90-year-old theater in Middletown coming down after sitting vacant for 30 years

These 25 stories had a major impact on Butler and Warren counties in 2018 

The year 2018 brought big, powerful, heartbreaking and inspiring news throughout the Journal-News coverage area.

Today, we look back at some of the most significant events and stories that published throughout the year.

BUTLER COUNTY

County administrator retires from local government

Butler County Administrator Charlie Young has announced he will retire from government at the end of 2018 after more than six years at the helm.

Young, an engineer by trade, told the Journal-News he couldn’t yet reveal where he is going to work after he leaves the public sector, but said it was time to return to his roots as an “incredible” opportunity arose.

Butler County commissioners are evaluating possible internal candidates for the administrator position before publicly posting the job.

MORE: Butler County officials say administrator will be sorely missed

MORE: Butler County will have a new administrator in 2019. Here’s what’s happening with the search.

County gets highest Moody’s rating

Butler County now has the highest bond rating possible from Moody’s Investors Service, which means taxpayers will reap rewards as a result of the recent upgrade.

Officials learned last month the bond rating service — similar to an individual’s credit score — had upgraded Butler County to the highest level, Aaa, about two years earlier than expected.

A high bond rating allows the county to get favorable interest rates on new capital projects like roads and buildings and on refinancing existing debt. Butler County will not be taking out loans anytime soon, though, with its general fund debt shrinking to zero by the end of 2020.

MORE: Butler County bond rating upgrade carries big benefits

Butler County must replace first responder radios

Many police and fire agencies across Butler County eschewed the county’s $10 million replacement contract with Motorola in favor of a wait and see approach. Several departments have been testing Kenwood radios as a cheaper alternative. New information has come out that software for the old Motorola radios could cause critical errors in the next couple years.
Photo: Staff Writer

The potential for “critical failures” with obsolete Motorola emergency responder radios is prompting some Butler County jurisdictions to do an about-face on the bulk replacement before the county discount expires.

The West Chester Twp. trustees were poised to approve an $800,000-plus agreement to replace 235 emergency radios in November, and Fairfield searched for $600,000 in its budget to do the same.

More than one year ago the county faced a $19.2 million bill to replace the obsolete public safety communications system and about 3,000 radios that sheriff’s deputies, police, firefighters and others all carry.

Motorola stopped making the old radios and won’t service them beyond this year. Some local cities, townships and other jurisdictions balked at the $12.5 million radio bill — the county’s share was estimated at $3.5 million — and began looking for cheaper alternatives.

Few jurisdictions agreed to buy into the bulk replacement deal so the commissioners approved a revised $10 million agreement with the communication equipment giant for the infrastructure and 1,000 radios.

MORE: Safety of Butler County residents challenged again with radio issues

POLITICS

Retherford loses re-election bid

For the first time in recent memory, an incumbent statehouse lawmaker didn’t win a primary election in Butler County.

Ohio Rep. Wes Retherford, R-Hamilton, was defeated in the May GOP primary election for the 51st Ohio House District by political rookie and Hamilton philanthropist Sara Carruthers, who went on to win election in November over Susan Vaughn.

Carruthers bested her two opponents —Retherford and former state lawmaker and county commissioner Greg Jolivette — receiving nearly half of the vote. Retherford finished a distant second, according to official election results. A disappointed Retherford attributes his loss to the money Carruthers put into her campaign, specifically a near $200,000 loan that she nearly spent.

Most of Carruthers’ spending went to ads in the Greater Cincinnati television market. One of her ads highlighted Retherford’s March 2017 OVI arrest. Retherford was found guilty in a May 2017 hearing of operating a vehicle while impaired and sentenced to 180 days in jail with 175 days suspended. He was credited with two days of time served and ordered to attend a three-day alcohol intervention program. Retherford said he hadn’t had a drink since his March 2017 arrest.

In all, Carruthers invested more than $300,000 of her own money into her primary and general election campaigns.

“It’s hard to compete with $200,000,” Retherford said after his primary loss.

The 133rd General Assembly begins at the start of January.

HAMILTON

South Hamilton Crossing opens

More than a century after plans were first proposed to deal with railroad tracks’ negative impact on traffic, the city of Hamilton Saturday dedicated the Jim Blount South Hamilton Crossing overpass. The five-lane overpass was touted by Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller - and other local and state officials - as a “game-changer” for the city and the regional that will speed economic development and add to the quality of life in the Butler County city.
Photo: Staff Writer

The South Hamilton Crossing opened Dec. 14, after more than 100 years of desire in Hamilton for the project. The crossing is the second major east-west roadway in Hamilton that isn’t stopped by train traffic.

The dedication involved a procession of historic vehicles led by a gleaming orange 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air filled with the family of the late Hamilton historian and former Journal-News Editor Jim Blount, who was the leading advocate for the project.

Officials hope the roadway will draw some of the east-west traffic away from the often congested High and Main street traffic.

MORE: South Hamilton Crossing suddenly better links southern Hamilton

Marcum Park named a top public space by national organization

Hamilton’s Marcum Park was named one of five Great Public Spaces in America by the American Planning Association in October.

The park sits on the site formerly occupied by Mercy Hospital and joins other public spaces like New York’s Central Park and Grand Central Terminal and Chicago’s Millennium Park on the list.

City officials believe the park, which is dubbed the city’s backyard, and includes the popular RiversEdge amphitheater, creates a destination location within the city.

MORE: Hamilton’s Marcum Park was named one of five Great Public Spaces in the U.S. Here’s why.

Maribel returns to U.S. after deportation

A new court decision has Mexican mother of four, Maribel Trujillo Diaz, who lived for years in Fairfield, hoping to see her children soon in this country. The children remain in Butler County. PROVIDED
Photo: Staff Writer

Maribel Trujillo Diaz, the Fairfield mother of four, returned to America after a 17-month deportation to Mexico.

After her return and time with her family, she was officially welcomed home Sept. 25 by St. Julie Billiart Church in Hamilton. It was the only time she spoke in public since her return.

Trujillo Diaz’s case had been written about by media outlets around the globe as people followed the Trump Administration’s deportation policies. Trujillo Diaz was considered an optimal example of people who should not be deported because she was a law-abiding person — other than her undocumented status — and was active in her church and raising a family.

Her lawyers argued she and her family members who remained in Mexico were targeted by drug cartels and their lives were at risk, with family members having been kidnapped. An appeals court ruled her situation hadn’t been given adequate consideration by an immigration court, and the matter will be reconsidered, possibly in mid-2019.

MORE: Deported Fairfield mom welcomed home with prayer service

MIDDLETOWN

Atrium fights Kettering expansion

During two meetings, the Planning Commission and City Council heard arguments from Atrium Medical Center and Kettering Health Network Middletown regarding an ordinance to change the zoning of the two parcels on Ohio 122 and Union Road so KHN could add more beds.

KHN officials have said they need to have the flexibility of providing patients with overnight beds so that they could stay closer to home instead of being shipped to another KHN facility when the patient gets to the 23-hour, 59-minute mark.

The rezoning request was approved by a 4-1 vote by the city Planning Commission and was also recommended by city officials. Last month’s Planning Commission meeting lasted more than 4 1/2 hours.

MORE: 5 things to know about area’s new $36M medical facility

MORE: Kettering Health Network’s rezoning request in Middletown clears first hurdle

MORE: Kettering Health wants to add hospital beds to Middletown medical center

School demolished, new school opens

Demolition crews continue to work on taking down the old Vail Middle School Wednesday, Nov. 7 in Middletown. The main section of the building was being demolished Wednesday. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Photo: HANDOUT

Middletown Schools saw the start of a new chapter in September as classes opened for 6,300 students in grades 7 through 12,who are now learning on a campus transformed by a $96 million construction of a new middle school and a renovated high school.

The district’s previous middle school was housed for years in the former Middletown High School building, which opened in 1923 and was demolished this year.

The Middletown Middle School is the most modern in Southwest Ohio, and the high school also offers the school system’s first on-campus health clinic for students throughout the city schools. Moreover, the district recently unveiled a new track and field stadium on the high school campus that includes the district’s second artificial turf playing surface.

Studio Theater torn down

Ninety years of Middletown history were demolished on Central Avenue in May.

Large equipment from Vicker’s Demolition knocked down the exterior brick walls of the former Studio Theater on Central Avenue. The theater has been vacant for more than 30 years.

MORE: MUST SEE: The inside of Middletown’s historic Studio Theater looks haunting in the light

City leaders said miscommunication about a bidder’s position resulted in that bidder not receiving the contract to demolish a downtown Middletown building and increasing the costs of the project by more than $150,000.

The former theater has been on borrowed time since 2009, when it was originally scheduled to be demolished before a lack of funds postponed it. City officials said the building was deemed inappropriate to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places and cleared for demolition in 2009 by the Ohio State Historic Preservation Office.

FAIRFIELD/FAIRFIELD TWP.

Fairfield Twp. developments to help township’s growth

Fairfield Twp. saw the start of a multi-million dollar assisted living complex that will bring in about 100 new jobs.

Michigan-based StoryPoint, which offers independent living, assisted living and memory care, started construction this summer on the facility on about 15 acres of the property known as the Grace Lutheran site at Hamilton-Mason and Gilmore roads.

The planned 221,632-square-foot senior care facility will have 120 independent living units, 42 enhanced/assisted living units and 42 memory care units. Earlier this spring, Butler County commissioners approved $44 million in bonds for the assisted living complex.

MORE: Butler County OKs $44M for assisted living complex in Fairfield Twp.

The township also started construction on its own $4 million new fire station, a station that’s been discussed by trustees for the past several years.

Township officials broke ground in August afternoon to kick off the construction of their new fire station on Gilmore Road, next door to the new soon-to-open StoryPoint. Trustees in May approved Cincinnati United Contractors to be the contractor for the project, and expect the project should wrap up in spring 2019.

The 3,200-square-foot Tylersville Road fire station, which includes part of a former 19th-century school building, has undersized offices, vehicle bays and co-ed sleeping quarters, storage bins in the hallway, and an inadequate driveway. The building’s last update was in the 1970s, and trustees have to order smaller fire engines and ambulances — which cost more — so they’d fit in the station.

MORE: Fairfield Twp.’s new $4M fire station set to open in the spring 

Park developments in Fairfield

In October, Fairfield city officials broke ground on a new dog park 15 years in the making.

The 6 1/2-acre dog park is set to open in the summer of 2019 at 6611 River Road, which is between Lake Circle Drive and Gray Road along the Great Miami River. The area will also serve as a trailhead for the proposed extension of the Great Miami River Trail.

The park will include an 800-square-foot pond with a dock and zero-entry edge, multiple fields with a separate small dog play area, shaded gathering spaces and parking.

The dog park will be the latest addition to the city’s portfolio of park properties — both passive and active — which include Huffman Park, Point Pleasant Park, Harbin Park and Marsh Park.

The dog park is just south of Marsh Park and is part of the Marsh Park expansion project. The city had cleared land and purchased land this year in order to set up future expansion of Marsh Park into a destination location featuring what will have three large lakes.

MORE: Fairfield plans to move Great Miami Bike trail through Marsh Park

WEST CHESTER/LIBERTY TWP.

Debate about health insurance contract

The West Chester Twp. trustees initially rejected a township health insurance contract renewal because they don’t believe taxpayers should have to pay for abortions.

However, two weeks later, the board approved a health insurance renewal that includes abortion coverage but with conditions.s

Trustees voted in late October to provide abortion coverage in instances of rape, incest or if the mother’s health is at risk.

When the trustees rejected the renewal, township Administrator Larry Burks said if they were re-bid the contract, the 4.99 percent price could increase to as high as 14 percent with another carrier.

That’s a difference of $221,177 versus $620,343 on the $4 million-plus contract.

MORE: Why West Chester’s abortion stance could be costly

MORE:Most Butler County jurisdictions have abortion benefit with conditions

Liberty Twp. looking for new offices 

Liberty Twp. trustees intended to tear down the township’s existing meeting space on Princeton Road and build a new $5.2 million, 15,420-square-foot building to house administrative offices and the sheriff’s outpost.

But the bill for demolition and site preparation — which was $1.8 million — on the 3.6 acres ballooned the bottom line. Township officials are working on new total cost estimates.

The new township administration building is part of a $13 million facilities plan. The long-term plan also included the need for a fourth fire station.

EDUCATION

School security top issue in local schools

During 2018, school security dominated the headlines for many local school systems, often involving contentious battles between elected officials over the best ways to keep local schools safe.

Ignited in large part by school shootings in Florida and Texas high schools that left dozens of students and staffers dead and wounded, the battle over how best to protect our local schools shows no loss of momentum going into 2019.

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones sharply criticized Hamilton Schools – and some others – for not embracing his suggestion to allow some trained school staffers to have access to firearms during the school day.

MORE: Sheriff blasts Hamilton Schools after gun found 

School security tax rejected by voters 

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, who offered teachers in the county free conceal carry weapon permit training to further pressure school districts, also targeted a school security tax issue that was a first for the county and among the first tried in Ohio.

MORE: School districts up in air after voters widely reject security tax hike

The proposed tax hike, which was offered on the ballots of five Butler County school systems that formed their own taxing district under a new Ohio law, was widely defeated by voters in November.

Hamilton Schools leader resigns

Tony Orr. STAFF FILE PHOTO
Photo: Staff Writer

Hamilton Schools also saw its superintendent resign from office in the spring after being ordered on administrative leave by the city schools’ governing school board.

Tony Orr, who was hired to lead Hamilton Schools in 2015, resigned under a separation agreement in April.

During his leave from office, the Journal-News was the first to report Orr was being investigated in connections with allegations of sexual harassment and other behavior that may have violated the school district’s policies.

MORE: Ex-Hamilton schools leader target of allegations of sexual harassment, more

Lakota Schools launch new digital learning options

The county’s largest school system – the 16,500-student Lakota Schools – continued to make news this year for its aggressive adaption of new digital learning programs including giving all junior high students special learning laptops for use in the classroom and at home.

MORE: Historic move: Lakota Schools hand out laptops to students

Lakota also made headlines with the announcement in 2018 of its creation of a “Cyber Academy” that will start in a limited capacity this spring but will be fully available by the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

MORE: Lakota unveils Cyber Academy as job, career option for grads

Participating high school students will be trained for jobs and careers in the booming cyber-security industry with the funding help from the international Belcan Corporation.

CRIME

Middletown man avoids trial, pleads guilty to murder, aggravated murder

James Geran, 45, of Middletown, admitted guilt in December to a pair of murder charges. He was charged with killing two women last summer before turning the gun on himself after a standoff in Trenton.

On Dec. 10, the day the trial was scheduled to begin in Butler County Common Pleas Court, Geran pleaded guilty to aggravated murder for shooting his girlfriend’s mother, Sharon McCleary, in the head on June 13 and murder for the fatal shooting of Megan Motter the day before. Prosecutors said Motter was Geran’s “business associate in criminal activity.”

For about two hours, Geran periodically fired his weapon at the Butler County Sheriff’s deputies outside. Negotiators talked him into releasing two sisters, one of which was his girlfriend.

However, when Geran let the second sister out, he immediately closed the door and deputies heard gunfire.

Geran then crawled out, having shot himself in the chin with a .380 caliber gun, according to deputies.

McClearly was found dead.

Geran could spend the rest of his life in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 17.

MORE: Middletown man pleads guilty to killing 2 women

Cincinnati man in January standoff gets 40-plus years in prison

Donald Gazaway
Photo: Staff Writer

Donald Gazaway, 32, of Cincinnati, held a 10-year-old boy hostage for 30 hours last winter at a Liberty Twp. apartment complex, and on Dec. 17 he was sentenced to 41½ years in prison.

Gazaway was convicted in October of kidnapping, felonious assault, inducing panic, aggravated burglary, and having weapons under disability after a four-day trial in Butler County Common Pleas Judge Charles Pater’s courtroom.

A plethora of law enforcement, including SWAT teams from the city of Hamilton and Butler County Sheriff’s Office, were on the scene for more than a day in January at the Springs at Liberty apartment complex after Gazaway had a confrontation with the boy’s mother. He demanded money and eventually kept the boy with him as he fired weapons and moved around the residence, according to prosecutors.

Gazaway maintained his innocence before sentencing, telling the judge he had done nothing wrong, and the shots were fired by someone else and he committed no crime getting into the home.

MORE: 40-plus-year prison sentence for man convicted in 30-hour standoff

Teen driver in Monroe fatal prom crash sent to rehabilitation center

A Monroe High School senior who was driving a car on her prom night that crashed and resulted in a friend’s death was sentenced by visiting Butler County Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Lipps to the Miami Valley Rehabilitation Center in Xenia this month.

Chynna Brandon could spend spend up to six months in the center as she continues to receive mental health treatments.

She was driving when Kaylie Jackson, 17, a senior at Monroe, was killed after she was ejected from a car that crashed on Millikin Road and struck a telephone pole, according to the Butler County Sheriff’s Office. The crash occurred on April 28 as the driver and three of her classmates were going to dinner in Mason before the Monroe prom.

Liberty Twp. man charged in woman’s death

A Liberty Twp. man charged in the death of Ellen “Ellie” Weik will be on trial this spring.

Michael Strouse, of Bluffs Drive, was indicted in September for aggravated murder, murder, three counts of tampering with evidence, menacing by stalking, petty theft, abuse of a corpse and gross abuse of a corpse in connection with Weik’s death, who was found dead in a Millikin Road field in August.

According to the grand jury indictment, Strouse had been stalking Weik since the beginning of 2018. The indictment also accuses Strouse of trespassing where Weik “lives, is employed or attends school.”

Strouse is being held on $4 million bond. His trial is scheduled to be on April 1.

MORE: Trial date set for man charged in West Chester woman’s death

BUSINESS

Groundbreaking ceremony launches Spooky Nook at Champion Mill project

An Oct. 25 groundbreaking at the former Champion Mill kicked off construction efforts for the gigantic Spooky Nook at Champion Mill indoor sports complex.

It will also will play host to Greater Cincinnati’s second-largest convention center.

The project, set to open in 2021, is described by local officials as “monumental” and “historic” because of the anticipated economic boom expected to reverberate, not just through the city but many of its surrounding communities. The groundbreaking ceremony capped off years of planning and financing for the project, including Historic Tax Credits and other funding.

The original Spooky Nook Sports, which opened in 2013 near Lancaster, Pa., had an economic impact of nearly $55 million, including $15.5 million in revenue and $39.2 million in off-site ancillary spending by Spooky Nook multi-day attendees in 2017, according to an economic impact summary prepared by Tourism Economics.

MORE: A huge new project wouldn’t just help Hamilton. The sports center’s impact would reverberate for miles. (March 31)

MORE: Groundbreaking held for ‘transformational’ Spooky Nook complex (Oct. 25)

MORE: Local businesses already prepping for expected Spooky Nook-related growth (Nov. 4)

Agreement paves way for $75M development, thousands of jobs

West Chester Twp. will invest more than $5 million in tax increment financing funds to create the public infrastructure needed to facilitate the development of a light industrial/office park with the potential to create 1,000 new jobs.

The $75 million light industrial/office park development — West Chester Trade Center — will be the work of Missouri-based NorthPoint Development and bring approximately 1.8 million square feet of space to more than 100 acres along Ohio 747, company officials said.

The project will unite two properties along Ohio 747 between Smith Road and Union Centre Boulevard. The 46-acre northern property, know as the Brate farm, would include three buildings totaling 640,000 square feet. Another three buildings will be built in two phases on a neighboring 60-acre site, the former Rinck farm, which provides access off Union Centre Boulevard.

Construction on the site started in June, and the first building is expected to open in 2019.

MORE: Agreement paves way for $75M development, thousands of jobs

Hospitals invest millions into the region

Two hospital networks invested nearly $100 million in the region in 2018.

The Christ Hospital Medical Center-Liberty Twp. opened Jan. 8 on 17 acres at 6939 Cox Road near the Interstate 75 interchange at Ohio 129. The $62 million medical facility includes an emergency room and offers surgical services including operating rooms with extended recovery for patients, plus a state-of-the-art family birthing center, radiology and imaging, physical therapy, general surgery, dermatology, endocrinology, and podiatry.

Kettering Health Network invested another $36 million for a new multi-million dollar medical complex in Middletown, which opened Aug. 8.

The 67,000-square-foot Kettering Health Network Middletown on Ohio 122 features a full-service emergency department, outpatient lab and imaging services, including a full complement of magnetic resonance imaging, computed tomography, X-ray and ultrasound.

MORE: 5 things to know about the newest $62M healthcare facility in the region

MORE: 5 things to know about area’s new $36M medical facility

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