Middletown asks Butler County for $1.5M for community center funding shortfall

Project is joint venture between city and schools, inflation has caused rise in costs.

Butler County commissioners are considering a request by Middletown leaders for an additional $1.5 million to help close a funding gap for the Sonny Hill Community Center renovation project.

A group of leaders from the city of Middletown, schools and other organizations filled the commissioners’ chambers Monday hoping to secure $1.5 million to help close a $5.7 million gap in funding for the major renovation of the Sonny Hill Community Center.

The project is a joint venture between the city and schools, and they have numerous other funding partners. The commissioners have already given $1.5 million.

Schools Treasurer Randy Bertram said all told they have secured $9.1 million for the project that is now projected to cost $14.8 million, “it’s jumped up quite a bit.”

“When we look at our original estimated cost we were at $11.4 million,” he said. “Well we know inflation has hit us, hit us hard, things have changed.”

Bertram said they have been trying to close the gap with other sources, they’ve asked Cleveland Cliffs for $1 million and a $250,000 promise has come in from another educational source. Through “value engineering” they believe they can save $750,000 and another $2.3 million can be collected through sponsorships, memberships and donations.

Commissioner Don Dixon voiced some reservations about the plan, particularly the 10,000-square-foot gymnasium with a $4.3 million price tag.

“I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that, it’s almost half what you’re spending for the pre-school and annex and everything else,” he said. “Why not more on the pre-school, other side of the equation? Does a gymnasium really cost that much?”

Bertram said the original estimate was $4.8 million and it is a “bells-and-whistles” facility that is designed for competition. That is one of the areas he said they are planning to “value engineer” and hope they can cut the cost to $3.5 million. The gym is also expected to be a revenue-generator through rental fees.

Another 13,000-square feet of renovated space will be dedicated to educational and health-related endeavors. Middletown Health Commissioner Jackie Phillips said they are discussing naming it the Sonny Hill Education and Enrichment Center, “it’s more than a community center.”

“Community centers often are for recreation,” she said “We’re talking about a place where families can come, the kids can come, we can do programming, we can do a lot of thing to wrap around the most vulnerable part of our population.”

Dixon told the Journal-News he is primarily interested in the programming Phillips discussed, he plans to talk individually with Middletown leaders about the exact direction of the facility.

“I understand the sports thing and it’s important and it gets kids there,” Dixon said. “But the main purpose is I think for early intervention and continuing education as the kids grow up. A place for learning and the other activities. I think they should take precedent over the gymnasium.”

The commissioners gave the city and schools $1.5 million of their American Rescue Plan Act funds when originally asked for funds a year ago. They gave the same amount for Hamilton’s community center project and recently approved $1.5 million for Oxford’s one-stop-shop for social services center.

Commissioner T.C. Rogers told the Journal-News he also has some questions about the precise plans for the Sonny Hill project and he hasn’t made up his mind yet on funding it. He also mentioned they must be fair in terms of allocations of ARPA money. It was his suggestion to give $1.5 million to the three cities for community center projects.

“Just like everything else, I’ll think about it and see how that meets the requirements which we have already established for the other ARPA funds, so we can be consistent,” Rogers said.

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter told the Journal-News she definitely supports giving the $1.5 million to the project as-is.

“I absolutely support the Sonny Hill project,” Carpenter said and addressed the gym question, “It’s an issue, but it’s important that they have a well designed top class gymnasium, so they’re able to rent it out and support the students for many years to come. It’s a key part.”

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