Pictured (l-r) at the May 13 Hillsboro City Council meeting are council members Tom Eichinger, Wendy Culbreath, Brandon Leeth and Adam Wilkin. Also pictured is clerk Heather Collins. (HCP photo by Caitlin Forsha.)
Pictured (l-r) at the May 13 Hillsboro City Council meeting are council members Tom Eichinger, Wendy Culbreath, Brandon Leeth and Adam Wilkin. Also pictured is clerk Heather Collins. (HCP photo by Caitlin Forsha.)

After West Main Street businesses were plastered with notices declaring them “unfit for human habitation,” a South High Street property owner was ordered “no occupancy” in his building and both current and would-be investors reported struggling to gain cooperation from city administration, Hillsboro safety and service director Mel McKenzie told Hillsboro city council during their meeting Monday, May 13 he wanted to share “the entire story.”

Much of the meeting — including reports by McKenzie and Hillsboro mayor Drew Hastings as well as comments from an area contractor — was devoted to discussing the building inspections, and to a lesser extent, the city’s chief building inspector and code enforcement officer, Anton Weissman. The meeting included McKenzie telling his side of “articles and social media posts,” the mayor implying that the city is not developing as well as surrounding cities and saying that Hillsboro has “some stupid people” as they repeatedly emphasized the need to improve buildings in the uptown district.

McKenzie devoted his entire report to discussing buildings that have been targeted by Weissman (although Hastings argued they’ve not been “targeted”), particularly a group of buildings on West Main Street owned by Jack Hope. (Some of those buildings have since been sold.)

“I’ve read articles and social media posts, and I don’t comment on them, quite frankly because you never can succeed in that,” McKenzie said. “I thought that since this is my platform, I would use it to get the entire story out — the part you, the public, aren’t informed on.”

The uptown properties owned, or formerly owned, by Hope, include the former AAA location, Momma’s West Main Cafe and the Parker House Hotel, which McKenzie called an “eyesore.” McKenzie said “the story begins” with the Momma’s West Main Cafe property.

As previously reported by The Highland County Press, Bobbie Barr and Jeretta Barr, who co-own and operate Momma’s West Main Cafe, said the city had awarded the restaurant $60,000 through the revolving loan fund but later withdrew the loan.

McKenzie explained the committee’s reason for rejecting the loan.

“In the interest of economic development and to support the successful local business, the revolving loan fund committee voted unanimously to approve the funds,” McKenzie said. “Two days after this, a local plumber contacted the city because of an issue in the AAA building at 125 West Main Street. The issue the plumber was concerned with was the collapse of a floor joist closest to the front of the building that had broken and severed the water service to the AAA office.”

McKenzie said that he, Weissman, city public works superintendent Shawn Adkins and the plumber found “that there had been standing water in this basement for quite some time.” The water caused damage to the floor joists, which were “all in different stages of rot … the worst being from the front of the building to the back due to the slope of the basement from shallow to the deepest at the front.” Water was also entering the AAA building from 127 West Main Street, McKenzie said.

“This was accessed through that building, and two to four feet of standing water was observed in this basement,” McKenzie said. “This fact warranted a necessary walkthrough inspection of the Hope properties. After the walkthrough, I felt it necessary to inform the revolving loan fund committee of what had been observed. They rescinded the offer to the Momma’s restaurant owners for the use toward the purchase of the building at 131 and 133 [West Main Street], but not toward the possibility of purchasing somewhere else. This was never reported, nor asked about, much like the fact that Drew did not only take the owners to see the two properties he owned, but also three other properties – two owned by local individuals and one by the city.”

As previously reported, the Barrs said the mayor, who owns rental properties in the uptown area, offered to show one of his properties for a possible lease agreement after their revolving loan deal was rescinded.

The Barrs told The Highland County Press on April 29 that they had an inspection of the building, and it was found to be structurally sound.

McKenzie said that according to city files, “the SSD at the time” — former Hillsboro SSD and current Greenfield city manager Todd Wilkin — in 2015 hired “a national forensic engineering firm that specializes in structural and failure analysis to do an inspection to do an inspection and give a report on their findings.”

“What was found should have been addressed at the time the report was done,” McKenzie said.

According to McKenzie, the report says that the building including Momma’s West Main Cafe — “131 [West Main], 133 [West Main] and the Parker House are, and I quote, ‘not safe to occupy under their current conditions and would both require extensive renovation to comply with OBC, Ohio Building Code.’”

“Why nothing was done at the time, I do not know, but here we are dealing with it again almost four years later,” McKenzie said.

The safety and service director also spoke about the city administration’s meeting with investors seeking to purchase Hope’s properties. David Osborne, Jr., an attorney in West Union, told The Highland County Press on April 29 that he was representing an investment group, Southern Ohio Historic Preservation Investment Group, LLC, that is interested in acquiring a group of buildings on West Main Street owned by Jack Hope.

The group closed on the buildings, which includes the Momma’s West Main Cafe location, last week.

Osborne told the Press he presented his group's plan to the city on April 29 but left the meeting less than encouraged.

However, McKenzie said that the meeting “went well, or so I thought.”

“It was explained to these individuals they need to have a professional engineer or architect inspect the buildings, determine the defaults [sic], design a set of plans following the Ohio Building Code, submit them to the city for planning review and after approval of the plans, their permits could be submitted and work could begin,” McKenzie said. “Everyone with the city commented to them that we were excited an interested party was involved and willing to take the steps necessary to save these buildings because the last thing we wanted was to demo the buildings. I guess they didn’t see the meetings the same.”

As previously reported, Osborne indicated he had the opposite impression.

"I don't know why there was so much resistance," Osborne said April 29, speaking of their meeting with city administrators. "I would think that everyone in the city would want the buildings to be saved. This was not the feeling I had when I left the meeting."

McKenzie said that the administration explained to the investors that the city could not legally “give them direction on the deficiencies and a remedy for them,” regarding the properties.

“This was not the answer they wanted to hear, so it is our, the city’s, fault for being unfair and not letting them do it the way they wanted to,” McKenzie said. “Well, as far as commercial properties go, it’s not that way. There’s a standard that the state of Ohio has set, and that was what the city adopted in 1965 to follow.

“We now, as of August 2018, have a full-time certified building official to look at these issues, and it is my duty as safety director to make sure structures in this city are safe for the wellbeing of the general public. We as an administration and the public need to come together and help the image of our city. The bitter feelings of a few are hurting us in the eyes of the community because all they know is what they read, and that’s not always the rest of the story. I’m more than willing to find a common ground. Are you?”

Council member Ann Morris, who also owns a business across the street from the properties in question, asked McKenzie, “Where we do we stand on the Parker House right now? The oldest part, by the alley?”

McKenzie said Hope’s daughter, who is the executrix of his trust, “is willing to sign it over to the city.” Hastings added that “they have to complete a survey on their end” first and “we should know something in the next couple of weeks.”

“Before the next council meeting, it should be resolved,” Hastings told Morris.

To begin the mayor’s report — which he chose to deliver after McKenzie’s, instead of before, as is customary — Hastings compared Hillsboro unfavorably to surrounding communities in Brown, Clinton and Adams counties and what he called “prosperity” there.

The mayor said that he asked his administrative assistant, Kimberly Newman, to gather information on those counties. Brown County is seeing success, as they’re “building a lot,” including “large commercial buildings,” he said.

“Hillsboro — in a perfect, maybe, scenario — could get some of that overflow,” Hastings said.

In Clinton County, Hastings said that real estate market is active in Wilmington, with the addition of new jobs at the Amazon facility at the Wilmington Air Park.

“They have said they’re sending them down to Hillsboro to look at houses,” Hastings said. “There’s a lot going on in Wilmington and Clinton County.”

Another surrounding county – Adams County — is also seeing a “hot” real estate market, the mayor said.

“Things are really on an upswing in Adams County,” Hastings said. “The reason I bring up these three areas — I was reading the monthly water meter department for Hillsboro for the last month, and we did no new water service for residential. We did no new service for commercial. But we spent five days on shutoffs for people that hadn’t paid their water bills. That tells me that we have a disconnect between us and all the kind of prosperity that’s going on around us.

“I’m not trying to compare us to Mason, you know, for crying out loud, or Milford or something. I’m comparing us to very like communities.”

Hastings said that he’s been told the city is “punishing uptown business owners by enforcing building codes” and has been asked why they’re “targeted.”

“Uptown isn’t ‘targeted,’ but we don’t have building code issues on Harry Sauner, and why don’t we have them? Because everything on Harry Sauner is new,” Hastings said. “It was all built in the last 10, 15, 20 years. It’s all been built up to code. The buildings uptown — and this is one of the oldest cities in Ohio — all of the buildings uptown are between 100 to 170 years old. I think people overlook that. When you get into a property uptown, you’re looking at a building that’s been around since 1840, 1860, 1870. It’s going to have outdated electric, oftentimes. It’s going to have plumbing issues.

“We have structural problems with buildings. There’s just no way around it. They have to be taken care of. I mean, for crying out loud, it wasn’t that long ago that the city of Hillsboro’s own fire department had to move out of an uptown building because the electrical was so bad, they had a vacant building.”

Regarding the uptown inspections, Hastings said he would “liken it to owning a car.”

“You get your car and you think you’re set, and then you find out ‘oh, I have to put brakes on it, and I have to have insurance on my car,’” Hastings said. “‘I can’t have bald tires, so I get four new tires.’ Well, you should have thought about that when you were looking at buying a car. There come responsibilities, and anybody can buy a building. I don’t begrudge anybody. Anybody’s who got the money can buy a building, but you have a responsibility not just under law, but to your neighbors and your community, to have that structure in such a way that it’s safe and not have bald tires, so to speak.”

Hastings then called out current council member Justin Harsha, who was the only individual to file for the Hillsboro mayor’s race this November prior to the deadline for the May 7 primary. (The deadline for write-in candidates has not passed, so whether Harsha will run unopposed in the general election is yet to be determined.)

“Some contractors are saying ‘well, just wait ’til Hastings is out. When Hastings is out, you can do what you want,’” Hastings said. “‘You’re not going to have to pay attention to this building code stuff.’ Well, I can tell you on my watch, you’re going to have to do it. I’ve had people come up and tell me, ‘Well, this concerns me that once you leave office, is this stuff going to fall by the wayside?’

“Justin … you’re going to be our next mayor. I think people would like to know that you are going to continue some progress — not necessarily the same priorities I have, I understand that, but that you’re at least going to uphold the law when it comes to building and building codes.”

Harsha said that he agreed with the importance of having a code enforcement officer but that he favored a “helping” approach.

“We haven’t had it in a long time,” Harsha said. “For a lot of people, there’s a type of sticker shock with this because it’s all new. But I also feel, especially with the downtown of Hillsboro, they’re old buildings. There are issues. I think the city of Hillsboro should go in with a helping attitude and hopefully help business owners get the buildings up to code. Some of these issues are going to be so expensive that maybe it’s going to take longer.

“The city should go in with a helping attitude for everyone out there, especially if someone is willing to invest in the community.”

After thanking Harsha, Hastings concluded his report by quoting comedian Ron White, who famously said “You can’t fix stupid.”

“You can clean up the blight in the city,” Hastings said. “You can try to fix the drug problem. You can put in new sidewalks. You can try to fix the curbs. You can try to fix the gutters.

“You can’t fix stupid, and we’ve got some stupid people in this town, frankly, that are keeping this town from what it could be.”

During the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting, David Wolfenbarger, a local electrical contractor, also spoke in favor of the inspections. Wolfenbarger said that he has “seen a lot of serious defects, not just electrically, but in other building areas as well” during his work across southern Ohio.

"I believe you really care," Wolfenbarger said, speaking of the city administration.

Wolfenbarger said he's "never seen a thing done" to the Parker House property since he moved to the area in 1993.

"Who's going to guarantee the public safety?" Wolfenbarger said. "Mr. Hope? A new group of investors? Would you let your children walk the sidewalk in front of that building? Would you let your kids go play around it and sneak into it like a lot of us did as kids and play there? I certainly won't. I don't want my family going down there. Which one of you would pull the barriers off that sidewalk and tell us it's all OK?"

Wolfenbarger also defended Weissman.

"I've personally witnessed Mr. Weissman working, and he did not take his hard of a stand as he could," Wolfenbarger said. "I don't say that to make him sound as if he's soft, but for people to say he's just going overboard in doing things, no. He works with people, but he's going to make sure stuff gets done. If you get rid of Tony – Mr. Weissman – there's going to be somebody else."

Wolfenbarger concluded his nine-minute speech by encouraging the community to work "to make this a better place for our families."

• • •

In non-building inspection news, council heard the first reading of an ordinance that McKenzie said would “restructure, basically, how we staff the police department.”

The current city code calls for “one Chief of Police, one Captain of Police, four sergeants of police, ten patrolmen and one parking meter repairman.” Under the proposed ordinance, the number of sergeants would be reduced to three; the number of patrolmen would be increased to 12; the parking meter repairman position would be eliminated; and four police dispatchers and one administrative assistant would be added. There would still be a police chief and police captain, if the ordinance is approved.

Council president Tom Eichinger placed the matter in the civil service and employee relations committee for further review.

• • •

Brandon Leeth, who chairs the utilities committee, reported that his committee met to discuss a potential stormwater utility budget and a proposal to raise the cost of water deposits for renters in the city.

“By creating a stormwater utility, we can increase our chances of obtaining principal forgiveness money and grant money from various agencies,” Leeth said. “After reviewing different scenarios, $5 per ERU [Equivalent Residential Unit] seemed like it was the best figure to use, and vacant lots would only be charged semiannually.”

Legislation to establish this utility is forthcoming, according to Leeth.

Regarding a proposal to raise renters’ deposit fees, Leeth said that a local property owner told the committee there have been “instances where the renters have not paid their bills, and thus the landlord is stuck paying the bills.”

Leeth said that city administrators will be looking into the request.

• • •

Zoning committee chair Wendy Culbreath said that her committee, as well as the property maintenance and restoration committee, held a joint meeting to discuss an appeal made by Brigette Waggoner and Mark Shaw over a Hillsboro Planning Commission decision made on Jan. 22 in regard to a conditional use permit for property at 244 West Pleasant Street. Citizens in attendance were opposed to reversing that decision, according to Culbreath. Council voted 5-1 to reverse the commission's decision a brief hearing Monday night prior to their regular meeting.

• • •

Property maintenance and restoration committee chair Morris reported that her committee met to discuss several proposed options for the former Hillsboro firehouse location in uptown Hillsboro.

“Some ideas brought to our attention include city council chambers, record storage, selling the space for a restaurant or other business, or a community room,” Morris said. “It was also discussed that selling the property could help the city gain the needed funds to finish the upstairs of the city building for council chambers.”

No action was taken, and the committee will continue to discuss these options as well as another one that has been presented to Morris.

“Since this meeting happened, I’ve been contacted by Buckeye Ambulance with an interest in renting the old firehouse, so that’s also added to the list of possibilities,” she said.

• • •

Hastings reported that the Hillsboro Planning Commission recently held “public sessions for input and information” for Imagine Hillsboro and encouraged the community to get involved. The mayor also reported that Rob Holt will be the commission’s new president after former commission president Eichinger resigned to accept his position as council president.

• • •

During the citizens' comments portion of the meeting, Robert Hilderbrand asked administration to clarify rumors of a possible public dump or wastewater treatment plant in a rock quarry near Oak Hills Drive.

“None of that is correct," McKenzie said. "If we do obtain the property, which has not happened yet, we may haul — when we have to replace water lines, sewer lines, anything, there's spoils. There's dirt, there's broken asphalt, whatever. We may haul it in and dump it out into the quarry. It's not going to be, you know, residential trash. It's not going to be a city dump, along those lines. It may just be an area to get rid of the spoils we have on projects."

"So solid fill?" Hilderbrand asked.

"Correct," McKenzie said.

"And that right now is your only plan for the property, if you obtain it?" Hilderbrand asked.

"That's the only plan," McKenzie said.

• • •

Council approved four resolutions, each by a 7-0 vote, to authorize the city to apply for grants through the Highland County commissioners’ office for Community Development Critical Infrastructure Program (CIP), Residential Public Infrastructure Grant Program and Downtown Revitalization Program funds.

Although the city has not finalized how the money would be used if it is granted, some of the proposed ideas include the following, according to McKenzie:

• An application for “up to $500,000 for primarily residential infrastructure improvements,” which the city is proposing to use in the South East Street area for infiltration/inflow (I&I).

• An application for “up to $500,000 for primarily residential infrastructure improvements,” which the city would like to use on “possibly West South Street” for curbs and gutters and resurfacing.

• An application for “up to $600,000 to improve the safety and reliability of drinking water and sanitary sewer systems in low- to moderate-income areas.” McKenzie said this could be used for a sewer replacement project on Northview Drive.

• An application for up to $250,000 “to improve central business districts, aid in eliminating slum or blight and to create and retain permanent, private-sector job opportunities for low- and moderate-income households.” McKenzie said the city would “target the Hope properties with this.”

Council member Mary Stanforth asked McKenzie to clarify whether the funds would be used to demolish the so-called “Hope properties” if the city is awarded the downtown revitalization grant.

“It can be eliminating blight,” McKenzie said. “It can be for demolition, but ideally, that’s not what I want to use that for.”

“You’re not earmarking it for demolition?” Stanforth asked.

“That wasn’t the original intent,” McKenzie said. “This would be used for saving it.”

Council also passed the following legislation by a 7-0 vote:

• A resolution to commit $200,000 of currently held TIFF (Tax Increment Financing Funds) money to the drainage infrastructure at Harry Sauner Road and state Route 73 for “a proposed project for construction of a facility beneficial to the commercial development of the city of Hillsboro.”

• A resolution to increase appropriations in the police budget by $9,500, specifically under the Small Tools/Donations line item, to accommodate purchases made from donations received by the Cassner Foundation ($8,500) and Walmart ($1,000).

• • •

Council also received notices from the Ohio Division of Liquor Control for proposed liquor licenses at the Hillsboro Event Center (located in the Hillsboro Orpheum) and a planned Japanese steakhouse, which Eichinger said he believes will be going into the former Mango’s location. Both businesses are located on North High Street. No concerns with the licenses were presented by council. 

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