler County communities already operate community centers, and a couple want to expand using county COVID-19 relief funds.

Collectively, communities have asked the county commissioners for about $12 million of the $75 million they have been allocated in American Rescue Plan Act funds. Here’s how the requests break down:

  • The Hamilton YMCA is looking for $1.9 million to expand the Booker T. Washington Community Center that primarily serves underprivileged youth in the community.
  • The city and schools in Middletown are asking for $6 million to renovate or build a new Sonny Hill Community Center. The city has committed $2 million and the school district $4 million toward the project.
  • West Chester Twp. was looking for $4 million to build a 15,000 square-foot expansion on the MidPointe Library to create more gathering space for the community. The remainder of the estimated $6 million project would be funded with tax increment financing (TIF) district funds.

The requests were made last summer but now, although no formal action has been taken, it seems the West Chester request might be moot. The township owns the library, so building an addition is the trustees’ decision. Trustee Mark Welch has always opposed the addition and now Trustee Lee Wong — who previously favored the library project — is on his side.

Wong told the Journal-News he has camped out at the library several times recently and he believes it is being underutilized, except when Lakota high school students are hanging out waiting to be picked after school, “it’s become a big babysitting place for them.”

“The library is just underused, it’s just not justified for an expansion,” Wong said.

Welch is opposed to a MidPointe expansion for a variety of reasons, especially since the library is building a 15,000 square-foot branch in Liberty Twp., “they’re going to have another location that’s probably going to cannibalize some of the traffic from this location.”

In a typical year, the West Chester branch gets about 401,487 visitors; Liberty Center 110,529 and systemwide 928,221.

“When we opened our Liberty Center location we thought that might take some traffic away from here but it did not, if anything our door counts systemwide are going up...,” MidPointe Executive Director Travis Bautz told the Journal-News. “This was not a grab or reach on our part for more space, it was a, well, if you would like to work with us to give us more space, we can certainly do more to serve the community with more space.”

Trustee Ann Becker is a staunch supporter of building an addition on the library to create more spaces for the entire community to congregate. She told the Journal-News she just learned about her fellow trustees’ positions.

“I think there are still possibilities for the project, I still there’s extreme merit to it to bring value to our community,” Becker said. “I’m hoping to push forward with it.”

ExploreWest Chester Twp. Activity Center on the market for $2.5 million

The trustees are expected to discuss the addition during budget talks this week. They previously tabled a $627,000 library engineering contract.

Community center history

West Chester trustees have been wrestling with the issue of providing space for community use for three years after Community First decided not to renew its lease with the township for the Activity Center. The township was renting the facility to the non-profit for a dollar per year, and Community First paid for maintenance and provided senior programming.

Welch said a previous trustee board made the deal with Partners in Prime — Community First absorbed that organization — to run the Activity Center. They agreed to pay $100,000 in the beginning and payments were stepped down and eventually rolled to zero.

“The last year that we paid it was 2015 and it was $30,000,” Welch said. “What precipitated that stoppage was Community First was not forthright in giving us their tax returns, and we just became suspicious that they were taking the money we were giving to them for the center in West Chester and using it in other places.”

Welch said the nonprofits let the building fall into disrepair and the lofty goals of creating a thriving community center never really materialized, but they couldn’t cancel the lease early or they would have had to find Community First another location.

In the final year of the 10-year lease the trustees agreed to sell the building to Kroger’s landlord Regency Centers for $1.8 million, but that deal finally collapsed last year. The trustees recently agreed to hire North Ridge Realty Group to market the property with an asking price of $2.5 million.

Current community space conundrum

So the conundrum of providing community space is still an issue, because the trustees do not agree on a solution. The seniors who were ousted from their space three years ago have been begging the trustees to provide them space.

Anne Holbrook, who has frequented trustee meetings, said the seniors needed the Activity Center just so they could be with other people. She accused the trustees of not caring.

“The cutest thing is what one person said to me, and I think you need to think about this: West Chester is the 35th best city — even though it’s not a city — to live in the United States, except if you’re over 55,” she said to a round of applause from the audience.

As this process had dragged on, the seniors have been able to secure meeting space at the Boys & Girls Club, they now meet and have lunch at the library on Fridays and have found a home for the summer.

All three trustees have said the township should not be in the social services business, but have expressed a desire to provide space; they just don’t want to grow the size of their government to do it.

“We’ve kind of investigated our charter, if you will, and we’re not in the social services business, that’s county, state and federal,” Welch said. “If we continue to focus on our core competencies, police, fire, roads and then parks and cemetery I think we’ll be a lot more sustainable township.”

They also pointed out that in 2004 the township planned to build a community center that would have rivaled the one in Mason with indoor and outdoor pools, gymnasium, physical fitness equipment and classes, an art center, senior center and community spaces.

A group of residents put an issue on the ballot to stop the township and won by a vote of 6,801 to 4,094 in May 2005.

Looking ahead to the future

Welch said if the Activity Center doesn’t sell, he would consider recreating a community center, as long as they could figure out a way to make it “revenue neutral.”

“I’m still of the opinion the most conservative thing to do would be to repair it, use it as a true community center and find a way to make it revenue neutral,” Welch said, adding he doesn’t think it would cost anywhere near the $3.4 million estimate.

Wong said someday he would love to have a facility like the Fairfield Arts Center, “that would be wonderful.”

Fairfield Parks and Recreation Director Tiphanie Mays said the 31,610-square-foot Arts Center that draws about 100,000 patrons annually cost $10.2 million and opened in 2005. They have an annual budget of $1.2 million that “supports the operations of the theater, art gallery, dance studio, rental/drop in spaces, as well as associated recreation programming/classes including theater, dance, yoga, summer camp, pottery, arts and crafts, youth and senior programming.”

What about other communities?

When making their pitch to the commissioners last summer Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick said the Sonny Hill Community Center, which has served youth and families for almost 100 years, “has been patched together and held together” but it is “reaching the end of its useful life.”

ExploreButler County commissioners hear pitch for $17.3 million in social services projects

“We really wanted to put together a dramatic opportunity where partnerships could come together and create something quite transformational to our community...,” Palenick said. “That project ultimately will involve a multifunctional opportunity to serve youth literally from birth to 18 and the families that support that youth and all sorts of things in between.”

The city owns the community center and Palenick told the Journal-News they pay Community Builders Inc. $120,000 annually to manage the facility. If funding comes through for the expansion, the city and its partners would launch a fundraising campaign to raise $2 to $4 million to sustain it.

The Great Miami Valley YMCA is looking for $1.9 million to renovate the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Hamilton. Woody Fitton, who is now the retired president and CEO, told the commissioners much of the renovation, which includes resurfacing the gym floor and adding a boxing studio among other additions, is designed to engage disadvantaged youth.

“I don’t know whether you would see great importance to this, but if young people are in the center and they’re engaged in constructive programs like youth basketball, they’re not on the streets at 14-years-old...,” Fitton said. “Each individual that we’re able to serve is potentially one less youth at serious risk of criminal activity or worse.”

The commissioners received requests totaling $143.7 million and are still mulling which projects to approve.

The Journal-News polled other jurisdictions countywide and found Oxford — the city leases its community center to the Oxford Seniors group for $1 a year — and Hanover and Reily townships have community centers that are open to the public, where they also hold their township meetings.

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