FAIRFIELD, Ohio — The Butler County Land Bank has applied for $9.5 million in state funding to raze a host of local eyesores, but the bulk of the money if awarded would go to topple the former Forest Fair Mall that straddles Fairfield and Forest Park.
The state has provided $256 million for commercial and residential demolitions. The county is guaranteed $500,000, and the Butler County Land Bank has applied for $9.5 million. The bulk of the money, if approved, would go to down the old Forest Fair Mall — now called the Cincinnati Mall — along Interstate 275. The total demolition is estimated at $10.5 million and there is a $2.6 million local match the developer would pay.
“I think everybody agrees it’s been a liability for a long time, and it’s Fairfield’s gateway and Forest Park’s gateway. It just needs to be cleaned up,” Butler County Commissioner Don Dixon said. “It has some great potential so we need to help it redevelop if we can, so it can make some sales tax dollars and property tax dollars; that’s what makes government-run.”
The mall, built in 1988, has seen several renovations and name changes. Only a handful of businesses remain inside the facility, including Arcade Legacy. Owner Jesse Baker said the business has thrived inside the mall but they are now turning their attention to opportunities elsewhere.
"Our business almost immediately tripled right when we moved here," Baker said. "I was shocked. It's been great ever since. I've never wanted to leave, but I knew the day would probably have to come."
The majority of the mall property is in Hamilton County, but those officials had already submitted demolition applications to the state, so developers who want to repurpose the site came to the Butler County Land Bank for help. The board voted unanimously to support the project.
Land Bank Executive Director Seth Geisler submitted 51 projects to the state Feb. 18: the mall, 26 Hamilton eyesores, 15 Middletown properties, four others from Fairfield and one each from New Miami and Lemon, Liberty, Ross and St. Clair townships.
Ben Davis with Hillwood Construction Services said they are just beginning redevelopment talks with Fairfield and Forest Park but they hope to put light industrial buildings on the site that could have a value of $150 million and potentially produce 900 to 1,500 jobs. According to the funding application, the property is currently valued at $9.2 million, with $2 million of that on the Butler County side.
Davis said they are hoping to redevelop the entire 90-acre site.
“The Kohls has lease rights, everybody else is on some 30- or 60-day termination lease but we would have those conversations,” Davis said. “We would talk to Bass Pro and see what they want to do. We’re talking to Kohls now, we’re talking about potentially building them a free-standing building on the north side of the site.”
There are a lot of moving pieces that need to fall into place before this project becomes a reality, such as existing TIFs, state vacancy requirements and other legal issues to deal with.
When the state biennial budget passed, it allocated $150 million for commercial and residential demolitions and $350 million for brownfield remediation. Each of the 88 counties will automatically receive $500,000 for demolition and $1 million for brownfield remediation, which is the removal of hazardous materials left when industrial, or even commercial such as dry cleaners blight is downed. No local match is required.
The remaining $106 million in demolition and $262 million for brownfields will be disbursed “first come, first served” and requires a 25% match. The funds will be distributed in three rounds as long as money holds out.
Hillwood is not expecting to get any of the no-match funding. Nathaniel Kaelin, Fairfield’s economic development manager, said the mall has been a “white elephant” for a long time.
“This is a challenged site as far as the owner as well and Hillwood has been able to successfully get the site under contract, which is quite a hurdle to get a purchase price,” Kaelin said. “We know that they face additional hurdles as far as demolition, with paying off those assessments and so we think that they are probably somewhere in the ballpark of $50 million before they get to a green field, so we think it might be appropriate to consider state funding.”
Davis said he cannot discuss the project because they do not own the property yet.
Most of the other demolition applications are for residential properties. Geisler estimated those at $15,000 based on past projects. There are a handful of commercial structures that are estimated in the $75,000 to $80,000 range. The filing deadline is Feb. 28.
The applications for brownfield remediation are being submitted directly to the state and will be awarded on a first-come basis, both for money allotted to counties and the general pot of money. The first round for the brownfield applications was Jan. 31.
Middletown was hoping to get $2.8 million to help pay for the demolition and remediation of the former Middletown Paperboard site but technically missed the deadline, because city council legislation authorizing the grant application was not included in the submission. The council approved emergency legislation a day after the deadline.
Todd Walker, chief communications officer for the state development department, said previously they received 204 brownfield remediation applications from 59 counties totaling $262 million by the deadline. He said Middletown’s application was not among them.
Middletown was hoping to get the full $1 million no-match grant allotted to the county. Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick said previously they were trying to “cure” the problem with their application. He could not be reached for comment on whether he was successful or not.
The Journal-News checked back with the state development department and the number of accepted applications remains at 204.
Fairfield submitted a $1.4 million application to clean up the old Fairfield Cleaners site on Jan. 27. Hamilton applied for $1.2 million to clean up the old Mohawk Fine Papers’ Beckett Mill property on the Jan. 31 deadline.
Hamilton Economic Development Specialist Stacey Dietrich said since they have already spent $1.53 million buying the Mohawk Fine Papers’ Beckett Mill property and doing preliminary work, they have satisfied the match requirement.
Fairfield Economic Development Manager Nathaniel Kaelin said the property owners have committed to a $350,000 match for the clean-up project, so they don’t need the guaranteed county money.
Dietrich and Kaelin have not heard yet if they have received grant money. Since the money will be doled out on a first-come basis it would appear Fairfield might be the winner of the county’s guaranteed $1 million with no match requirement. The next round of funding starts March 1.