Middletown Paperboard redevelopment gets $2.4 million in COVID-19 relief funding

The Butler County commissioners have asked the city of Middletown for some more specifics on the $2.4 million funding request to use some the county's $74.4 million American Rescue Plan Act money for remediating the old Paperboard site. NICK GRAHAM  / STAFF

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The Butler County commissioners have asked the city of Middletown for some more specifics on the $2.4 million funding request to use some the county's $74.4 million American Rescue Plan Act money for remediating the old Paperboard site. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Money will help tear down buildings and remediate site.

The city of Middletown has been trying to transform its Ohio 4 gateway for several years and this week the Butler County commissioners gave city officials a verbal commitment to help using federal ARPA funds.

A year ago, former Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick submitted a request for $6.6 million to help the city “transform and redevelop” the Ohio 4 corridor entrance to the city and also support the Oakland Neighborhood revitalization.

The request outlined work the commissioners’ contribution could pay for:

  • $2.38 million to complete demolition, preparation and remediation of the 14-acre Paperboard site;
  • $1.6 million to acquire, demolish and complete remediation of the 24-acre former AK Steel headquarters and research site;
  • $1.57 million to acquire, demolish and complete remediation of the old 19-acre CETA site;
  • $1 million for the Oakland neighborhood housing initiative.

The commissioners have indicated they want to fund the Paperboard project and met on Monday with Middletown’s acting city manager and Fire Chief Paul Lolli to discuss the project further. He had an interesting perspective on the project since he and his fire crews battled the blaze that gutted the majority of the site for days.

“On the morning of Jan. 1, 2020 I received a phone call early in the morning that the Middletown Paperboard site was on fire and it’s one of those sites you initially think oh wow let it burn down,” he said. “For obvious reasons you know we can’t allow it. Then my heart kind of dropped because we know a lot of vagrants, homeless people get in the structure.”

He said the $2.4 million will cover tearing down the remainder of the buildings, get rid of the “humongous pile of rubble” and remediate the site for redevelopment. Harkening back to the city’s roots in steel and paper he said “Middletown is as strong steel, as resilient as paper and we know we need to look into the technology of the future of what jobs are out there.”

“This $2.38 million will allow us to finally bring some life back to this dead, blight part of the city of Middletown,” Lolli said. “It will allow us to remediate the entire site and then look to the future, bringing in light industrial, office park, new technology jobs to the city of Middletown.”

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter expressed concern the project might not qualify for the federal coronavirus relief funds because the pandemic didn’t cause the issue. She said she wants the city to provide a memorandum of understanding on how this project would qualify, such as benefiting underprivileged people and businesses in the area and other project specifics.

Carpenter was the only commissioner who released her full plan for for nearly $75 million in federal funds and she suggested using $5 million in “excess general fund” dollars for the bulk of the city’s request and roughly $1 million in ARPA for the Oakland neighborhood housing initiative.

Commissioner Don Dixon told Lolli he supports the project whether it qualifies under the ARPA rules or not.

“In my mind that project qualifies, me for one if some extraordinary something would come up that it doesn’t qualify, we’re still going to do it under the general fund,” Dixon said.

Inflation hits project

Dixon suggested the city should double check their estimates for the project because “the numbers have gone up, up and up.”

Lolli said they already planned to get new estimates, especially in light of the fact they had a $350,000 estimate to renovate the police locker room and the lowest bid came in at $430,000.

The U.S. Labor Department recently said the April increase pushed inflation to 8.3%, a rate not seen in decades. Consumer products and construction material costs are up.

The city had planned to apply for some of $350 million the state is awarding for brownfield remediation but missed the deadline for the first round of guaranteed funding. Lolli told the Journal-News they will be applying by the July 1 deadline for the competitive portion of the brownfield funds for the Paperboard project. The funds will be awarded first-come-first-served.

“We will be ready to go and get that grant submitted and do everything we can to hopefully get some support from the state in reclamating the Paperboard area and possibly some of the other projects there,” Lolli said. "

Carpenter said if the city gets the state grant she’s “still committed to that dollar amount to go to the whole area they are looking at redevelopment.” Commissioner T.C. Rogers said “I don’t want to open that up” and he is only supporting the Paperboard project for ARPA funding.

Dixon told the Journal-News if they get the grant he’d be willing to still invest the $2.4 million in Middletown redevelopment but not necessarily the entire ask.

“I think we’re going to have to take it a step at a time,” Dixon said. “We haven’t seen enough of a plan and I’m not comfortable yet that we have something that’s doable. We know what has to be done and cleaning it up has to be done on the redevelopment. We’re going to take little steps but we’re headed in the right direction I think.”

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