With third Wawa planned, Fairfield’s economic development ‘is strong’

Developer says the city has ‘come a long way’

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Fairfield was founded in 1955, and most of the city’s early development occurred from the 1960s to the 1980s. Many buildings and businesses are at or beyond 50 years old.

Sometimes an area needs a refresh, and sometimes it needs a little bit more, including razing buildings to start anew.

The private sector market can take care of some of that, but sometimes the public sector “has to step in and nudge it over the finish line to get these projects moving,” said Fairfield Development Services Director Greg Kathman.

“Communities have to be constantly reinvesting in themselves and we do that with public infrastructure, and we have to do that with private real estate as well. It’s just like a homeowner,” he said. “As your home gets a little bit older, you have to upgrade your furnace, put a new roof on, replace your windows over time. It’s the same the concept, same ideas as you’re looking at for a city.”

The city will have three Wawa locations, and a different developer will lead each project. There are two Wawa projects ― one at Ohio 4 and Symmes Road and the other at Bypass Ohio 4 and Tylersville Road ― with already approved site plans, and a building permit has been issued for Ohio 4 and Symmes project. Those first two Wawas didn’t request or require any tax break or incentivized deal to move their projects forward.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The third one received a $230,000 grant from the city’s Transformative Economic Development (TED) Fund, which provides a critical and strategic framework for future growth and redevelopment resources. On Tuesday, Fairfield City Council approved a development agreement incorporating that grant with Blaze Properties Fairfield LLC.

Fairfield City Council has placed a priority on redeveloping Ohio 4, and having two destination gas stations like Wawa on either end of the corridor helps with that objective. Having big-named companies can attract more businesses and development or redevelopment, and Fairfield has resources, such as tax abatement and TIF financing to try to facilitate projects.

The developer of the southern Ohio 4 Wawa plans to invest $3.4 million to acquire and prepare the two-parcel project at Mack and Ohio 4, replacing the former PNC Bank building and the former The Detail Doctor, which was a car wash. Site preparation, which includes relocating a service road, would take several months, starting this year. Construction of the new Wawa could start as late as November or December and would be a $7 million investment, creating upwards of 40 new jobs and opening in the fall of 2025.

City ‘a great partner’

Anchor Associates is one of the development partners on this Wawa project, and partner Jason Gibson called it “just a great location” as Dixie Highway, or Ohio 4, is a main thoroughfare in the city. Gibson, a Fairfield High School graduate, worked at the now-closed car wash, calling the project “full circle” for him.

“(Fairfield’s) come a long way,” he said, adding that the city’s “been a great partner” with Blue Ash-based Anchor Associates as they are looking at more projects in the city.

Kathman said now with multiple Wawa projects, as well as other redevelopment activity happening around the city, “people are going to see those as they drive by and hopefully it’ll be a good positive sign that would encourage others to invest in Fairfield as well.”

There are several reasons why Fairfield is seeing interest in development and redevelopment. Industry paused a couple of years ago when interest rates and inflation rose. But the economy is stabilizing, Kathman said, and inflation has slowed and interest rates could see more reduction in the next several months.

“I think businesses are getting comfortable that they are solid footing and there’s no recession that’s going to happen,” Kathman said. “I think there’s some confidence in the economy and allowing businesses to move forward. I think that’s a big part of it.”

Business ebbs and flows with the economy. The speculative building business ― where companies build industrial buildings with the expectations they’d be filled ― was strong in Fairfield several years ago, as well as in other areas around Greater Cincinnati. The vast majority of those speculative buildings in the Butler County city are full.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

In addition to speculative buildings, and new construction like one of the three Wawa stations, the city also is seeing expansion like with Professional NDE (PNDE) Services Group, planned for a year or more.

PNDE began operations on Port Union Road in 2019, and it’s growing. The building owner, Koehler Properties, is adding 13,000 square feet to accommodate PNDE’s growth, and this project will add four more full-time jobs to the existing 26. The anticipated total payroll is expected to exceed $2.75 million. Because of the investment and creation of jobs, Fairfield has agreed to give the company a four-year, 45% property tax incentive on the assessed value of the expansion.

Diversity of businesses

Fairfield has become known for its diversity of businesses, which is a lesson the city learned from the former General Motors Fisher Body Plant when it closed in the late 1980s. The majority of the city’s tax base came from Fisher Body. Never again will Fairfield rely on one business as they did with the former General Motors plant, officials have said.

In the early 1990s, Fairfield began its diversity in businesses, being on the cutting edge of offering tax incentives to attract new business, a practice they continue to embrace. Just a few years ago, the city started its TED Fund and reactivated in 2022 its Community Improvement Corporation (CIC).

But new construction and expansions aren’t the only projects that can be incentivized. A facade improvement also helps make the city look better and encourages more development.

Number One 1688 LLC owns multiple storefronts in Riegert Square on Pleasant Avenue, and the company plans to modernize the contiguous storefronts in the plaza, including refacing the gable, installing new wood columns and painting the building trim. In turn, the city will authorize a grant through the TED Fund of up to 80% of the cost, which is at least $5,000 and no more than $20,000.

Later this year, there will be additional investments in projects around the city through the Fairfield CIC. The council authorized $3.3 million to be transferred to the agency, most of it being Butler County ARPA funds that need to be allocated by the end of this year.

“There are some planning and some ideas on the best ways to utilize that funding, but there is nothing to announce there directly,” Kathman said.

It often takes a year or more for a business to plan an expansion, and upwards of another year or more to execute that plan. A lot of that has been happening in Fairfield, a sign that the city’s economic development is strong, he said.

“We’ve got some good things happening here, and people are going to see the results,” Kathman said. “There’s private market interest, there’s confidence in the economy, and there’s public sector support to help move some of these projects along. I think all of these things combined help.”

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