The potential developers of the old Forest Fair Mall site are starting to meet with various players in the complicated deal that involves two cities, two counties and three school districts.
Butler County Land Bank Executive Director Seth Geisler has been getting regular updates from Hillwood Construction Services, the potential developer of the 90-acre site that straddles Fairfield and Forest Park. He told the Journal-News Hillwood had “a very productive meeting” with Forest Park officials already and meetings are scheduled next week with Fairfield and the three school district involved, Fairfield, Northwest and Winton Woods.
The Land Bank is involved because the developer asked them to apply for a demolition grant through a state program that provided $150 million to help raze commercial and residential eyesores. The land bank won $8.7 million of it and $7.9 million was earmarked for the mall demolition, there is a $2.6 million local match the developer pays.
Hillwood doesn’t yet own the site — that is currently valued at $9.2 million, with $2 million of that on the Butler County side — but Geisler said “from what I understand the purchase of the property will be the last step and they do have an agreement with the property owner to purchase the property once all the ‘hurdles’ are cleared.”
Ben Davis with Hillwood told the land bank board a year ago 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.
Davis could not be reached for comment but told the Journal-News previously they couldn’t comment because they didn’t yet own the property.
Fairfield Economic Development Manager Nathaniel Kaelin told the Journal-News, “we think that they understand the direction from the comprehensive plan and the community, but at this point we are not aware of what they’ve determined they would like to put forward as a final plan.” He said the developer wants to meet with them next week.
Kaelin said the comprehensive plan for that area calls for “a mix of uses, commercial, retail, office, uses like that.”
Fairfield Mayor Mitch Rhodus said he is glad another meeting has been scheduled and reiterated while he would be thrilled to see the eyesore demolished, he isn’t wild about warehouses at the city’s front door.
“Getting it demolished is a great idea, we’ve been wanting it done,” Rhodus said. “We’re very encouraged but we’re more concerned with what’s going to be the next product. It’s a gateway to the community so we’re concerned with what plans and what companies want to bring to us.”
The schools are involved because they are generally made whole when development incentives like tax increment financing districts are brokered. Kaelin said there are TIFs on the property.
“The mall sits in two cities, two counties and three school districts, there are outstanding payments that are due to the Fairfield City School District which is why they are involved,” Kaelin said. “If a redevelopment happened, if there was some type of refinancing, restructuring of the economic development deal that was done when the mall was renovated, then they would be part of the conversation.”
The project actually appeared doomed until recently when the Ohio Department of Development agreed to move the grant deadline from May 31 to June 30, 2024 to complete the demolition. The grant wasn’t awarded until last fall so it would have been impossible to get all the puzzle pieces together and the huge structures downed by the deadline.
Under the state program, each of the 88 counties automatically received $500,000 for demolition and the remainder of the money was awarded on a “first-come, first-served” basis. The land bank applied for $11.5 million to topple 47 eyesores — including the mall — with the ODOD and aside from the mall award has $882,850 to demolish the rest. Geisler said a couple projects have dropped off and 43 are in various stages of completion and reimbursement by the state.
Geisler said the other projects are on track to be completed by the May deadline and “85% of the work is complete at this point and a little over 60% of the grant funds have been reimbursed for work already completed. All of the projects have been awarded to demolition contractors.”
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