State says it will work to make Forest Fair demolition happen

It appeared the $8 million Butler County Land Bank project to demolish the old Forest Fair mall might be in jeopardy because the deadline to spend the money is May 2023, but now state officials say they will work with the county.

The Journal-News reached out to the Ohio Department of Development and Gov. Mike DeWine’s office Tuesday about the May 2023 deadline that appeared to jeopardize the $8 million project to raze the old Forest Fair mall but didn’t receive a response. Butler County officials said the DoD wouldn’t tell them if the deadline could be extended.

Here is the combined comment from the state received last night:

“If entities need an extension to their agreement, Development will begin working with them early next year,” the statement reads. “The goal of the program is to help communities tear down dilapidated buildings and revitalize the area for future economic development.”

When the state biennial budget passed in June 2021, it allocated $150 million for commercial and residential demolitions and $350 million for brownfield remediation. Each of the 88 counties automatically received $500,000 for demolition and $1 million for brownfield remediation, which is the removal of hazardous materials left when industrial, or even commercial such as dry cleaners blight is downed.

The remainder of the money was to be awarded on a “first come first served” basis. The land bank applied for $11.5 million to topple 51 eyesores with the the Ohio Department of Development in February and was awarded $8.7 million late last month. The bulk of it, $7.9 million, is to topple the old Forest Fair mall which straddles Fairfield and Forest Park in partnership with potential developer Hillwood Construction Services.

“We’re waiting for the state, if they cannot move the timeline the project cannot be completed, the money has to be spent by May 2023,” Land Bank Executive Director Seth Geisler told his board this week. “They cannot move that fast.”

Geisler told the Journal-News he spoke with the DoD about extending the deadline and they said “they don’t know if it is an option or not at this point.” Land bank officials said a project of his magnitude — there are zoning and other issues to contend with — could take 12 to 18 months.

The majority of the mall property is in Hamilton County, but those officials had already submitted demolition applications to the state so Hillwood came to Butler County for help in February.

Ben Davis with Hillwood told the Journal-News they can’t comment on the deadline issue. He told the land bank board in February they were just beginning redevelopment talks with Fairfield and Forest Park but they hope to put light industrial buildings on the site that could have a value of $150 million and potentially produce 900 to 1,500 jobs. According to the funding application, the property is currently valued at $9.2 million, with $2 million of that on the Butler County side.

He said they are hoping to redevelop the entire 90-acre site.

Hillwood has not purchased the property yet, according to the Butler County Auditor’s website the last property transfer occurred in 2010.

The total mall demolition is estimated at $10.5 million and there is a $2.6 million local match the developer would pay. According to the subrecipient agreement the land bank has with the developer Geisler said, “we basically make sure they follow the state guidelines, that’s all we do.”

Jim Rokakis with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, who has been working as a consultant with the state land bank association on this program, told the Journal-News Butler County is not alone with deadline issues.

“I think the state understands the deadline pressure and I’m fairly certain they’re going to be flexible...,” Rokakis said. “Butler County is not alone, there are a lot of other counties that received funds that are probably not going to make that May 31 deadline.”

The whole intent of providing the money was to spur redevelopment and since the county received most of the amount needed it would appear the DoD found the project important. Butler County Treasurer Nancy Nix, who chairs the land bank board, told the Journal-News the state is “incentivized” to get these eyesores demolished so she finds it hard to believe the state wouldn’t give some leeway on the deadline.

“I’m hopeful that they will extend the deadline, why are they going to announce $8 million in funding and then make it impossible to use,” Nix said. “I have to imagine there is some common sense behind the scenes and we’re just in a waiting pattern

In addition to the mall Geisler also applied for funds to demolish 26 Hamilton eyesores, 15 Middletown properties, 4 others from Fairfield and one each from New Miami and Lemon, Liberty, Ross and St. Clair townships. He told the Journal-News four of those projects are off the table now and two more might come off.

Commissioner Don Dixon asked if the deadline holds firm whether the county can use the funds elsewhere. Geisler said they can’t add projects that haven’t already been approved but could use the extra funds if any of the approved projects go over budget.

He told the Journal-News they could also use money for enhancements like sidewalks after the buildings are razed.

Geisler said he plans to email the DoD again next week if he hasn’t heard from them.

The Journal-News reached out to the DoD and they did not address the deadline issue.

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