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Debt outlook improves for Liberty Center project in Butler County

'The location clearly works'
Debt outlook improves for Liberty Center project in Butler County
Posted at 1:35 PM, Jul 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-26 14:49:57-04

LIBERTY TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- A New York lender has given a four-month extension to developers of the Liberty Center project in Butler County, which previously faced a May deadline to pay off its $165 million construction loan from Apollo Commercial Real Estate Inc.

“This will be an ongoing focus of ours from an asset management perspective,” Apollo CEO Stuart Rothstein told investors Thursday. “We don’t expect the loan to pay off at maturity but we do expect to continue to work through it.”

In another measure of improved outlook on Liberty Center debt, Moody's Investors Service has upgraded its rating on $10 million in infrastructure bonds for the project. Backed by payments from Liberty Center owners and tenants, the bonds now carry a Moody's rating of Baa2, up from Baa3. That means Moody's now considers the investment-grade bonds to be less risky than they were before the June 6 rating change.

Columbus-based Steiner Associates developed the mixed-use project with Bucksbaum Retail Partners of Chicago. Liberty Center officials did not respond to WCPO’s requests for comment.

A year ago, Rothstein expressed concerns about the leasing progress at Liberty Center, which at the time had an occupancy rate in the low 80 percent range. He was hoping to get that number above 90 percent by May, when he expected the loan to to be paid off in a refinancing.

But Liberty Center has improved its occupancy rate since then. Earlier this month, it announced four new tenants: Home-décor retailer Burlap & Birch; a clothing store for young women called Borella Boutique; the Sugar & Spice Spa and Event Center; and Molly’s Cupcakes, which will make Liberty Center its first Ohio location.

It also landed an indoor skydiving attraction that will open later this summer. This will be the first Ohio location for iFly Indoor Skydiving and the 29th in the U.S.

Rothstein said Liberty Center remains below 90 percent occupancy but he’s seen enough progress to warrant additional patience.

“The location clearly works,” he said. “The mixed-use assets that were part of the broader development are working … This is about coming up with a merchandising plan or strategy that works for the long term and not just haphazardly putting tenants in spaces just to sort of create the illusion of greater occupancy.”