New Middletown leadership faces multiple issues in 2020

In the next few weeks, Middletown City Council and administration will be busy charting the city’s course following a turbulent fall that set up significant changes in its leadership.

There is a new mayor, Nicole Condrey, and the new city council is the first with a female majority, and members have an average age of 39. There are close to two dozen projects in various stages of completion in addition to pavement, public safety and infrastructure issues that face all cities.

MORE: Condrey beats 12-year incumbent Mulligan to become Middletown’s first woman mayor

This week, city officials will be reviewing requests for proposals to begin a new city manager search to replace former city manager Doug Adkins, who was fired Dec. 17 as a result of irreconcilable differences with council concerning his leadership style. City officials said the new city manager selection process could take six to nine months but are hoping to complete that process by June 30, according to the RFP documents that were sent out to potential executive search firms. A firm is expected to be hired in the next few weeks.

Much of the Middletown community was surprised about the decision to fire Adkins despite the many accomplishments that the city has enjoyed for more than five years. Much of what was achieved was outlined in his plan when he applied and was eventually hired for the position in 2014.

City officials will have another key position to fill as well in the coming months as Jennifer Ekey will step down Friday as economic development director to take a similar county-wide role with the Clinton County Port Authority at the end of the month. Assistant Economic Development Director Matt Eisenbraun will reprise his role as acting director until Ekey’s successor is selected. Acting City Manager Susan Cohen said she’s hoping to replace Ekey as soon as possible.

Councilwoman Ami Vitori said part of why Cohen was tapped to serve as acting city manager was due to her knowledge of many of the projects underway and many of the projects are already well on their way to completion. Vitori said council does not want to lose any time or energy on completing the council supported projects.

New police Chief David Birk who was appointed last month will work with Cohen on the selection of a new deputy chief and a sergeant.

There are other big issues Middletown will address in 2020:

The Oakland redevelopment/neighborhood revitalization project

The Oakland neighborhood was targeted because of its high disinvestment rate. The former middle school has been razed and cleared for redevelopment, and the land is expected to be transferred from the Middletown Board of Education to the city pending state approval.

The five-phase project for the Oakland Renaissance Incentive District is designed to revitalize the entire neighborhood designed to attract new residents, and expand the tax base.

The project will provide new housing development opportunities in the Oakland neighborhood around the former Carnegie Library and former middle school site. The neighborhood revitalization project would be similar to the historic district development areas, such as Grafton Hills, South Park, Wright-Dunbar areas in Dayton, and the Over-the-Rhine district in Cincinnati.

Middletown Paperboard facility clean up

City officials will be working with Butler County and state officials to determine how to pay for the New Year’s Day fire at Middletown Paperboard and who actually owned the facility at the time of the blaze. Cohen said Middletown firefighters worked 1,508 hours putting out the fire in addition to the hours spent by mutual aid fire crews from Franklin, Monroe and Liberty Twp. She said the overtime cost was between $26,000 and $30,000, or about 12 percent of the city firefighters overtime budget for 2020.

Cohen said ownership is uncertain. The site contains 61 parcels over 11 acres that contained the building of 400,000 to 600,000 square feet and was ordered by a Butler County judge to be forfeited to the state of Ohio as part of a tax forfeiture case in December.

As of Thursday, the property had not been transferred to the state, according to the Butler County Auditor’s website. Cohen said the city will be seeking grants to complete the demolition of the site. The city paid $100,000 to Vickers Demolition to assist firefighters in putting out smoldering hotspots, but the final bill has not been received by the city. Council may consider expanding the vacant buildings registration ordinance outside of the downtown area.

“It’s going to be a long process,” she said.

Cohen said there will be a need for a full evaluation of the property to do the rest of the clearing and demolition at a later time. In addition to securing the site, environmental remediation will be needed on some of the property prior to reuse, she said. The cost of the entire demolition is unknown.

Sawyer’s Mill residential Tax Incremental Financing Agreement and project

New homes should be sprouting up in the coming months as the Sawyer’s Mill project is back on track. City Council recently approved the creation of a new Tax Increment Financing district as well as compensation agreements to Franklin City Schools and the Warren County Career Center, the issuance of $2.8 million in Warren County Port Authority revenue bonds for the public infrastructure costs which will be repaid by the property owners who will pay a service payment in lieu of taxes. The plan is to build 16 or 17 additional new homes on 25 acres on the east side of the Sawyer’s Mill development near northwest of the intersection of Dixie Highway and Manchester Road. The area is inside the borders of the city of Middletown and the Franklin school district in Warren County.

Homelessness issues

The homeless issue took center stage last fall and was a catalyst in the city leadership changes as problems downtown turned into a firestorm with downtown business owners complaining.

The Hope House is planning to open a new $11.5 facility on Grove Street in the next few months. The issue will be revisited by council this year.

Multiple projects and issues at the Middletown Regional Airport

The new year marked the beginning of Middletown resuming the fixed-base operator role at Middletown Regional Airport from Start Aviation.

The city’s new airport master plan is pending before the FAA. There are unresolved lease issues with Start Skydiving, where Condrey is the general manager and former council candidate John P. Hart II is a co-owner. Cohen said negotiations are ongoing for the locations and operation of Start Skydiving.

In addition, the city is installing a self-service fueling station and still has a $750,000 state capital improvement grant to construct a Education Hangar at the airport.

The revocation of the Manchester Hotel/Snider Building purchase agreements

This issue has been in Butler County Common Pleas Court for about a year as developer William Grau sued the city and city officials for invoking the reverter clause in the 2014 purchase agreement to redevelop the buildings.

Grau’s company purchased each building for $1 as part of a redevelopment deal. The city feels that the rehabilitation project should have been completed already and opted to revoke the redevelopment agreement. Both buildings have been vacant for several years. The city and Grau are continuing negotiations and will be in court on Feb. 21. A few months ago, homeless people and others were found to have vandalized the former hotel.

Goetz Tower redevelopment is back on track

Sometime in late 2020, the $3.5 million Goetz Tower redevelopment is projected to be completed. Last month, city officials agreed to a 10-year lease for 2,000 square feet to relocate a city office into first floor of the 90-year-old building at the corner of Central Avenue and Main Street. A lease was needed from the city for the first floor last month by developer Steve Coon so he could complete the financial arrangements, which include Historic Tax Credits, to develop 16 market-rate apartments ranging from 800 to 1,100 square feet inside the seven-story, Art Deco building. The building was constructed in 1930 by the Middletown Building and Deposit Association.

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