CINCINNATI — Mike Marchioni has worked at Hilltop Basic Resources for 30 years, following in the footsteps of his father who spent his life’s work at this concrete and gravel facility on Downtown’s riverfront.
In 1968, Hilltop relocated to make way for Riverfront Stadium. It settled on 15 acres along the Ohio River, where barges deliver tons of gravel, limestone and sand every day.
Now, Hamilton County commissioners are asking Hilltop to move again.
“You’re kind of tied to the property and get used to it,” Marchioni said. “Usually there are four or five barges — five barges is about 10,000 tons — and we unload them every day and then the boat goes back. That’s the blood of this operation.”
Hilltop’s materials have been used to build virtually every landmark in Cincinnati, from Great American Tower to Paul Brown Stadium and The Banks.
Now this 78-year-old family business is at the center of a political dispute involving city and county leaders, the Bengals, The Banks and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
A complicated land swap involving Hilltop land must take place before CSO’s music management firm, MEMI, can build a long-awaited concert venue at The Banks.
The fight got nastier last week when PromoWest and parent company AEG Presents, one of the largest live music companies in the world, announced plans to build a $40 million concert venue directly across the river in Newport, Kentucky.
“This certainly makes it harder with that kind of competition,” Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said. “And we shouldn’t be here because we should have been the first to market. We should have been the first music venue open on our side of the river.”
Builders were supposed to break ground on the concert venue at The Banks five months ago. The venue is now set to open in the fall of 2020, but only if groundbreaking occurs soon.
“The timing is important, I’m not going to deny it. Hilltop is the very last thing,” said Hamilton County Commission President Denise Driehaus.
Hilltop's land — across the street from Paul Brown Stadium — is at the center of the land swap.
“We’ve known that the Bengals have coveted the land since the lease was put into place,” said Hilltop president Kevin Sheehan.
County commissioners signed a new lease with the Bengals in November.
The team agreed to give up parking space adjacent to the stadium for the concert venue.
In return, the county agreed to buy Hilltop’s land so the Bengals could gain 2,000 new parking spots and possibly a new indoor practice facility.
“We have negotiated with some very difficult people in this community to make this work,” Driehaus said. “We’re driving toward the goal line and we’re trying to get this thing finished.”
In order for this land swap to work, Hilltop must find a spot for relocation: riverfront land near the urban core and close to highways.
Hilltop’s current site is a perfect logistical fit.
“We’re very content to remain where we are,” Sheehan said. “To the extent that we can find a solution, we’re more than happy to continue to explore that with the city and the county.”
But Hilltop also wants to be a good neighbor and support a new concert venue at The Banks, Sheehan said.
“We understand the importance of this,” Sheehan said. “There’s a lot of interest involved — the Bengals, the city, the county, and the music venue, which then benefits the business owners along The Banks.”
But finding a new home for Hilltop hasn’t been easy.
“They’ve identified a spot in Lower Price Hill,” Driehaus said. “You know, Lower Price Hill has a different vision for that piece of property and so we need to be sensitive to that and say, 'Eh, not the best location.'”
Hilltop wanted to put a barge unloading facility on land it owns in Lower Price Hill, and spread out the remainder of its operation over two sites in Queensgate. Some residents were concerned it would interfere with plans for Price Landing Park.
Coincidentally, Hilltop once owned the land for the proposed Price Landing Park. The company bought the property in 1991 when it seemed likely that the county would buy its Downtown site for the Bengals.
“When those discussions terminated with the county in the late '90s we decided … that we were no longer willing to hold onto it with no productive use on the property,” Sheehan said, noting that the city now owns that land.
Now Hilltop is looking at other property in Queensgate as a possible relocation site. That land is owned by the city and leased to Cincinnati Bulk Terminals, which has operated on the riverfront since 1882.
Cranley isn’t willing to break that lease for Hilltop.
“We don’t control it, we lease it to someone else who has contract rights,” Cranley said. “We can’t just make our tenant leave.”
Driehaus is pushing for a meeting between city and county leaders and both companies to see if the land can be shared. Cranley has agreed to help with that meeting.
“We realize that Cincinnati Bulk Terminals is a private company like we are,” Sheehan said. “We know what its like to be asked to consider moving your operation or changing things around, so we’re certainly not trying to displace them.”
As leaders try to find a solution, frustration is mounting about the delay in building the concert venue at The Banks.
“Frustrating yes, but over the course of 50 years, these painful weeks and months won’t matter to the big picture,” said MEMI president Mike Smith.
“We think that it's worth the frustration … we are confident that the county and city are going to pull this together and it’s going to work,” Smith said.
Smith isn’t afraid to compete with PromoWest for music lovers or concerts and said it doesn’t matter which venue is up and running first.
“We can’t do anything about what other entities decide to do,” Smith said. “People get into business and compete all the time. It doesn’t change anything to us.”
In the meantime, Hilltop’s president is assuring his employees and customers that regardless of what happens at The Banks, his operation will continue as usual.
“The questions do get asked, they get asked by our customers, they get asked by our employees," Sheehan said. "'What’s happening? Am I going to have a job?'"
Hilltop is currently pouring concrete for FC Cincinnati’s new stadium in the West End and will likely bid on PromoWest’s new concert venue in Newport.
Even if Hilltop finds a relocation site, it will take one year to transfer its operations and be up and running. That’s because a new concrete plant has to be ordered and constructed, Sheehan said.
“We have to be in a position where we turn on the lights in our new location, and turn off the lights in our old location,” Sheehan said. “We can’t be out of business, and that’s a concern. That’s a concern to our customers.”
In the meantime, Hilltop is hesitant to make improvements to its current operations — such as adding new conveyance systems or painting equipment — in the midst of uncertainty.
“We are literally are sitting on $40,000 worth of paint right now,” Sheehan said. “We’re holding off painting these conveyors because why would want to do that if we’re not going to be here a year from now?”