During one of Hamilton’s darkest periods in recent years, City Manager Joshua Smith and Mayor Pat Moeller learned the depth of the challenges facing the city: The leader of a departing business said downtown was boring and depressing.
Western States Machine Co. in 2012 decided to leave Hamilton for Fairfield, and was planning to spend more than $6 million to do so.
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“When Western States moved out of Hamilton in 2012, the mayor and I, immediately — the minute we heard — we went over to Western States, and we sat down with the president of the company,” Smith said recently.
“They literally moved the company about five miles away as the crow flies, into Fairfield,” Smith said. The two asked: “Why would you go to that capital investment to do it?” he said.
They were told, according to Smith, “I can’t take a client out to Hamilton and take them out to eat anywhere. I can’t take a client to your hotel because there’s nothing to do at night for them, because there’s no bars and there’s no restaurants.”
Smith told the story recently to an audience of business people interested in moving their companies into German Village.
"Obviously this pre-dated Municipal Brew Works, this pre-dated some of the new restaurants, pre-dated True West (coffee shop)," Smith said, as well as a number of other new businesses along High and Main streets, and the renovation of Courtyard by Marriott downtown.
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“Frankly, we just don’t want to be here. It’s depressing,” Smith said he and Moeller were told by the company’s leaders.
Officials at the centrifuge-manufacturing company did not return calls seeking a comment.
The company’s sentiments were a wake-up call and a motivator to improve the downtown and Main Street business areas to lift both quality of life for Hamilton residents, and also create a more desirable place for people to work, Smith said.
Officials believe the proposed Spooky Nook Sports at Champion Mill will further attract businesses to the city to benefit from tens of thousands of visitors to that facility, which should open in two years.
“In my mind, that really set the tone for the next iteration of the strategic plan that we did, because we knew that for us to generate new business, to generate new employees, we had to change what Hamilton was,” Smith said. “Because people don’t want to move to an area they perceive as dead, boring, scary. They want to come to an area that they think is vibrant and on the upswing.”
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The goal of energizing Hamilton’s central business district has been accomplished more by the year. New businesses have been moving into the area, including Kirsch CPA Group LLC, which on Saturday is moving from Fairfield into the formerly empty Fifth Third building at 2 S. Third St. They will be open for business in the building that the non-profit CORE Fund (Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment Efforts) helped revitalize.
John Kirsch, a certified public accountant and partner in the firm, last summer told this media outlet the accountants were drawn by the new-found energy of Hamilton’s downtown.
“A good segment of our workforce is younger folks, and we like the fact that there were lots of new and interesting things happening in downtown Hamilton, and wanted to be part of that revitalization,” Kirsch said. He added the downtown provides “a sense of community.”
That community feel was evident Thursday at the downtown Alive After 5 event, during which parts of 2nd Street are closed to traffic during the first Thursday evening of every month. Thursday also was the first date of Hamilton’s new Downtown Outdoor Refreshment Area, during which people can buy adult drinks from participating restaurants or bars and stroll the streets and browse through participating stores.
Both were a hit, even as rain clouds threatened to release their precipitation.
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As Bob and Colleen Masters of Fairfield showed off their 1999 Plymouth Prowler on South 2nd St. with others from the Butler County Hot Rod Association, they talked about how Hamilton’s downtown has become more energized.
Bob Masters said the Alive After 5 event reminded him of “the old days” in the city.
Colleen Masters, meanwhile, said she was taking in the revitalized cityscape.
“I like it a lot,” she said.
As for the event, rather than just driving through the city on High and Main streets, “It makes us stop and look around.”
“We love being downtown,” said Brian Woods, vice president of human resources and risk management, as well as a part owner, of ODW Logistics Inc., which has 66 employees.
Woods, whose company started in Hamilton several years ago, is so impressed with the city that every time a new employee starts, he gives them a first-day tour of their downtown surroundings so they know about the many possibilities for shopping, eating and entertainment around them.
Smith says he believes that in addition to new restaurants and shops, other things like well-made artistic murals and upgraded parks have lifted the city, as have the mostly free concerts at the city’s RiversEdge amphitheater at the new Marcum Park.
"When you drive by, and you see young professionals playing ping pong on their lunch hour, or corn hole during lunch, and you see the bright mural, and you see people walking in and out of the YMCA off in the distance, or people coming in and out of the STARTEK building, th
at's economic development," Smith said.