Butler County officials are confident they will be able to get an extension to June 2024 to preserve an $8 million state grant to down the old Forest Fair Mall, but some Fairfield officials aren’t wild about what might come next.
The $7.9 million grant the county land bank received to raze the eyesore along Interstate 275 last year appeared to be in jeopardy because the May 31 deadline was impossible to reach. Land bank Executive Director Seth Geisler has been communicating with the Ohio Department of Development.
“I left the conversation with a promising understanding that an extension would occur,” Geisler told the Journal-News. “However, we have not had an official announcement that there will be an extension.”
When the state biennial budget passed in June 2021, it allocated $150 million for commercial and residential demolitions and $350 million for brownfield remediation. The Butler County land bank won $7.9 million of the demolition money to raze the old Forest Fair Mall — now called the Cincinnati Mall — along Interstate 275, the total demolition is estimated at $10.5 million and there is a $2.6 million local match the developer would pay.
Butler County Treasurer Nancy Nix, who chairs the land bank board, said she finds it hard to believe their grant wouldn’t be extended. Officials have estimated it could take 12 to 18 months to down such a massive development.
“It’s important that if they offered these monies to bring these major blighted projects that they allow the time for these things to proceed,” Nix said. “It takes quite a while to get all your ducks in a row when you’re talking about a project that massive. I do believe they understand that and are also incentivized to allow for these extensions.”
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 last February and was awarded $8.7 million in October. The bulk of it was for the mall which straddles Fairfield and Forest Park, in partnership with potential developer Hillwood Construction Services.
Megan Nagy with the DoD told the Journal-News they are willing to extend the deadlines if counties ask but she wouldn’t address Butler County specifically.
“Counties have until Feb. 13, 2023 to request a grant extension for the Demolition and Site Revitalization Program. Once the request is received, Development will work with the entity to execute their awards,” she said. “The extension will modify the current end date of grant agreements from May 31, 2023 to June 30, 2024.”
The funding was approved in 2021 but it took a while for the state to develop grant guidelines. The deadline to apply for funding was last February but the awards — with the May demolition completion deadline — weren’t announced until October.
The Journal-News reached out to the Ohio Department of Development and Gov. Mike DeWine’s office last fall about the deadline that appeared to jeopardize the $8 million project.
Here was the combined comment from the state:
“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.”
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.
Ben Davis with Hillwood could not be reached for comment but told the Journal-News previously they couldn’t comment because they didn’t yet own the property. According to the Butler and Hamilton county auditor’s websites, the properties have not been sold.
He 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. 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.
Fairfield Mayor Mitch Rhodus told the Journal-News 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.”
Fairfield Economic Development Manager Nathaniel Kaelin told the Journal-News there have been discussions about keeping the Kohls store intact and they expect “the developer will work with Kohl’s to determine how they fit into a redevelopment project.”
He said they don’t have any more details about the developer’s plans.
“A major redevelopment of the mall likely requires planning commission and/or city council approval, including multiple meetings and public hearings,” Kaelin said. “The potential developer is aware of the city’s comprehensive plan, including the area plan for the South Gilmore/Mack Road area.”
Chris Anderson, Forest Park’s director of community development said they haven’t met with Hillwood recently, “but as far as I know everything’s moving along, a little slower than we thought but still moving.”