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Middletown might delay vote for massive Hollywoodland development

Members of council seek ethics advice
Renders of Proposed Middletown 'Hollywoodland' project
Posted at 5:51 PM, Oct 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-21 12:17:14-04

MIDDLETOWN — Middletown City Council might push back Thursday’s scheduled vote on a development contract for Hollywoodland, a $1.3 billion proposal to build a movie-industry-themed amusement park on Middletown’s riverfront.

“Main Street Community Capital has asked City Council to postpone a vote on the agreement until the December 7, 2021, meeting to continue conversations with the community,” said a statement from the city. “In addition, some members of City Council have requested ethics opinions from legal counsel and the Ohio Ethics Commission regarding their ability to vote on this ordinance.”

The contract will come to council with a request to table the measure until December, but it won’t be official until council votes on it.

Main Street Community Capital partner David Rachie confirmed the company wants more time to discuss the project with residents.

“It’s a great project,” Rachie said. “There’s nothing to hide.”

Rachie – and partners Bob Johnson and Rob Furst – have already sparked quite a bit of conversation with their plan to attract 3.5 million visitors a year to a 50-plus-acre site between downtown Middletown and the Great Miami River. The massive mixed-use project would include three hotels, an amusement park, convention center, concert venue and industrial park catering to film production studios that supply streaming platforms like Netflix.

The city has already spent $405,000 on the project – including $155,000 on options to buy real estate and $250,000 for “pre-development planning,” according to an ordinance approved by council in March. As WCPO has previously reported, the proposed sale, purchase and development agreement with Main Street Community Capital requires the city to give developers $7.5 million in federal stimulus proceeds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The money is to be used on consultants who will develop cost estimates, design documents and feasibility reports aimed at attracting $200 million in private equity investments and more than $1 billion in bond financing.

The development agreement also outlines tax incentives to help fund the project, including a 30-year, 100% exemption on property taxes through tax-increment financing and the creation of a New Community Authority to issue bonds backed by user fees on tenants and visitors to the project.

Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick said the project is a chance to get a huge economic development win from a very small investment of local tax revenue.

“There are no general obligation pledges. There are no general obligation bonds. There are no local tax monies in effect,” Palenick said. “There are ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars, yes. That’s at risk (for) potential of a lot of return. That’s what we’re talking about.”

Middletown resident Norma Armstrong is not impressed.

Armstrong is a volunteer for the Sorg Opera House, a 130-year-old concert hall built by Middletown’s first millionaire, Paul J. Sorg. The 1,200-seat theater has undergone a resurgence in the last decade as volunteers contribute dollars and sweat equity in the historic structure designed by famous Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford.

“The Middletown community is proud of this place,” Armstong said. “And we’re all proud of this place and the work we’ve done here.”

That’s why she was “devastated” to learn that Hollywoodland includes a 10,000-seat concert venue on its northeast corner – about 500 feet from the Sorg’s front door.

“If it actually comes to fruition, it’ll put this down,” Armstrong said. “It won’t be able to make it.”

Beyond the competitive threat, Armstrong is disturbed by the city’s grant of $7.5 million in stimulus funds, $2 million of which are payable to Main Street Capital within two weeks of signing the contract.

“Two million dollars here would put a new roof on, new bathrooms in,” Armstrong said. “There’s a ballroom upstairs that is beautiful but has to be redone. And why couldn’t that money come to someplace in town that the people are familiar with and grateful to have.”

Rachie said the concert venue at Hollywoodland would not compete against the Sorg because it would focus on acts that draw bigger crowds.

“Ariana Grande would never play the Sorg,” he said. “You’re not going to get Broadway plays.”

But the Sorg could feed off the venue in the same way that smaller venues attract patrons in theater districts. Rachie added that his partners offered “at least a quarter million dollars in grants” to the Sorg if its development contract is approved by council.

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