Butler County officials say they are banking on the mega sports complex Spooky Nook being wildly successful, that’s why they are investing $2.5 million in the project.
Butler County Administrator Charlie Young told a crowd at the commissioners’ meeting Thursday that Hamilton officials have assured him the project will be successful and county money is necessary to make Spooky Nook a reality.
“It is my hope as we invest in this project, that this first investment resulting from the 2020 initiative, that the promise of success will be realized, he said. “A transformational project in our county’s core is deserving of this investment.”
He noted this will be the first cash award the commissioners will make once their general fund debt balance rolls to zero in 2020. Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News previously he envisions the county’s annual investment of funds in economic development projects in local jurisdictions countywide will be in the $1 to $5 million range.
The county in recent years has been paying about $10 million — the amount was increased in 2015 when the 2020 plan was initiated — retiring the general fund debt, that stood at $92.3 million in 2009 and will be down to $17.6 million by year’s end.
Hamilton officials have also asked the Butler County Visitors Bureau for $2.5 million. Executive Director Mark Hecquet said there are a couple assurances the BCVB needs in writing before that deal is sealed.
“We basically need to make sure the facility comes in and understands, you’re bringing in a lot of people from out-of-town, we want you to use the Butler County hotels first, it’s pretty simple,” Hecquet told the Journal-News. “That’s very important for us as community, as a county and these economic numbers are based on that fact. We want to make sure there is an agreement in place for that.”
Secondly he said, much like their agreement with the Voice of America Park in West Chester Twp., they need to be able to book national and international events at Spooky Nook “on the spot.”
The BCVB doesn’t have $2.5 million to invest all at once. Hotel taxes brought in $1.6 million last year, but the visitors bureau is possibly willing to negotiate “a structured deal over 10 to 20 years,” Hecquet said earlier.
The visitors bureau invested $1 million in the new sports complex at Voice of America Park in West Chester Twp., over a 10-year period.
The entire Spooky Nook project is estimated to cost $144 million — including a more than $26 million investment by Hamilton for loans, construction, utility and road improvements and more. The Hamilton Community Foundation has also pledged $13 million of its investment assets to help Spooky Nook secure a bank loan.
Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said they decided to invest in the project because it has the potential to be an important economic driver county-wide. She said the city leaders have a “high level of confidence” this project will succeed and they are relying on that.
“They’ve provided assurances that the economic impact will be nothing short of phenomenal,” she said. “And they’ve assured us that any investment in Butler County into some aspect of Spooky Nook will be more than compensated by the increase in economic activity.”
Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser tempered the county’s response to the project with some words of caution. He has been advising the commissioners on the investment and recommended they hire a legal expert a few weeks ago, when they were considering becoming a partner in the project. The infrastructure-only investment erased that need, he said.
“It’s a daunting project to invest 140 some odd million dollars and I suppose at the end of the day there’s going to be a request for more,” Gmoser said. “I’ve never seen a project yet that came in on time and on budget, especially when you’re dealing with government.”
To help ensure the project is successful Gmoser offered the services of his office.
“The road to Spooky Nook is paved with good intentions,” he said. “As we sit here today we are inspired by hope, we are inspired by good intentions, we are inspired by ability and we are inspired by a faith in the future. The future of the city of Hamilton and Butler County as a whole… All we want to do is make sure this project is successful.”
Spooky Nook is City Manager Joshua Smith’s “baby” according to Carpenter. Smith told the Journal-News the county’s money won’t be needed until the end of the project in the Fall of 2020 or Spring of 2021. He said their biggest needs are improvements to B Street and Rhea Avenue.
He assured the commissioners the project — they broke ground at the old Champion paper mill on the Great Miami River last month — is worth the investment and will be on target. He noted they expect $40 million in annual off-site spending — a boon to the county’s sales tax bottom line — and a 200-room hotel in phase one — a revenue generator for the visitors bureau.
“We will do everything in our power to hopefully bring it in at budget or under budget, on time,” Smith said. “Because we know the citizens of Butler County and Hamilton are watching us very closely.”
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