Sheila McLaughlin reports:
The real estate brokers and businesses are calling Caroline McKinney at the township’s economic development offices, already scoping out the possibilities on the surrounding acres.
They’re eagerly awaiting Liberty Town Square, the $300 million retail, office, entertainment and residential project – the largest development to hit Butler County.
“People are hovering around to see when dirt starts flying,” McKinney said. “It’s a catalyst effect.”
The opening has been pushed back to spring 2015 from fall of 2014, she said.
But when it does open, this mega-mixed-used project could put this Greater Cincinnati suburban community of about 37,000 residents on the map as the next hot spot for commercial development along Interstate 75 because of its regional draw.
Joe Hinson, president of the West Chester-Liberty Chamber Alliance, calls the mega-mixed-use project “a game changer.”
Developer Steiner + Associates has promised the project will mirror its popular Easton Town Center in Columbus and The Greene in Beavercreek.
Locally, there’s nothing like Liberty Town Square, although Steiner’s involvement in the area is nothing new. The Columbus company developed Newport on the Levee, which sparked a rebirth in the Northern Kentucky river city about a decade ago.
“We’re going to see businesses now really start to look at Liberty as an opportunity. In the past, it’s been pretty much a bedroom community,” Hinson said. “When you’ve got the power of I-75 and you’ve got the access also going east to west and north-south, it just becomes a game changer.”
Both township and chamber officials are looking for businesses to relocate to or settle in Liberty Township because of the amenities Liberty Town Square will offer – a place to live, a place to have fun, a place to entertain clients.
Steiner, which shelved a more ambitious plan at $500 million in 2008 when the economy tanked, expects to break ground on Liberty Town Square sometime during the first quarter of 2013 on 64 acres at Liberty Way and I-75.
The first phase of the one-million-square-foot development will include two department stores, a cinema, specialty retail, 100,000 square feet of office space and 150 luxury apartments. Steiner has not yet announced the retailers that will fill the department store spots.
Steiner will be submitting its final development plan for the site in mid-October, while Butler County and township officials continue to refine agreements with developer because the two governments are supporting the project with a combined $35 million in infrastructure improvements.
A good sign for the local economy
The county is expected to reap $1.5 million in additional sales tax from Liberty Town Square. But that’s a drop in the bucket for the county, which has cut its general fund budget by $15.4 million to $79.3 million since 2008 because of the economy. Those budget cuts resulted in belt tightening across the board and layoffs, including nearly 100 people from the sheriff’s staff.
Meanwhile, the opening has been pushed back to spring 2015 from fall of 2014, McKinney said. Steiner officials told her that’s what the retailers prefer, she said. Steiner officials would not comment on the issue.
But, Chris Hodge, first vice president of the commercial real estate consulting group CB Richard Ellis in Cincinnati, said the change isn’t a sign that something’s wrong.
“Tenants now, especially larger tenants, are projecting out their store growth differently. It used to be important get open by Black Friday,” Hodge said. But no longer.
“Now it’s moreso slotting your capital allocations plan on the number of stores that you can do a year.”
He said Liberty Town Square also is expected to draw businesses away from Tri-County Mall in Springdale, and those retailers can’t move until their leases expire.
“You are looking at a pretty large project, and it’s putting a lot of puzzle pieces together in order to get it done. If anyone’s going to pull off a type of development like that, it’s going to be Steiner. They are the A1 players in our area in that field,” Hodge said.
Chris Kemper, spokesman for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, said the Steiner project is a sign that the economy is turning around in the region.
“There’s a lot of optimism and you can see it extend well beyond the urban core up into Liberty Township,” Kemper said. “That project is another example of the overall optimism in the region right now. Commercial developers don’t build for charity. They do their research.”
‘We get in a rut’
Liberty Town Square will sit along I-75 between Cincinnati Premium Outlets in Monroe to the north and the Union Centre Boulevard shopping area in West Chester.
That shopping district put West Chester on the map ten years ago. That growth in West Chester and Union Centre Boulevard’s location along I-75 were some of the reasons nationally known Ikea settled there in 2008, attracting shoppers and tour buses from the region and other states.
For Tom Humes, being close to Liberty Town Square is a good location. The CEO at Great Traditions has 40 acres available for commercial development at Cox Road and Liberty Way, about a mile away from the Steiner site in West Chester. He envisions a hotel, offices, more retail at the site.
He’s had many more nibbles on the property since Steiner announced it was building Liberty Town Square.
“It will be the type of project that raises all the projects around it,” Humes said. “It has stimulated significant interest in the area. We have multiple contacts but we have not reached an agreement with anybody on any aspect yet.”
McKinney said the project, or at least its concept, came out of several years of planning that included requests from residents to improve shopping opportunities in the township.
Donna Brands, who lives in the Harbour Town community across from the proposed entrance to Liberty Town Square, said she and neighbors are a tad concerned about the traffic the development will bring to Liberty Way. But she’s looking forward to better and closer shopping and restaurants.
“We get in a rut,” said Brands, who is 75 and has lived in Harbour Town for a little more than five years. “We go over to Union Centre to those restaurants which are very nice and we enjoy them being so close. But, hey. The better selection? That’s not going to be bad.
Some businesses are expecting the heavier traffic caused by Liberty Town Square will bring them more attention.
The Web Extreme Entertainment on Cincinnati-Dayton Road, around the corner from the proposed development, opened in March 2010. It relies on people with disposable income to spend money to pay its bills and make a profit.
The Web offers laser tag, indoor go karts, black light mini-golf and a miniature bowling alley.
Tom Parker, vice president of operations, says he’s unsure whether Liberty Town Square will have a direct effect on the business. If people are shopping and spending all their money, they might not have any left over for games at The Web, he said.
But if more people move to Liberty Township with their families because companies relocate here, The Web would most likely see a boost.
“Anything that creates more disposable income for people helps us obviously,” Parker said. “And I think the more exposure we have, the better off we are.”