City officials have new hope for the former Ohio Casualty buildings that were vacated by the insurance company in 2010.
They’re so hopeful, in fact, that as a way to show off the possibilities of the buildings in a high-profile way, City Manager Joshua Smith will present his State of the City speech at one of them on Sept. 20.
“As of today, it’s done,” Dan Bates, president and CEO of the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, told Hamilton City Council on Wednesday, confirming the date had been locked in. Bates made the announcement as Smith was explaining to council his plan to give his speech in the building that will contain a mocked-up version of how it can look in the future.
The evening event will be “the first debut of what the future of that building could look like, with new offices,” Bates said.
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Justin Lichter, a vice president in Los Angeles for Industrial Realty Group LLC, more commonly known as IRG, said when people attend the State of the City speech, they can see parts of the buildings at 131 and 136 N. Third St. transformed into a modern office space, a big change from the 1970s-era style of the interiors they still have today.
IRG focuses on adaptive reuse of older buildings, including former factories, converting them for new uses. It has more than 100 million square feet of properties in 31 states.
“We feel like this building is ripe for re-use now, and we’re putting money into creating a show space so that people can envision what the building could look like, decked out with what what people today, versus what they liked when Ohio Casualty was in there,” Lichter said.
The invigorated space will feature new lighting and carpets, with bright natural light pouring through windows. By the State of the City speech, the lobby will be redone, as will be a conference room and about 5,000 square feet of office space.
“When you walk in now, unless you have a vision or a rendering, it’s really hard to see how it could look,” Lichter said. He wants people to say: “Oh, man, my office could look like that in here?”
The former Ohio Casualty complex, which once housed more than 1,000 employees, actually is three buildings, with a combined 428,000 square feet. IRG envisions creating a fitness center, cafeteria and outdoor patio area, plus other communal space, that the company says modern employees look for.
Construction of the new look could start as soon as next week.
The oldest building dates to the 1920s. One building is eight stories tall, with about 229,000 square feet. A six-story building contains 91,000 square feet, with a four-story building having about 80,000 square feet, Lichter said.
The facility could house a single tenant, or several — even as many as 20, he said.
“We’re open to any opportunities,” Lichter said.
The final Ohio Casualty employees moved from the complex on July 23, 2010, leaving for Liberty Mutual Group offices in Fairfield. Boston-based Liberty Mutual bought Ohio Casualty in 2007. Ohio Casualty had been founded in Hamilton in 1919.
Smith, who long had wanted a more aggressive marketing of the significant building in Hamilton’s downtown, said he had been “very disappointed with IRG’s sense of urgency.”
But, he said, “since Justin Lichter has emerged on the scene, it’s a whole new game.”
Lichter “has been incredible to work with the last few months. He understands the mutual benefit for IRG and the city to reactivate almost half a million square feet of space,” Smith said.
If the Ohio Casualty buildings can be filled again, “the impact will be on the same level as what we will see at Champion/Spooky Nook,” he added.
With the Great Recession, real estate activity slowed, Lichter said.
“Obviously, we’re really excited about what’s happening in Hamilton now, and Hamilton’s really coming back to life, so we’re really trying to focus on turning around this asset and giving it new life,” he said.
“We think there’s opportunities here,” Lichter said. “There definitely aren’t buildings of this much size available.”
“If it’s one tenant, that’s great,” Lichter said. “If it’s a bunch of smaller tenants, we have the ability to divide it all up however somebody would like.”
Lichter said the proposed Spooky Nook at Champion Mill indoor sports complex and other new developments have his company bullish on Hamilton.
“There’s a really nice vitality in the city over the past few years,” Lichter said.