NEW RICHMOND — The Village of New Richmond is hoping for an $877,500 state grant to transform it from a recovering coal plant community to a waterfront destination for boaters, bikers and history buffs.
“We believe this is a game changer,” said Bob Lees, president of Renaissance New Richmond, who grew up when this Clermont County village on the Ohio River was thriving from jobs and money fueled by the Walter C. Beckjord coal plant.
When Duke Energy closed the plant in 2014, the town lost $300,000 annually in revenue — or 10 percent of the village’s annual budget — and a large part of its identity.
“We did lose a lot when we lost the power plant and we needed something to replace that,” Lees said. “We believe we’re positioned to create a mini-boomtown here.”
Village officials want to be included in the next state capital budget bill to build Liberty Landing Park – a complete redesign of a portion of Front Street down to the Ohio River.
Plans are for terraces of green space, a stage for outdoor concerts, a grand staircase and a large boat ramp for riverboat cruises and other marine traffic. The historic Showboat Majestic riverboat is currently moored there.
“It would impact as much if not more than Smale Park impacting Cincinnati, on obviously a smaller scale,” said Andrew Gephardt, New Richmond’s planning and zoning administrator. “It would be absolutely transformational for sure.”
Liberty Landing would connect to the Ohio River Bike Trail and commemorate New Richmond’s historic role in the abolitionist and Underground Railroad movement.
“We have high confidence that this will bring jobs and people and vitality,” said Village Administrator Greg Roberts. “People have talked about riverfront development and improving our riverfront for as long as I’ve been on this earth.”
The state gave New Richmond a $25,000 grant in 2020 to design the Liberty Landing project. Now village officials are asking for state funding to build it.
New Richmond officials submitted a proposal to the Clermont County Port Authority, which will evaluate and score each of the 23 state funding applications it received. The Port will forward its recommendations to state legislators in January 2022.
New Richmond plans to contribute $30,000 toward the project.
“The word that’s been used to describe New Richmond for my entire lifetime was potential," Roberts said. "New Richmond has so much potential."
Founded in 1814, New Richmond was once a bustling hub for steamboat building along the banks of the river, 20 miles east of Cincinnati.
In the 1960s, federal officials moved U.S. 52 from historic Front Street to a four-lane highway in the middle of the village. It caused blight and empty storefronts along the waterfront, and busy traffic on a new highway that literally cut the village in half.
“That took a lot of traffic off of this street and caused a lot of businesses to move out of the old historic district,” Lees said.
With New Richmond as the largest waterfront municipality in the county, Liberty Landing could be a tourism draw for the entire area, Gephardt said.
And Clermont County could use the revenue boost.
For decades Clermont County was flush with tax revenue from two coal power plants perched along the Ohio River. It paved roads, built new fire stations and schools, opened a community center, and replaced household septic tanks with municipally treated water.
Then Duke Energy closed the Beckjord plant in 2014. And Texas-based Vistra Corp. announced in July that the William H. Zimmer plant in Moscow will close five years early, by May 2022, stripping hundreds of thousands in annual revenue from the county and New Richmond schools.
But New Richmond officials are trying to take charge of their own future.
The village won grants to develop Suzanna Way Promenade and the U.S. 52 Complete Streets project, which will redesign the four-lane highway that bisects the village and cuts off its historic district from its population centers.
The village is partnering with ODOT to install four roundabouts along its stretch of U.S. 52, in an attempt to slow traffic and reduce congestion. An additional portion of ODOT's recommendation is to reduce the highway to two lanes and convert the western two lanes -- closer to the riverfront and the Front Street business district -- into a walking and biking trail.
“A few years ago we got a few grants for infrastructure … investors and developers saw that the village was serious about improving itself,” Gephardt said. “That caused some people here and there to take a chance and buy some property.”
Entrepreneurs were lured to the village for its stock of empty 19th-century historic buildings. They renovated them into new bars, restaurants and shops.
Last year the village council voted to designate 140 acres along the riverfront as a designated outdoor refreshment area – to encourage residents and visitors to explore the waterfront with drinks in hand.
The most recent U.S. Census showed that New Richmond grew by 16 percent, not counting the 100 new homes that are currently being built here, Gephardt said.
“We want to maintain our small-town charm,” Roberts said, with an eye to the future.
Roberts is hopeful the village will receive some state funding in 2022 for Liberty Landing. Without state help, the village could fund the project, but it would likely take 10 to 20 years for that to happen.
“We’re shifting away from the carbon-based industry with the Beckjord plant,” Lees said. “We’re transforming into a services-oriented economy that is really going to turn the town around.”