What’s next for Towne Mall now that Middletown has stepped away?

City Council allows city manager to cancel $16 million contract to purchase East End property.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

One of the biggest projects under a former Middletown city manager is dead at its previous location.

Jim Palenick, who served as city manager for 21 months, and his senior staff worked for months on a plan to purchase the Towne Mall Galleria and convert the property into a sports and entertainment complex with retail, hotels, bars and restaurants and residential uses.

He envisioned attracting a minor league hockey team and bringing a go kart business to the mall. He often compared his plan to Austin Landing in Miami Twp., and Liberty Center in Liberty Twp.

But on Tuesday night, all those plans — at least at the Towne Mall site — were scratched when City Council unanimously approved City Manager Paul Lolli cancelling the city’s purchase agreement with George Ragheb, the California-based owner of the mall.

The Journal-News called Ragheb Wednesday for comment. He answered the phone and said he had someone in his office and to call back later. He didn’t answer his phone when he was called back.

Lolli and city council members have hinted the project is still possible at another Warren County site located in the city. If that’s true, the project probably would have to be located on vacant property near Atrium Medical Center.

Three months ago, council unanimously approved the city spending $1 million of the total $16 million price tag to purchase the Towne Mall Galleria, located just off I-75 near the Ohio 122 exit.

That’s when the city entered into a purchase agreement for the portion of the mall site that is commonly known as the former Sears, Elder-Beerman and the main center section of the mall, according to the city. It did not include the section where the Burlington/Gabe’s stores are located.

But after “conducting extensive due diligence efforts” and examining the final financing costs for the redevelopment of the properties, the city concluded that acquiring the properties at the previously agreed to price was “not feasible,” according to the staff report.

Under the terms of the agreement, the city was afforded a 90-day period before any deposited earnest monies became non-refundable.

If the city had made the $1 million payment, council would have needed to approve the remaining $15 million of the purchase prior to the closing expected to be in June 2023, according to documents.

Lolli didn’t comment about the mall project during Tuesday’s meeting, but Tal Moon, the most veteran of the council members, said the purchase and estimated construction price of the project made it “cost prohibitive to the point of endangering the sustainability of the development.”

Moon’s message to residents: “One of our primary roles is to be good stewards of these public dollars.”

If the plans are moved to another location, Moon said he’s “very confident in the overall project.”

Earlier this week, Muterspaw told the Journal-News that parts of the plan may be possible. Just not at the mall.

“The project is the project,” he said. “But there is another option. We want to do it right. We have to be smart with the money. We can’t give it away.”

Mayor Nicole Condrey said the city expects a project in similar “size and scale” as the one proposed at the mall.

The 45-year-old Towne Mall has been nearly vacant for years, and city officials have often talked about the importance of bringing vibrant businesses to the city’s doorstep. They have said Middletown needs to keep its residents shopping locally and attract visitors to the city.

The mall project also has received strong support from Warren County. The county has committed $3.5 million to the project, secured $1 million in demolition grants from the state and in January commissioners approved about $73,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding toward a feasibility and marketing study to determine the size and scope of the project.

Martin Russell, deputy county administrator and executive director of the Warren County Port Authority, was out of town and unavailable for comment.

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