Hamilton looks to form port authority led by its city manager

City Manager Joshua Smith would step down from current role to lead new entity, if approved.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Hamilton is close to establishing its own port authority and development finance agency, which would be a tool designed to focus on the city’s economic future.

And City Manager Joshua Smith would step down from his position to lead this new entity, which, if it happens, could be established as early as spring.

“The city’s been doing well in recent years, but we don’t want to take anything for granted,” said Smith, who’s been Hamilton’s city manager since 2010. “We understand the world is changing rapidly, and we need to remain laser-focused in making Hamilton a desirable place to work, either in a brick-and-mortar location, a hybrid work situation that may utilize co-office space, or a remote situation where you work from home.”

The world is changing faster and faster post-COVID, and the goal is to make Hamilton so desirable that it doesn’t matter a person’s work schedule, whether if it’s a traditional on-site Monday through Friday job, a hybrid work schedule, or a 100% work-from-home gig. The bottom line, Smith said, is, “We need those workers in Hamilton; otherwise, we suffer from an income tax perspective.”

Hamilton’s income tax collections have steadily grown, with the exception of static growth during the first year of the COVID pandemic. In 2017, the city collected nearly $26.58 million in income tax revenues, and they’re projected to collect around $37.5 million by the end of this year, according to the city’s finance department.

The city allocates 77.5% of its income tax collection to the general fund. For 2024, the city expects to collect $35 million in income tax, and the portion that goes to the general fund will make up just under half of that main operating fund for the city.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Hamilton’s goal is to create an entity that would be a merger of a port authority and development finance agency, or DFA.

Under Ohio law, a port authority can perform various activities that “enhance, foster, aid, provide or promote transportation, economic development, housing, recreation, education, governmental operations, culture or research.” A DFA specializes in community and economic development finance, which would assist in obtaining capital that might not otherwise be available.

“Statutorily, a port authority has certain powers. A development finance agency has certain powers. We’re trying to merge a couple of things together so we can streamline an economic development toolbox, so that when someone comes in, it literally is a one-stop-shop,” Smith said.

Hamilton also does not need the buy-in from everyone Smith is seeking to garner support as state law provides municipalities to create their own port authority. But he’s having conversations in order to be as transparent at possible through conversations with the leaders of organizations and entities that would be partners.

Many community organizations and businesses have committed verbally and financially, with some providing upward of six figures.

“We’re taking the longer track in doing this. I feel it’s important to have conversations with the Butler County Port Authority, sit down and explain the why to the county commissioners, and go that route first,” Smith said. “Our ports should be complementary, not competitive.”

The next step is to have conversations with the Butler County Port Authority and Butler County Administrator Judi Boyko, and eventually the Butler County Commission. Smith said he had been working to get the meetings with county leaders, but schedules had not yet aligned until recently.

Day One for the port, if it’s approved by the city council, could be sometime in the first quarter of 2024, and the transition from city manager to running the new entity will be up to City Council.

“I told them I would stay as long or as little as they want me to,” he said. “I’m not sure how long it would take for them to identify a new city manager but I have promised them that if it takes three months, that’s fine, if it takes nine months, that’s fine, that may loyalty is to the city and if they want me to be here longer I will.”

Mayor Pat Moeller said when it comes time to transition to a new city manager, it would be someone from Hamilton’s administrative team.

“Joshua has built a great city team, which has been key to Hamilton’s incredible transformation,” he said. “City Council will consider current members of the city, so an internal selection process. This is such a great city team, they are proven with what they can do and they have experience in helping create some great projects.”

The inception of the idea for a Hamilton Port Authority came out of a summer city council retreat when members and administrators discussed a strategic planning SWOT analysis, and some of the threats that came up were about the possible continuation of the work-from-home trend, and what if it grew. That would take a significant hit on the city’s income tax collection.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Something Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Purval said to media in September really supported Smith’s push for a city port authority. He said his city’s downtown urban core is an engine that doesn’t just drive Cincinnati, but the region.

Cincinnati has a number of entities focused on some aspect of economic development, from the city’s internal department to external agencies like 3CDC, the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority, and even the soccer team FC Cincinnati, which is building a mixed-use district north of its TQL Stadium.

This potential move for Hamilton is akin to what the Hamilton Parks Conservancy did for the city’s parks. When Smith came to Hamilton, there was no standalone parks department. Instead, it was a division under Public Works, and parks were just something they did behind street repairs and utility work.

“By removing parks and making it a standalone entity, where the sole mission was to improve the parks ... and they literally transformed our parks, and that’s because that’s all they thought about. They lived and breathed the parks system,” Smith said. “This is no different.”

And as the country’s economy is entering “a very interesting time,” as Smith described it, the city needs to have an entity focused on economic development, focusing on improving real estate.

“Right now, the general fund is very healthy. We’re on a great track, a great trajectory. We just want to maintain that and hopefully improve that,” he said.

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