With the approval of the Simon-Tanger Outlet Mall near the I-71 and U.S.36/Ohio37 Interchange, most folks understood that vacant properties surrounding that area was destined for development. What most folks did not know was how fast that follow-up development would materialize. First dirt hasn’t been turned on the 400,000-square-foot outlet mall — they’re negotiating a nod of approval from the Ohio Department of Transportation. ODOT wants assurance that the interchange area could handle the traffic, especially during high-volume weekends.
But that hasn’t deterred a group of nine property owners from considering a joint venture to develop 2,500 acres surrounding the interchange, with 1,700 acres of the development owned by NorthStar (a.k.a. Robert Weiler Company).
Developer Joe Ciminello and Skip Weiler were at a special meeting called by the Berkshire Township Board of Trustees last Monday (June 16) evening to unveil their vision for the area.
Present for the casual session were Sunbury Mayor Tommy Hatfield, Big Walnut Local School District Superintendent Steve Mazzi, Big Walnut Board of Education President Allison Fagan, and the School District’s legal counsel Caleb Bell of Bricker & Eckler LLP.
Ciminello described the nine different properties, noting there were nine owners and nine different attorneys involved, adding that they all had the spirit to develop the property to the best use possible; Weiler read a letter that, if signed by all nine parties, would bind them together under the umbrella of a master plan for the combined properties.
“Everybody owns their property with very little or no debt,” Ciminello said. “But no single property owner can pull off what needs to be pulled off. Working together we would be able to pull off what needs to be done.”
Ciminello went on to describe a new I-71 Interchange immediately north of the existing interchange and a parkway running from I-71 north of and parallel to U.S. 36/Ohio 37 through Sunbury Industrial Park and connecting with Ohio 3 north of Sunbury’s Ohio 3 and West Cherry Street intersection.
The economic tools to fund the commercial development and thoroughfare plan, Ciminello said, would be would overlapping TIFs, NCAs, JEDDs and JEDZs (Tax Increment Financing, New Community Authorities, and Joint Economic Development Districts and Zones).
“We already know there’s a 60-acre outlet mall that’s going to be built by the Simon-Tanger Group, but we’re also hearing that there was not an overall plan put together,” Ciminello said. “A new north I-71 Interchange and north bypass to the Sunbury Industrial Park area would take traffic off of U.S. 36/Ohio 37, and make it easier for traffic to get from Delaware to Sunbury and Sunbury to Delaware.”
Traffic engineer Mark Mann, Trans Associates, said in developing a master plan for the area the key was to get people from I-71 to home and work without driving any further then they drive today; and to remove as much tractor trailer traffic from U.S. 36/Ohio 37 as possible.
“The northern interchange takes development traffic away from the existing I-71 interchange and puts it where the new developments are,” Mann said. “A north bypass plus north access into Sunbury Industrial Park provides direct access to the freeway and bypasses downtown Sunbury, increasing the drivability of U.S. 36/Ohio 37 by controlling tractor-trailer traffic.”
Ciminello emphasized that the landowners needed to complete an overall development plan, but assured members of the audience that the theme behind any final land-use plan would follow the dictates of the Berkshire Township land-use plan — including the township’s 50 percent open space requirement.
“We see two areas of growth, Berkshire and Sunbury,” Ciminello said. “Berkshire should grow from its heart, Sunbury should grow from its heart, with a natural buffer between the two. By developing from the core out with a well-thought out plan, we’re looking at two modes of growth meeting in the middle.
“Working together we can accomplish something greater than working by ourselves,” Ciminello continued. “We have 2,500 acres of property owners willing to work together. If we could get the municipalities working together with us we could have one of the greatest developments in Central Ohio.”
Ciminello said the proposal would be a 20-year development plan, but the north interchange design is almost complete. Weiler added that his company already has a $50 million investment in the area, sealing their commitment to a joint venture.
Both Ciminello and Weiler noted that their development companies are advocates of strong school districts; that any tax relief negotiations during the project’s funding phases would include a seat at the table for school districts impacted by the commercial development.
From the audience, Mazzi said that he had only just become aware of the proposed development earlier that day.
“From our standpoint it would have been nice to be involved earlier,” Mazzi said. “Right now, 80 percent of our income is from property owners. What kind of contributions are you willing to make to the schools?”
“Schools are vital to us,” Weiler replied. “We understand that schools need to be strong and funded. For the community to be sustainable we want to work with school districts, and provide financial benefits to the school districts.”
BST&G Fire District Deputy Chief Kevin Kline said his department was in the same proverbial boat as the school district — operating dollars come primarily from property taxes.
“So far you guys haven’t reached out to us either,” Kline said. “When all this starts to develop, residents will still deserve full service without having to go to them for more tax dollars. The school district and the fire district — please reach out to both of us.”
Following the meeting Mazzi said he was pleased to see the property owners coming together under one umbrella to create a unified development and thoroughfare infrastructure plan.
“As development occurs, my first question is: Will the infrastructure be in place?” Mazzi said. “We’re not anti-development; we want to work together with everyone. We’re glad they’re finally talking to schools, because the School District is definitely concerned about the burden on property owners.”
Fagan said she wants to make certain developers operating in the Big Walnut School District involve all entities in taxing negotiations.
“Schools need to be kept whole in these dealings,” Fagan said. “People move to a community for its schools. Strong schools make a strong community and that equals strong businesses.”