City of Middletown in the buying, selling, building business

City Council authorizes city manager to purchase Central Connections for $1.8M with ARPA funds.

MIDDLETOWN — The city of Middletown is buying, selling and building property, while funding options for one of the city’s largest construction projects continue to be considered.

City Council voted Tuesday night to authorize City Manager Paul Lolli to enter into an agreement to purchase the Central Connections property, 3907 Central Ave., for $1.8 million with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

Council also approved the sale of the former CERTA Building, or AK Research Center, 705 Curtis St., to El Ceramics for $1,000, provided payroll commitments are met.

And city staff and council members discussed ways to finance the $9.8 million shortfall after the cost of building fire headquarters and three fire stations has continued rising.

Buying Central Connections building

Central Connections found itself in financial difficulty after Diane Rodgers, its executive director, was terminated in July. She is under investigation for possible theft, though no charges have been filed, according to Middletown police.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

In August, City Council unanimously approved leasing the property for $50 a month through the end of the year to keep “critical services” operating, Lolli said. The center is being run by city employees.

Now the city is purchasing the property and continuing to operate the center until a management team can be hired, Lolli said.

Mayor Nicole Condrey said the city doesn’t have to operate the center, but without the city’s assistance, Lolli said Central Connections would have to close.

The $1.8 million purchase price will go to the Middletown Area Senior Citizens Inc. to pay off an unknown amount of debt, city officials have said.

This will be the second time Middletown residents have invested in the center. Voters approved two five-year, 1-mill senior levies that generated $7 million to provide or maintain senior services at the center.

After Rodgers was terminated and escorted out of the building by police, and the center lost its contract with the Council on Aging, the board laid off the entire staff, closed Saturdays and Sundays and reduced hours and services through the week.

While Rodgers, hired in 2021, hasn’t been criminally charged, her husband, Vincent “Scott” Smith, 56, was charged with seven felony counts of passing bad checks totaling $56,300. The charges were bound over to a Butler County grand jury.

Selling CERTA/AK Research Building

A building the city purchased for $225,000 from CERTA Middletown two years ago, is being sold to EI Ceramics, a ceramic refractory company in the metals industry, for $1,000.

EI Ceramics officials approached the city about purchasing the 9.5-acre property at 705 Curtis St. to consolidate into one location in Middletown, according to a staff report.

The company will place an additional $224,000 into an escrow account held by the city until EI Ceramics achieves certain payroll commitments within approximately three years after closing, according to documents.

EI Ceramics is planning to invest several million dollars to remediate and remodel the property to suit its operational needs, the city said. The company also plans to consolidate its workforce of over 70 employees with an estimated annual payroll, once fully operational, of more than $4 million, according to a staff report.

Condrey applauded city staff for pulling off what she called “a real big win for Middletown.”

Council member Tal Moon said it’s a “great reuse” of the property.

Funding headquarters, three fire stations

Earlier this week, the city celebrated the ground-breaking of the Middletown Division of Fire headquarters at the corner of Yankee Road and Cherry Street.

Within the next two years, the city plans to construct headquarters and three fire stations at a cost of about $26.8 million. The city, thanks to $16.9 million being generated by a 1-mill property tax levy voters overwhelmingly passed in May 2022, has enough funds to build fire headquarters and Station 82, Lolli said.

But due to the increased cost of the stations, the city finds itself about $9.9 million short using a “worse case scenario,” said assistant City Manager Nathan Cahall.

Cahall said staff is recommending borrowing the money and paying it back over about 20 years. He said for every $1 million the city borrows, the annual debt service is $67,000.

The city also could borrow some of the money and use about $1.1 million of the city’s uncommitted ARPA funds, he said.

That legislation may be voted on at one of the next two council meetings, Oct. 3 or Oct. 17.

Cahall called it “a very important decision and also very difficult.”

Lolli cautioned against using ARPA funds due to the expected increase cost of demolishing and remediating the former Middletown Paperboard property. The lowest bid for demolishing the property was $2.2 million and Lolli “guessed” the remediation would cost an additional $1 million to $2 million.

He hopes to have the property cleared by the end of the year. He said when the “eyesore” is gone it will be a “great thing for Middletown.”

The property may be “ready to do something” in early 2025, Lolli said.

Fire station details

  • New fire headquarters location replacing the 1.38-acre site on Roosevelt Boulevard: A 3.6-acre site at Yankee Road and Cherry Street owned by the city as acquired from the Middletown City Schools and former site of Garfield school. Size: 24,300 square feet. Total cost: $10.5 million. Expected completion: November 2024.
  • Station No. 81 location replacing 0.28-acre site on Clinton Street: A 2.85-acre site at Henry Avenue and Charles Street owned by the city as acquired from the Middletown City Schools and former site of the Jefferson school. Size: 10,200 square feet. Cost: $5 million. Construction begins in August 2024, expected completion by June 2025.
  • Station No. 85 location replacing 0.86-acre site at Central Avenue and Breiel Boulevard: A 2-acre parcel at Sophie Avenue and Stolz Drive encompassing the undeveloped, southern portion of Dowling Park owned by the city. Size: 10,200 square feet. Cost: $5 million. Construction begins in August 2024, expected completion by June 2025.
  • No. 82 location replacing 0.88-acre site on Dixie Highway: A 2.7-acre site at Ohio 122 and Atrium Boulevard acquired from Premier Health/Atrium Medical Center. Size: 11,800 square feet. Cost: $5.9 million. Expected completion by November 2024.

SOURCE: City of Middletown/App Architecture

Central Connections: A timeline

Nov. 6, 2012: Middletown taxpayers pass a five-year, 1-mill levy to provide or maintain senior services at the Middletown Area Senior Center.

Aug. 16, 2015: The name of the Middletown Area Senior Center is changed to Central Connections.

May 2, 2017: Middletown taxpayers renew a five-year, 1-mill levy to provide or maintain senior services at the center.

November 2021: Diane Rodgers is hired as executive director. She says she moved from Reno, Nev., where she oversaw a senior center and worked with the homeless population, to be closer to her daughter who lives in New York.

July 29, 2022: Rodgers signs for a mortgage loan through First Financial Bank for $450,000, then does a loan modification that increases the amount to $650,000, according to the Butler County Recorder’s Office. Her signature and job title are listed on the loan that matures on July 29, 2024.

Nov. 1, 2022: Ribbon-cutting is held to celebrate the $1.5 million in renovations of Central Connections, 3907 Central Ave.

Dec. 31, 2022: Senior citizens center levy expires after generating $7 million over 10 years.

May 5, 2023: D.E.R. Development Co. files a lien against Central Connections, saying the company is owed $266,594.52, plus allowable interest.

May 31, 2023: Rodgers files vandalism report at Central Connections. Middletown police say that leads to the investigation of center’s finances.

July 24, 2023: The Council on Aging terminates its three-year contract with Central Connections. Fifty employees are laid off.

July 25, 2023: Nearly 75 senior citizens and former and current employees of Central Connections attend a meeting in the café with Rick Fishbaugh, board president, and Rodgers.

July 27, 2023: Rodgers is terminated as executive director of Central Connections and escorted out of the building by Middletown police.

Aug. 3, 2023: During a special City Council meeting and after an executive session, City Manager Paul Lolli announces council has agreed to move forward with the possible purchase of the Central Connections building and land and for an unknown amount that will come out of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) fund.

Aug. 5, 2023: In an email to the Journal-News, attorney Tyrone Borger, who is representing Rodgers, writes that he and his client have been “informed that there is an ongoing investigation. As such, while my client would like to comment and clear up several misconceptions. She is taking my advice and refusing to comment on any allegations at this time.”

Aug. 9, 2023: Middletown Police Chief David Birk says his department is working with the Ohio attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation into the criminal investigation into the finances of Central Connections.

Aug. 11, 2023: Central Connections announces more layoff and the closing of the cafe and bar. The hours are reduced to 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Aug. 15, 2023: City Council votes unanimously to allow City Manager Paul Lolli to enter into a lease agreement with Central Connections. The lease is $50 per month. By the end of 2023, the city has the right to purchase the building and property for $1.8 million.

Aug. 21, 2023: Vincent “Scott” Smith, husband of the former executive director, arrested and charged with seven counts of passing bad checks, all felonies.

Aug. 23, 2023: Smith appears in Middletown Municipal Court for his arraignment. Judge James Sherron sets Smith’s OR bond at $5,000.

Sept. 6, 2023: A Middletown detective testifies that Smith’s signature on the seven bounced checks doesn’t match his signature on a court document. The charges against Smith are bound over to a Butler County grand jury by Middletown Municipal Court Judge James Sherron.

Sept. 19, 2023: Middletown City Council authorizes city manager to enter into an agreement to purchase Central Connections property for $1.8 million, using ARPA funds.

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