Butler County preparing to invest millions in economic development

Butler County is preparing to invest multi-millions in economic development countywide, like the mega Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill complex under construction in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
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Butler County is preparing to invest multi-millions in economic development countywide, like the mega Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill complex under construction in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Butler County officials are hoping 2021 can be the “transformational” year for spurring economic development, including investing healthy amounts of cash with the COVID-19 situation easing.

The county has $74.4 million coming from the federal government, and the Butler County Port Authority has $1.8 million plus development tools like tax breaks to encourage development. The county has also paid off its general fund debt, which frees up $10 million per year.

“It still boils down to a theme that yes we have this money and we want to make the right decision, not just just to put it into a one-time expenditure,” said Commissioner T.C. Rogers. “We want that to be transformational in what the return is to the county.”

The port authority board and the commissioners plan to meet soon to discuss philosophies, because the port is in a unique position to use the economic development-driving tools.

Under Ohio law, port authorities can own, finance, construct and lease real estate including land, buildings and equipment. A port authority that buys or owns property for an expanding business, construction materials and other construction costs are tax-exempt. Also, ports can issue taxable and tax-exempt bonds, offering borrowers longer-term, fixed-rate financing than the terms of a commercial loan.

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The port board is an autonomous body that is appointed by the commissioners. The port has been waiting for the county to hire an executive director in the past year since Mike McNamara left the post in August 2020. Butler County Development Director David Fehr and his staff have been filling in and handling port business, but the board members have expressed some frustration during their monthly meetings that the vacancy persists.

County Administrator Judi Boyko said county officials are re-examining the job description including the salary range, because it is a critical hire with the county at a “crossroads.”

“It’s a uniquely positioned candidate and the fact we have not been able to locate the right candidate yet is frustrating and disappointing but not surprising,” Boyko said. “This candidate not only has to be a subject matter expert in the economic arena but has to have the interpersonal skills, to have basic knowledge of other industries and be able to meet the expectations of the commissioners in terms of producing and deliverable results.”

Port Chairwoman Denise Quinn said Fehr and his team have served them well but it has been difficult operating without a director dedicated to them. She said they want to meet with the commissioners to make sure they are all on the same page.

“We want to make sure we do have the same perspective, I don’t think we’ve ever done anything that we’ve gotten feedback from the commissioners saying ‘wow not sure why you guys entertained that particular agreement,’ we’ve not heard that,” Quinn said. “But I also think the better way to make sure that doesn’t happen is let’s have that conversation.”

Commissioner Don Dixon said he believes the port has chosen to back developments that don’t compete with businesses that already exist in the county.

He just wants to reinforce the philosophy that the county taxpayers should be the main consideration in any deal. He said when tax breaks are part of a development deal — like on the cost of building materials — it can add up to big money that impacts the local taxpayers.

“The port authority is not an elected board and they can borrow money and they can loan money and they’re not accountable to anyone directly, to the voters,” Dixon said. “And therein also lies what is government’s role versus private sector versus giving some monetary consideration for a specific project, the specific project has to really be heavily weighted on the public side for a big return, that’s what I want to see happen.”