Should cities save historical sites? Middletown debate highlights costly issue

The future of the former AK Steel Research Center has been a hot topic as Middletown decides plans for the Oakland District. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
The future of the former AK Steel Research Center has been a hot topic as Middletown decides plans for the Oakland District. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

A Butler County city finds itself in a battle between preserving history or demolishing historic buildings to spark economic development and growth.

This type of tug-of-war is playing out across America, including throughout Butler County. Middletown has already taken some steps, including tearing down the Studio Theatre, a 90-year-old downtown building that was vacant for 34 years, and the former Vail Middle School. It is also demolishing the former Lincoln Elementary School on Central Avenue.

Middletown council member Tal Moon said the Studio Theatre was for sale for years and “nobody stepped forward” so it was demolished.

“We have to have viable (options),” he said.

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In Hamilton, a structural survey of the 130-year-old Butler County Historic Courthouse was completed late last year and the price tag to make critical repairs was $4.6 million over three years. The report said there are concerns about falling debris, with leaks and deteriorating plaster.

Barbara Powers, department head for Inventory & Registration at the State Historic Preservation Office in Columbus, said she works with communities and property owners to “identify, evaluate and protect historic properties” in Ohio.

Ohio has 4,157 listings on the National Register of Historic Places, including 574 districts, she said. That puts the state third in the country behind New York and Massachusetts.

She said some people consider historic places key community assets and are eager to renovate them. Those investments typically are “positive steps for the community.”

Powers said people tend to want to visit places that have “historic character that sets them apart.” But, she said, cities must find sustainable uses for those properties.

For three hours Tuesday night during a special City Council meeting/work session, Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick, City Council members, historic commission members and residents debated the future of the Oakland District.

Palenick said the Oakland/Ohio 4 corridor, the redevelopment of the Towne Mall Galleria and the development of the riverbank on the Great Miami are the city’s top priorities.

Those projects would create jobs and affordable housing and clean-up some of the delipidated buildings in the cities, including the former Paperboard, what Palenick called “truly an eyesore.”

After the lengthy and at times heated work session that attracted about 25 people, those in attendance agreed on one thing: They want what’s best for the Oakland District.

“We all want the same thing,” said council member Ami Vitori who added the project was slowed by the change in city leadership and the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our hearts are in Oakland and we are not walking away,” Moon said.

“We hope to do it right,” Palenick said. “We are committed. We are going to help the neighborhood. We all want to see the same outcome.”

How the groups can come together to reach that goal will be a challenge for Palenick, city staff, city council and local investors. Mayor Nicole Condrey asked city staff to prepare a plan for city council to consider and for the discussion to continue.

During his presentation, Palenick laid out plans for the Oakland District.

He’d like to request $6.6 million from Butler County to help the city “transform and redevelop” the Ohio 4 corridor entrance to the city and support the Oakland District revitalization, he said.

That includes $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 CERTA site; and $1 million for the Oakland neighborhood housing initiative.

Once those projects are complete that will provide the city with 57 acres for “high quality, clean industry,” he said.

Throughout discussions about the former AK Steel property city leaders have used the term “light industrial.”

That didn’t set well with Pastor Michael Bailey, who worked at Armco and lives near in the area.

“I can already hear the trucks,” he said. “Let’s do what’s right for Middletown.”

Tammy Thompson, who lives near the former AK Steel building, said: “Let’s improve what’s there. It’s a neighborhood. It’s not for industry.”

Adriane Scherrer said a member of her family has worked in the AK Steel building for 79 consecutive years.

“That building is important to me,” said Scherrer, who called it “one of the historic landmarks” in the city.

She said demolishing a historic building is “not ever been a good answer.”

Palenick also wants to demolish up to 50 homes in the Oakland neighborhood.

Instead of tearing the homes down, Dan Mayzum owner of the former Carnegie Library inside the Oakland District, said those homes “are key” to the development of the neighborhood and they should be offered to first-time buyers who could make the necessary repairs.

Dan Barton, an Oakland District contractor from Dayton said Palenick’s plans mean the “character of the neighborhood is at risk.”

The site of the former Vail Middle School will play a pivotal role in the development of the Oakland District, according to city leaders. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
The site of the former Vail Middle School will play a pivotal role in the development of the Oakland District, according to city leaders. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

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