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2 funding options give Liberty Twp. walkability plan legs

Liberty Twp.’s vision to make the community more pedestrian friendly is apparently growing legs, with potential funding from Butler County and a private developer.

A tunnel under Liberty Way that would connect the north side of the busy road with Voice of America MetroPark in West Chester Twp., might have two potential funding sources.

Neil Hughes, president of Southeast Investment Realty, the developer of the $200 million Village North mixed-use development, coming to the intersection of Liberty Way and Butler Warren Road, told the Journal-News he knows such a pathway would financially benefit his development so he is interested.

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“We’re a stakeholder and a very interested party,” he said. “We’re interested in having the conversation continue.”

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The tunnel is part of an estimated $11 million — the rough tunnel estimate is $1.4 million — project that includes a pedestrian bridge over Ohio 129, a pedestrian bridge between Cincinnati Children’s and The Christ Hospital over Interstate 75 and adding a walkway on Liberty Way.

“It’s real money in the real world anytime you look at it,” Hughes said about the price estimate. “It’s all part of looking at the economics, looking at the tax impacts…”

The new development will reside in both townships when it is fully built out, but the tunnel they are talking about would only be within West Chester’s limits — the tunnel in Liberty’s plan would be closer to Cox Road — that’s why Trustee Mark Welch has been discussing it with Hughes. The trustees in both townships met a year-and-a-half ago to discuss Liberty’s walkability plan, at the time Welch’s response was lukewarm, his tune has changed now that there is a real project on the table.

“For us as a township and the county the safety aspect cannot be overstated. I can’t imagine people want their kids to cross over to get to this big, shiny, beautiful park,” Welch said. “So I want to work closely with the developer to get them to share in the cost.”

The Liberty trustees have been adamant local taxpayer money won’t be used to construct these various pedestrian walkways — the only project they have gotten hard estimates on is a $3.2 million bridge over Ohio 129 — and they have been courting private stakeholders for their support. Board President Tom Farrell said they haven’t actually asked them — a number of stakeholders like Liberty Center, Cincinnati Childrens Liberty Campus and The Christ Hospital — to pony up cash yet, but they are about to.

Another possible new funding source could be Butler County. After the county’s general fund debt rolls to zero by the end of 2020, commissioners said they are committed to supporting economic development projects in local jurisdictions.

MORE: Pedestrian bridge over Ohio 129 estimated at $3.2 million

Butler County Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News previously he envisions the county’s annual investment of funds in economic development projects in local jurisdictions countywide will be in the $1 million to $5 million range.

The county in recent years has been paying about $10 million — the amount was increased in 2015 when the 2020 plan was initiated — retiring the general fund debt, that stood at $92.3 million in 2009 and will be down to $17.6 million by year’s end.

Dixon told the Journal-News on Monday that Liberty Twp.’s walkability projects appear to be a good use of some of the 2020 money.

“We would want to see what everybody else is putting in the mix, it wouldn’t be something we would pay for entirely, but we could participate in something like that,” Dixon said. “It would (fit into the 2020 plan), I think they are on the right track looking to the developers to pick up a substantial part of that because it enhances their project too.”

Farrell was thrilled when he heard about possible new funding sources. He says walkability, according to the experts, is crucial to sustainability in the suburbs of the future.

Village North — with restaurants, office space and hundreds of apartments — is being marketed as a place where “people can live, work and play,” Hughes told the Journal-News previously.

“The walkability is not just the ability to walk for exercise, it’s destination walking,” Farrell said. “The experts are all telling us that the suburb of the future will have this walkability. The townships, the cities, the areas that incorporate this walkability will be sustainable. The ones that don’t will not be sustainable. I’m very encouraged to see the county and West Chester getting on board.”

Liberty Twp. Trustee Steve Schramm said he is well aware of the county’s 2020 plan and he has had discussions with Dixon about funding for the proposed Millikin Road interchange, but he wasn’t aware funding for the walkability plan might also be possible.

“Wow,” was his first reaction. “His big push to get the debt paid off was all about making these funds available. I’ve been dangling Millikin Road in front of him for the last three years. I’m well aware of that pot of gold that’s going to be available at the end of the rainbow.”

Hamilton will be the first recipient of the county’s investment funds with a $2.5 million contribution for roads to support the mega Spooky Nook at Champion Mill sports and convention center complex.

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