Pastor: Church running Central Connections, caring for seniors, is ‘a no-brainer’ for Middletown

Crosspointe Church of Christ has sold its building on Ohio 122.

MIDDLETOWN — A Middletown church has sold its building, and the pastor believes Central Connections, the city’s senior citizens center, is the perfect location to move the congregation and take over operations.

Pastor Scott Johnson from Crosspointe Church of Christ, 5630 Ohio 122, addressed City Council last week during his four-minute citizens comment portion of the meeting.

Church services will be held at Crosspointe until the end of May, he told the Journal-News after his presentation. He said it would be “a no-brainer” if the city of Middletown sold Central Connections, 3907 Central Ave., to the church and allowed it to preserve the senior center and partner with a non-profit to operate the 600-seat event center.

He described a possible partnership as “a true victory for our senior citizens.”

Johnson said the church’s elders have not discussed a purchase price of Central Connections, which has a $2.15 million appraised value for its land and building, according to the Butler County Auditor’s Office.

Last year the city purchased Central Connections for $1.8 million with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the Middletown Area Senior Citizens Inc., and Johnson believes the city could recoup its investment in five years.

City officials said city staff, in accordance with direction provided by City Council, will be issuing a request for proposals (RFP) next week for the operation of Central Connections. At that time, the city will welcome all proposals for the building and services for Middletown seniors, the city said.

The care and wellbeing of Middletown citizens will remain “a top priority” when considering proposals for Central Connections, said Clayton Castle, communications manager.

Central Connections found itself in financial difficulty after then Executive Director Diane Rodgers was terminated in July 2023. She is under investigation for possible theft, though no charges have been filed, according to Middletown police.

This is the second time Middletown residents have invested in the center. Voters approved two five-year, 1-mill senior levies that generated $7 million to provide or maintain senior services at the center. The levy expired on Dec. 31, 2022 after 10 years.

Counting the $1.8 million purchase price, $8.8 million in taxpayers’ money has been spent on the center in the last 12 years.

Since the city took over operating the center, hours have been reduced and senior services cut.

Johnson called seniors “the neglected part of our population. They have been through the ringer with all this debacle that they didn’t ask for.”

He envisions the church opening a preschool in the building and continuing its many community events, including Veterans Day luncheons, participating with Serving the Homeless with Alternate Lodging Of Middletown (SHALOM) and hosting kids activities, health screenings and family festivals.

While the church would partner with a nonprofit to operate the event center, Johnson doesn’t want that to be the main focus. If that happened, he said, the event center would “push the seniors out.”

Last month, city staff, City Council members and residents heard recommendations from a task force regarding the future of Central Connections.

The task force, formed by City Manager Paul Lolli, met for months, and Bob Nolan, a business consultant and tax specialist, said the task force considered three options: Continue operating as it is with limited senior programs and no banquet services; lease the property to a company that can run it as a senior center/event center; or sell the property.

Nolan said the city should send out requests for proposals to determine if there is interest in a catering business leasing the building and operating the senior and event center.

Leasing to one operator “makes the most sense” because senior services and the event center would be under one roof, according to Nolan.

Council member Steve West II has said he hopes the city gets out of operating the facility and it should look for a “name-brand” company to operate the center so the city is “never put in this situation again.”

Mayor Elizabeth Slamka has told the Journal-News that serving the seniors was her top priority.

“We have to focus on them first,” she said.

Central Connections: A timeline

Nov. 6, 2012: Middletown taxpayers pass a five-year, 1-mill levy to provide or maintain senior services at the Middletown Area Senior Center.

Aug. 16, 2015: The name of the Middletown Area Senior Center is changed to Central Connections.

May 2, 2017: Middletown taxpayers renew a five-year, 1-mill levy to provide or maintain senior services at the center.

November 2021: Diane Rodgers is hired as executive director. She says she moved from Reno, Nev., where she oversaw a senior center and worked with the homeless population, to be closer to her daughter who lives in New York.

July 29, 2022: Rodgers signs for a mortgage loan through First Financial Bank for $450,000, then does a loan modification that increases the amount to $650,000, according to the Butler County Recorder’s Office. Her signature and job title are listed on the loan that matures on July 29, 2024.

Nov. 1, 2022: Ribbon-cutting is held to celebrate the $1.5 million in renovations of Central Connections, 3907 Central Ave.

Dec. 31, 2022: Senior citizens center levy expires after generating $7 million over 10 years.

May 5, 2023: D.E.R. Development Co. files a lien against Central Connections, saying the company is owed $266,594.52, plus allowable interest.

May 31, 2023: Rodgers files vandalism report at Central Connections. Middletown police say that leads to the investigation of center’s finances.

July 24, 2023: The Council on Aging terminates its three-year contract with Central Connections. Fifty employees are laid off.

July 25, 2023: Nearly 75 senior citizens and former and current employees of Central Connections attend a meeting in the café with Rick Fishbaugh, board president, and Rodgers.

July 27, 2023: Rodgers is terminated as executive director of Central Connections and escorted out of the building by Middletown police.

Aug. 3, 2023: During a special City Council meeting and after an executive session, City Manager Paul Lolli announces council has agreed to move forward with the possible purchase of the Central Connections building and land and for an unknown amount that will come out of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) fund.

Aug. 5, 2023: In an email to the Journal-News, attorney Tyrone Borger, who is representing Rodgers, writes that he and his client have been “informed that there is an ongoing investigation. As such, while my client would like to comment and clear up several misconceptions. She is taking my advice and refusing to comment on any allegations at this time.”

Aug. 9, 2023: Middletown Police Chief David Birk says his department is working with the Ohio attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation into the criminal investigation into the finances of Central Connections.

Aug. 11, 2023: Central Connections announces more layoffs and the closing of the cafe and bar. The hours are reduced to 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Aug. 15, 2023: City Council votes unanimously to allow City Manager Paul Lolli to enter into a lease agreement with Central Connections. The lease is $50 per month. By the end of 2023, the city has the right to purchase the building and property for $1.8 million.

Aug. 21, 2023: Vincent “Scott” Smith, husband of the former executive director, arrested and charged with seven counts of passing bad checks, all felonies.

Aug. 23, 2023: Smith appears in Middletown Municipal Court for his arraignment. Judge James Sherron sets Smith’s OR bond at $5,000.

Sept. 6, 2023: A Middletown detective testifies that Smith’s signature on the seven bounced checks doesn’t match his signature on a court document. The charges against Smith are bound over to a Butler County grand jury by Middletown Municipal Court Judge James Sherron.

Sept. 19, 2023: Middletown City Council authorizes city manager to enter into an agreement to purchase Central Connections property for $1.8 million, using ARPA funds.

Oct. 4, 2023: A Butler County grand jury declines to indict Smith of passing bad check charges.

Oct. 12, 2023: City of Middletown closes on the purchase of Central Connections.

Jan. 20, 2024: During a special City Council meeting, a representative from a task force says the recommendation is for the city to lease the property to a company that can operate the senior center and event center.

Feb. 6, 2024: Pastor Scott Johnson from Crosspointe Church of Christ tells City Council his church is interested to taking over operating Central Connections.

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