New city manager, numerous developments, projects highlight Middletown’s 2022

Former fire chief Paul Lolli was hired to replace Jim Palenick, who signed a separation agreement.

While three major projects in the city of Middletown never developed as previously thought this year, the city made major strides in upgrading public safety, improving the condition of its roads, ending numerous lawsuits with the owners of Start Skydiving, and bringing new business to town.

And for the third time in three years, Middletown hired a new city manager this year.

Former fire chief named city manager

In March, Paul Lolli, the city’s fire chief, was named acting city manager, replacing James Palenick, who left after he and the city signed an agreement for his removal after less than two years. Palenick, who started in July 2020, succeeded former city manager Doug Adkins, who was terminated by City Council in December 2019.

Palenick was paid $165,000 annually. The city agreed to pay him a gross sum of $128,764.67 for six months salary, benefits and accrued time off, according to the separation agreement that he and Law Director Ben Yoder signed.

Lolli was named city manager in July and his base salary is $158,000, or $42,000 more than he earned as fire chief. In the months since Lolli was hired, City Council members have recognized him publicly for turning the city around and for his work with city staff.

At the time, Vice Mayor Monica Nenni said when council considered Palenick’s replacement Lolli was the “obvious choice” because he has been “a staple of Middletown for years and will bring a consistency to the city manager’s office that is needed right now.”

Council member Rodney Muterspaw, Middletown’s former police chief, worked closely with Lolli and he knows what “he can bring to the table” as a leader.

Tal Moon, another council member, said he has been “very impressed” with the way Lolli stepped in and managed the city’s most important community projects.

“At his core, Paul is a Middletonian and his driving motivation is a stronger, more connected, more vibrant Middletown,” Moon said.

Three project never developed

Three proposed major projects in the city never broke ground this year.

While Hollywoodland, a proposed $1.3 billion riverfront destination entertainment district and theme park project was pitched by Palenick in 2021, he declared it dead early this year after being questioned by Mayor Nicole Condrey.

The project was controversial and at a couple of council members, the chambers were packed with concerned citizens who live near the proposed historic district location.

In January, Condrey asked council members to take an official vote on Hollywoodland at the next council meeting. That way, she said, residents would quit asking about Hollywoodland and council could focus on “impactful projects.”

Palenick said Hollywood “as it was proposed is no longer being worked on. We are not going to bring it to you. There is no need to vote on it.”

Then he added: “The project, in that location, at this time, is not something we are working on, not something we are pursuing.”

Later in the year, a developer wanted to purchase 16 acres owned by Oaks Community Church and build 44 single-family homes as part of the Hill Project. Again citizens opposed these plans, and council rejected a zoning map amendment.

The church, which purchased the land for $500,000 in 2016, according to the Butler County Auditor’s Office, wanted the zoning changed from public and institutional district to planned development district and for an approved preliminary development plan.

Then in November, the city terminated its contract to purchase the Towne Mall Galleria for $16 million and convert the property into a sports and entertainment complex with retail, hotels, bars and restaurants and residential uses, a project Palenick and his senior staff worked on for months.

Palenick envisioned attracting a minor league hockey team and bringing a go kart business to the mall. He often compared his plan to Austin Landing in Miami Twp., and Liberty Center in Liberty Twp.

But after “conducting extensive due diligence efforts” and examining the final financing costs for the redevelopment of the properties, the city concluded that acquiring the properties at the previously agreed to price was “not feasible,” according to the staff report.

A few weeks later, council approved spending $6.2 million to purchase more than 29 acres at the southeast corner of Union Road and Ohio 122 for a $160 million residential, commercial and sports and event complex.

Council voted unanimously to allow Lolli to enter into an agreement with Woodard Development and Henry K. Fischer and Elaine M. Fischer, trustees of the Fischer Family Foundation.

Under the contract and its amendment, the city has the option to purchase the parcels for $6,236,203 with a closing date in mid-summer of 2023.

Moon, the longest tenured council member, said the city is “not closing any door on working on the redevelopment of the Towne Mall” and he’s “optimistic” that further development of the Ohio 122 corridor makes investment at the mall more likely.

Voters approve fire levy

In May, Middletown voters overwhelming passed a 1-mill property tax levy that will fund the building of four fire stations in the city.

The cost was expected to be $16.8 million, but the estimate increased to $19.8 million, or 18% higher, due to inflation, according to projections from App Architecture, the Englewood firm hired to perform the designs.

The $19.8 million doesn’t include $2.6 million for the “soft cost” and $1.98 million for the 10% “contingency costs,” bringing the total to $24.4 million, Lolli said. He reminded council that voters only approved the cost of building the fire stations, based on late 2020 estimates.

The gap in funding may come out of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds or the city’s $10 million general fund surplus, according to Lolli.

City, Start Skydiving end lawsuits

The long and expensive legal dispute between the city of Middletown, Start Skydiving and the Hart family was settled in November.

The emergency legislation passed 4-0 with Condrey, who is affiliated with Start Skydiving and Team Fastrax, the Middletown-based professional skydiving team, abstaining as she did throughout the process.

The settlement ended four lawsuits between the city and John Hart II, John Hart III and Start Skydiving, LLC and executed a new lease for the spaces to be occupied by Start Skydiving.

In exchange, the parties agreed to a new lease that contains provisions for the build-out of an additional 10,000 square foot hangar for Start Skydiving not to exceed construction cost of $1.4 million. The hangar must be built within 18 months after plans are submitted and approved, according to city documents.

Within two weeks after the agreement is signed, the city and Start Skydiving must file a joint notice of dismissal with prejudice, and take any other steps legally required to dismiss the lawsuits and without further costs or attorneys’ fees to any party, according to documents.

Paving and Central Avenue improvements

While the city continues paving 200 lane miles of roads, funded when voters approved a 1/4 of 1%, 10-year income tax in November 2020, construction is nearing completion on a .56-mile stretch of Central Avenue between Charles Street and Verity Parkway in downtown.

Milcon Concrete Inc., a Troy-based company, is completing the work after submitting the lowest bid of $7,671,291.59.

Scott Tadych, public works director, said some landscape work won’t start until 2023.

Once finished, Tadych believes the road improvements will serve as “a catalyst for revitalization” on that portion of Central.

New steak restaurant coming downtown

An upscale restaurant is expected to open early in 2023 after City Council approved a $200,000 forgivable loan agreement in October to bring Primo Middletown to the Murphy’s Landing building in downtown.

Primo Middletown hopes to have a “soft opening” in early February with a grand opening on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.

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