Middletown’s focus: Develop all areas of the city

Where should city officials primarily focus their economic development attention, the East End or Downtown?

It’s a debate that some Middletonians have been having for years, and opinions vary on what is the best strategy for developing the two parts of the city separated by only six miles.

Some residents contend that city officials are spending way too much time and taxpayer money trying to rejuvenate a downtown district that has been mostly dormant for since the 1990s. They say recent public-private projects there come at the expense of other parts of town that could use more love and attention, particularly the prime real estate areas along Middletown’s Interstate 75 interchange.

But downtown advocates say bringing back the city’s core is critical to prospering the city as a whole. And they point to successes such as Cincinnati State Middletown, the Pendleton Arts Center, Murphy’s Landing, the Canal House and other recent projects as proof that investment in downtown can work.

City officials, however, don’t see a downtown versus East End rivalry. They say Middletown needs both ends of town to be successful in order to thrive.

“One feeds off of the other,” said Denise Hamet, the city’s economic development director. “There is absolutely no reason why we can’t work all parts of the city at the same time.”

The East End got a big boost this past week with AK Steel Corp.’s announcing it plans to build a new $36 million Research and Innovation Center along Interstate 75 in the Warren County portion of the city. Middletown officials say AK’s project will be a catalyst that spurs more economic development on both sides of I-75.

Rick Pearce, president/CEO of The Chamber of Commerce Serving Middletown, Monroe and Trenton, said he doesn’t think economic development is “an either/or proposition” when it comes to downtown and the East End.

“It’s my belief Middletown can support both growth areas at the same time,” he said.

Pearce called the new AK Steel Research and Innovation Center “the perfect project to boost East End development since the economic recession of 2008.”

City Manager Doug Adkins said the East End and downtown have two completely different flavors, with the downtown focused more on becoming an arts, education and entertainment district.

Leonard Robinson, a local developer, agreed, saying the East End and downtown are “two different animals,” each needing to be fed. Robinson, who is marketing various parcels of land in the area, said while downtown did not have the space for a major development like AK’s research center, there was land on the East End near one of the busiest interstate highways in the nation to suit the companies needs. Meanwhile, he called some of the proposals to redevelop Hook Field airport “intriguing” prospects that could help downtown prosper.

City officials have started a review and update of Middletown’s zoning code as well as a review of its 2005 master plan. Middletown City Council is also expected to review what has been accomplished and what is still relevant in that plan.

Robinson said a key issue is having available land with amenities such as water and sewer service because without water and sewer, there can be no development opportunities. He said the city was wise to extend its sewer lines out under I-75 to serve Bishop Fenwick High School, the Renaissance area and the Atrium Medical Center campus.

“This opened up more land to be developed,” said Robinson, who is working with an investor to develop a new gas station and restaurant east of the I-75/Ohio 122 interchange.

Projects are under way in both locations.

Over the past several months, there have been various announcements of new projects to breathe new life into both the downtown core and the East End.

In the downtown area, projects have already been announced about the redevelopment of the former Manchester Inn and adjacent Sonshine Building being transformed into a microbrewery; the Goetz Tower being converted into apartments and retail; the former Bank One building being developed into an art gallery and an event center called Windamere; the redevelopment of the Rose Furniture property; the rehabilitation of the Sorg Mansion; the redevelopment of the Sorg Opera House; and the continued development of Cincinnati State’s Middletown campus into other downtown buildings.

Recently, the Metro Parks of Butler County announced the River Center project, a proposed recreation hub along the Great Miami River on the edge of downtown that received $1 million in state capital funding. The 3,100 square-foot River Center, which is targeted to open in 2016, will have drinking water, restrooms, reservable public meeting space to support programming and trail based recreation, as well as a ranger substation.

In addition to the new AK Steel research facility, there is plenty of development activity under way on both sides of the I-75/Ohio 122 interchange that includes the city’s East End and Renaissance East District.

Renaissance East is envisioned to be regional business center and residential area that will be a mix of commercial, office, educational, healthcare and recreational uses as well as open community gathering areas and quality neighborhoods.

According to the city, more than $312 million has already been invested in the Renaissance East district, targeting industries such as advanced materials and manufacturing, aerospace and aviation, information technology, health care and life sciences, and high-tech industrial and research and development.

Nicholas Place, a new $20 million, 216-unit multi-family apartment complex is expected to break ground later this spring on South Towne Boulevard. It will be the first new market-rate multi-family complex built in the city in nearly 30 years.

Go north on Towne Boulevard, and one can see the revival of the Towne Mall Galleria with Burlington Coat Factory set to open its newest store on March 13 in the former Dillard’s building. Burlington, a leading national off-price retailer, is expected to have 75 employees and will occupy about 58,000 square feet of the 108,000 square feet of the former Dillard’s store that closed in 2008. The remainder of that building will be used by future tenants, according to the mall’s owner.

George Ragheb, one of the principals of Bless Properties, which owns the mall, recently told the Journal-News that his group is at the right place at the right time as the nation and the region come out of the recession.

“We’re coming out of a pretty bad recession and retailers are expanding,” he said. “The market is full of different needs and some cater to different demographics. We are the best location on the highway and I think we’ll do pretty well.”

While Ragheb recently declined to comment about any specifics on possible tenants or proposed planned projects, he said there will be a lot of good news soon.

“No one thought this would happen, but we now have Burlington and that adds credibility to our story,” he said. “This is a good market.”

Ragheb believes this will create a snowball effect in helping to attract other big national tenants for the mall and said he’s talking to a number of other potential tenants.

An 11,600 square foot retail and restaurant outlot structure is being planned for construction in the southeast corner of the mall’s property. The plans submitted for the proposed new structure included a restaurant with outdoor seating, a dental clinic and two additional tenants, according to Middletown Planning Commission records.

In an architect’s rendering of what the proposed building would look like that was presented to the Planning Commission, that depicted a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant and an Aspen Dental Clinic anchoring each end. Buffalo Wild Wings has confirmed they will be opening a store in late 2015 while Aspen Dental Clinic said Middletown is in their expansion plans but did not identify a location.

Another outlot structure, a new Mattress Firm store has been constructed along the south side of the property facing Ohio 122.

Staff Writer Rick McCrabb contributed to this report.

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