Middletown may scale back development plans at I-75 and Ohio 122

To get development moving in the area, Middletown may scale back its 11-year-old vision for high-end offices in the city’s East End area surrounding the interchange of Interstate 75 and Ohio 122, City Manager Doug Adkins has told city council.

The Middletown Master Plan, created in 2005, called for a focus on high-paying, high-tech jobs in the East End. The area, also known as the Renaissance East District, has more than 500 acres available for development within a mile of the interchange.

“As the Dayton and Cincinnati (metropolitan areas) grow and expand to fill the interstate corridor between the two central cities, the potential for Middletown to enhance its position as a more significant office venue appears possible,” the 2005 master plan states.

A Journal-News article in 2005 quoted Brad Schwab, a consultant with the plan’s creator, McKenna and Associates, saying Middletown should target 3,000 high-tech jobs within the following five years.

The area at that time already had a bright outlook. Middletown Regional Hospital, now known as Atrium Medical Center, already planned to open its new campus by late 2007 at Ohio 122 and Union Road.

Atrium, costing $195 million, did open in December of 2007, as predicted — the same month the Great Recession hit, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research — and that stalled the economy and development projects nationwide.

When the city in 2007 created its East End Master Plan, that plan's summary called the area "Middletown's front door." It added: "The East End/Renaissance Area is an outstanding stage for developing the upscale business and living environment Middletown seeks to encourage, and by which the community desires to be identified."

That 2007 plan envisioned 800,000 to 1.2 million square feet of office space and 280,000-390,000 square feet of medical offices, and took a long view of the development, predicting it would take 15-25 years to build out, as the Dayton and Cincinnati metropolitan areas combined. The area’s 2007 master plan predicted that merger of metropolitan areas could happen between 2020 and 2030. Others since have predicted it could happen by 2020.

Growth so far

In 2013, Hampton Inn opened an 87-room hotel on Town Place Boulevard. But in early 2014, a developer who was considering building a 12-screen movie theater abandoned those plans, citing a lack of tenant interest.

In a huge win for the area, AK Steel Corp. in February 2015, announced plans to build a $36 million research and innovation center in the area.

Also, MNR Oil this February won approval from the Middletown Planning Commission to build a $2 million BP gas station with a Subway restaurant near the interchange. It should open in late summer.

Denise Hamet, who was Middletown’s economic development director at the time, hailed AK Steel’s innovation center as a spark that could help realize the city’s long-term goals for the district, which also have included plans for housing and some retail.

The innovation center’s “location here will stimulate additional high-tech growth in the Renaissance District,” Hamet wrote at the time. “It also presents a tremendous opportunity for AK Steel and the city of Middletown to build on their history of community partnership and support, collaboration and cooperative programs.”

Rick Pearce, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce that serves Middletown, Monroe and Trenton, is confident the area will develop, but says he doesn’t know what form that will take.

“Having access to that interstate I think has been priceless for us,” Pearce said. “Hamilton needed to build (Ohio 129), to get them access to the interstate. We happen to be on it.”

“Because of the nature of our location, being between two larger cities of Dayton and Cincinnati, we will survive and we will do well,” Pearce said. “It just depends upon how well we manage the area and our land that’s left, and what do we want it to look like, and what do we want it to be like?”

Change in course?

In January, Adkins told members of Middletown City Council: “We’re going to have to have a conversation at some point about the East End zoning.”

He told council he had spoken with Jennifer Ekey, who had recently been hired as the city’s new economic development director, and reported she and others told him that with early development plans for I-75 interchanges at Union Centre Boulevard and Austin Boulevard, “they intended to do exactly what our East End was, which is all office, high-paying jobs. And they say what happened was, the people who had the money changed that.”

Developers may very well say, “We would like to invest heavily in Middletown, but we need some flexibility in our zoning,” Adkins told the council.

“So the question is going to be, Adkins added, “What is going to be the mix of support? Do we want a Chipotle and a Chick-fil-A?”

“If Home Depot wants to go east of the highway, are we willing to look at that?” he asked, in a question council did not immediately answer.

“We’re going to have to have a conversation about those questions, and if so, how much of those 600 acres are we willing to carve out for other areas that are not exactly what we thought of 10 years ago when we thought we were going to do this?” he added.

Adkins and Ekey did not return requests for interviews this week.

“We’ve got the medical campus, we’ve got a lot of areas that I don’t think we want to do anything with, except exactly what we have always said we wanted to do,” Adkins told council. “But I think there’s going to be some, at least questions asked, about, ‘Should we open up a little more of this for more hotels, more highway-type business right there at the highway, to allow for greater expansion, get more cranes moving, more things going? More restaurants for Atrium and AK, and those types of things, in support for that?’”

No requests for rezonings have been made of the city since Adkins’ comments.

Mayor Larry Mulligan Jr. said it will be interesting to see the matter “sort its way through the process.”

“I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other,” Mulligan said. “I just think we ought to look at what works best for the area and develop the process to kind of work through that.”

Pearce said now may be a good time to contemplate rezoning the area.

“I do know that they are busy re-looking at the zoning across the city, because it needs to be updated,” Pearce said. “I don’t think that zoning’s been updated in 50 years.”

As for the East End, Pearce predicts: “It’ll flourish, it’ll take off. What it looks like, I have no idea. I don’t know if the city has an idea. I think they want one, and we’re going to work with them to help figure out what that is, but that takes a lot of time.”

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