Downtown Middletown’s new director brings sense of collaboration

When Jeff Payne takes a walk through the Central Avenue corridor of downtown Middletown, he sees the potential of what many of the buildings could become.

Payne, 62, who left retirement to become the new executive director of Downtown Middletown Inc. in early September, brings a lifetime of knowledge and 30 years of project management experience to the nonprofit organization focused on the revitalization and preservation of the city’s downtown.

“I wanted to work in an area where my experience and skills were easily transferable,” said Payne, who has experience as an urban planner. “This is a version or another application of urban planning.”

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Since being selected to succeed former executive director Mallory Greenham, Payne has been having a lot of a number of one-on-one meetings with various stakeholders and city officials, according to Phillip Harrison, DMI board president.

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DMI received about two dozen applications for the position and the board interviewed six people for the job, Harrison said.

“(Payne) brought a lot of experience from working with the city of Dayton, financial and other experiences working with various entities,” Harrison said. “We were seeking someone to help in areas where we need the help.”

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Payne hopes to take downtown Middletown to the next levels in development and see the Central Avenue corridor reach its full potential as well as increasing collaboration with stakeholders, residents and visitors to the city. Payne’s background also includes work in the Main Street program. He said Heritage Ohio, which oversees the Main Street programs in the state, has made a number of adjustments in how they manage their requirements but it still supports the common principles and the model is very much supported.

“With their experience, their process is more refined,” Payne said. “It’s an economic tool for smaller and older cities that uses, in part, historic preservation and it’s a platform where they do a lot of their economic development.”

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When asked what was the next level for Middletown’s downtown development, Payne said the 10 blocks of Central Avenue from the Great Miami River to the railroad tracks.

“Each and every block is an asset to the corridor but they may not be developed to their fullest potential,” he said. “That would be the next step of Central Avenue — in what ways can we make that happen.”

Payne said the efforts of the city through its recently adopted strategic downtown plan.

“It’s a wonderful tool in collaboration with a number of partners that we can use as a guidepost to step up and enhance the rest of the corridor,” he said. “The city has a new zoning code that is about to be approved and that will be helpful. The city’s involvement has been wonderful.”

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The challenge remains that as more interest is created, the organization and the city cannot do everything, Payne said.

“We need to increase collaboration and relationships with people looking to start businesses,” he said. “We really need to make the corridor attractive for new businesses and people to come work, play, eat and shop downtown.”

Payne said there are parking issues and other concerns about other amenities to encourage walking and cycling as well as creating a nice peaceful gathering place. He said some of that is in the downtown strategic plan and that it will take time to develop priorities and bring everyone together.

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“We’re taking this document (the city’s downtown strategic plan) and go after the low-hanging fruit and develop strategies to get the resources for larger projects,” he said.

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