COVID-19 relief fund recipients: Money will benefit many Butler County residents

The Butler County commissioners’ COVID-19 relief funds will pay for new educational and workforce development opportunities, high-speed internet access, countywide infrastructure upgrades and much more.

The Butler County commissioners this week allocated $45.8 million worth of American Rescue Plan Act funds to 15 outside entities and another $1.3 million to county elected officials for various educational, infrastructure, mental health, community center upgrades and other projects.

President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) into law March 11, 2021 and it allocated $350 billion to help local governments with pains caused by the coronavirus pandemic

Not everyone will receive exactly what they were seeking, but recipients tell the Journal-News the money will be well spent benefiting many Butler County residents. The county received an eclectic array of funding requests including economic development projects, help for the homeless, propping up small businesses, park and bike trail expansion and a new county morgue to name a few. They ranged in price from $24 million for new advanced aviation and manufacturing training centers in Middletown and Hamilton to $125,000 for healthcare worker training.

The city of Middletown was a big winner receiving $3 million to clean up the Middletown Paperboard “disaster area” after fire ravaged the vacant building two years ago; $1.5 million to help pay for expansion of the Sonny Hill Community Center and $7 million for Butler Tech’s advanced aviation training center at the city’s airport.

“We are elated and excited to get moving forward on the reclamation of the Middletown Paperboard site...,” soon-to-be City Manager Paul Lolli told the Journal-News. “That’s a priority for Middletown to get that blighted site that is just kind of disaster area all cleaned up and ready to do some development on it.”

The original estimate was $2.4 million for the project but inflation drove the price up $1 million. The city originally asked for $6.6 million to help “transform and redevelop” the Ohio 4 corridor entrance to the city and also support the Oakland Neighborhood revitalization.

Lolli said “we’ll look into the future to see what we need as far as funding” for remediation of the 24-acre former AK Steel headquarters and research site; to acquire, demolish and remediate the old 19-acre CETA site and for the Oakland neighborhood housing initiative.

The city and schools also had asked the commissioners for $6 million to help with the estimated $12 million Sonny Hill Community Center expansion. The commissioners decided to invest $1.5 million in the project and the city and schools have also committed funding.

Commissioner T.C. Rogers recommended the lower amount saying the money will help them address the negative effects of the pandemic and “I want to do to be consistent with what we’ve done with Hamilton.”

“I think it’s a factor about how much money goes to one community versus another,” Rogers said. “I know that we’re doing other things in the Middletown area and you add those up and we’re making a significant contribution.”

Middletown School Board President Chris Urso said they “appreciate any allocation the commissioners deemed worthy” for their project. He said they can obviously “pare down” the project but hopes the commissioners might consider giving them more money in the second round of funding.

“We’re hopeful that maybe down the road we can engage and that door is hopefully still open and we can engage in conversation with the commissioners if there are some resources still left on the table,” Urso said. “Because the money would be well used. Any amount we’re allocated, we’re going to be the best fiscal stewards possible.”

He said he felt Commissioner Don Dixon was open to considering additional money. Dixon told the Journal-News “it could happen but there’s no guarantees.”

The commissioners also gave $1.5 million to the Greater Miami Valley YMCA to make improvements to the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Hamilton, they asked for $1.9 million. BTW Center Director Ebony Brock said the contribution “means quite a bit to the city.”

“I honestly believe it’s going to be beneficial for the city but it’s also going to continue the transformative work we do here at the BTW Center,” Brock said. “The amount of people we serve throughout the year, we now are able to serve even more with the additional space. I am excited about the opportunities and possibilities to come.”

Both of the big cities will also benefit from the $15 million award the board agreed to give Butler Tech for two new advanced technology training centers, an aviation facility at Hook Field in Middletown ($7 million) and advanced manufacturing in Hamilton ($8 million). The vocational school wanted $22.9 million. Butler Tech officials could not be reached for comment but Lolli said the new center at the airport will be a boon for economic development.

“That’s a huge win for not only Butler Tech but for the city of Middletown,” Lolli said. “The city if Middletown owns the airport so that will help us tremendously in terms of promoting aviation, having an aviation school out there, partnering with Butler Tech to expand opportunities for young people who want to get into aviation as a career and all of the ancillary things, maybe it will produce jobs in that area.”

The commissioners will have approximately $27 million left in ARPA funds, however they have also said they want to invest in a new morgue so Butler County Coroner Dr. Lisa Mannix can locate her entire operation under one roof and give the sheriff money to expand his 911 dispatch center. Those projects are estimated at $3.1 million and $4.5 million respectively.

County Administrator Judi Boyko said they could possibly use some of the $15 million capital reserve fund that was established to finance recommendations from the new space study or ARPA.

The commissioners also agreed to spent $4 million helping townships with their roads next year and have earmarked another $4 million for 2024. Ross Twp. Trustee Ellen Yordy was thrilled to hear the news because they have several roads that “desperately” need attention.

“That would be awesome, especially for the road department, because they always don’t get very much money when things are divvied out,” Yordy said. “This is great.”

Many of the funded projects don’t on their face appear to qualify for ARPA funds, but the U.S. Treasury relaxed the rules along the way. Expanding internet service was one category specifically identified for funding and the commissioners set a $10 million budget Monday. The requests for proposals are due July 29.

The Butler County Visitors Bureau was directly hit by the pandemic when travel screeched to a halt. Mark Hecquet president and CEO of the BCVB was looking for $1.4 million to recoup lost hotel tax revenues due to the pandemic and commissioners approved $750,000.

“Our organization has really experienced some difficult times, our whole industry in Butler County has really taken it worse than many, so these funds will be used to further market our county,” Hecquet said. “To help expedite the recovery of our travel industry here locally, so it’s a fantastic lifeline from the commissioners.”

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