Pictured at the Thursday, Nov. 17 Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation Board meeting are (l-r) HCLRC board member Terry Britton, land bank coordinator Mackenzie Edison, HCLRC board member Lauren Walker, Greenfield City Manager Todd Wilkin, HCLRC board member Vickie Warnock and environmental consultant Matt Wagner. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Pictured at the Thursday, Nov. 17 Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation Board meeting are (l-r) HCLRC board member Terry Britton, land bank coordinator Mackenzie Edison, HCLRC board member Lauren Walker, Greenfield City Manager Todd Wilkin, HCLRC board member Vickie Warnock and environmental consultant Matt Wagner. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
A second letter from Greenfield City Manager Todd Wilkin to the Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation Board in the past three months led to a heated discussion between Wilkin and land bank representatives at the Thursday, Nov. 17 HCLRC board meeting.

As previously reported, three land bank projects — the East Monroe Mill ($71,047), the Rocky Fork Truck Stop ($122,784) and the former Elliott Hotel in Greenfield ($19,718) — all received funding this year in the first round of the state’s Brownfield Remediation Grant program. Separate from the land bank, the Village of Greenfield also received $300,000 for assessments for the former site of a power plant.

On Aug. 8, Wilkin requested “copies of all applications submitted by the HCLRC to the Ohio Department of Development for demolition funds for the 2022 Brownfield Remediation Grant Program that pertain to the Elliott Hotel.”

In an email and hard-copy letter submitted by Wilkin to the HCLRC — which was also sent to Greenfield Village Council members and the village’s law director, Hannah Bivens — the city manager expressed concerns that the hotel project was “never submitted for demolition dollars as agreed upon.”

“The Village of Greenfield halted their demolition of the Elliott Hotel due to inquiries made by the HCLRC regarding Brownfield funds to help with demolition and remediation,” Wilkin wrote. “Based upon the subsequent conversations about the same, an MOU was executed between the parties. Under this MOU, Section 3, the HCLRC was to make all best efforts to find funding for and administer brownfield cleanup at the Elliott, with the primary goal being demolition.”

Wilkin said the village’s initial quotes for demolition of the building were approximately $50,000, so the village “was confused as to why” the first-round grant for the building was only $19,718. Upon meeting with the HCLRC’s consulting firm for the project, TetraTech, Wilkin wrote that he “learned the grant was only to test the materials and not to demo the building.”

According to Wilkin’s letter in August, the village is “concerned” about the land bank using the grant to conduct the “phase one environmental review” instead of focusing on the “need and goal” of demolishing the building. (As previously reported, debris from the building fell in August 2021, leading to temporary street closures.)

Wilkin also alleged in the letter that the HCLRC failed to follow a provision in the MOU stating that the land bank would “keep all parties reasonably informed regarding their efforts and any resulting remediation program … [and if] their efforts are likely to be unsuccessful for any reason." According to Wilkin, “at no time after executing the MOU has the Village of Greenfield been included” in any conversations regarding the applications for the property.

“The Village of Greenfield signed the MOU with the HCLRC in good faith that the HCLRC would make all best efforts to obtain demolition funding as agreed,” Wilkin wrote. “Based upon reports from the HCLRC and the sequence of events that have transpired, the Village feels that the HCLRC has failed to meet that expectation and requirement.”

In a letter dated Nov. 1 and addressed to the land bank board, Wilkin revisited the issue that the Elliott Hotel project “was never submitted for demolition dollars as agreed upon.”

As a result of a public records request in October, Wilkin wrote that he obtained copies of “all written communication via text messages, email correspondence or notes/memos” regarding the Elliott Hotel demolition between Mark Current, who was the original administrator of the land bank program; Highland County Economic Development Director Julie Bolender, who replaced Current after the board voted to discontinue contracting with Highland County Community Action; Highland County commissioners; or HCLRC board members.

Wilkin also received copies of meeting minutes from August 2021 through September 2022, he said in his letter.

“Within the emails we received, there was one email from Mrs. Julie Bolender to Commissioner Britton and Commissioner Duncan,” Wilkin wrote. “In the email from Mrs. Bolender, she states to the two commissioners, ‘I suggest we stop the work on the Elliott, do not apply for any more money (round two) on that project and use what we would have used for the Elliott on the truck stop.’ This email was never sent to the HCLRC Board for review and consideration, nor were its contents ever discussed the Village. Subsequently, the HCLRC Board never took formal action on this matter.”

Wilkin also wrote that the public records contained a “cost estimate for the demolition of the Elliott Hotel from Tetra Tech for $331,420.10, which includes approximately $30,000 in contingency fees, $9,500 for truck usage, per diems, mileage and hotels, and $18,000 for overhead.”

However, Wilkin said the village’s quotes for the hotel demolition were $50,000 in January — which the village ultimately did not award due to believing “HCLRC would secure the necessary demolition dollars,” despite already having the funds appropriated — and then $80,000 in August.

“The cost to the Village has increased by $30,000,” Wilkin wrote. “This is due to HCLRC failure to comply with the terms of the signed MOU.

“Due to this failure, the Village of Greenfield is formally requesting that the HCLRC help assist with the costs for the demolition.”

That request for funding, as well as background on the decision-making process for the Elliott Hotel and the village’s decision to independently apply for Brownfield funds for the unrelated power plant project, were addressed in a heated exchange during the regular land bank board meeting Thursday, Nov. 17.

Prior to the land bank board addressing Wilkin’s letter — which was placed on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting — HCLRC board member and Highland County commissioner Jeff Duncan asked about the Elliott Hotel project during an update on the Brownfield Demolition Grant.

Matt Wagner of TetraTech, whom the land bank hired as their environmental consultant for the Brownfield grant projects, informed the board that they have received word that the second-round Brownfield projects have “officially been approved,” although the state has not made their announcement yet.

In May, Wagner told the board that for the second round of Brownfield grants, the plan was to apply for cleanup at the East Monroe Mill and the Rocky Fork Truck Stop, although he said the numbers could vary depending on assessments from the first round of work.

Duncan asked Wagner Thursday, “Was the Elliott Hotel included in that [the second round]?”

“The Elliott Hotel was included in that; however, our obligation with that project stopped after we did the initial assessment work,” Wagner said. “Because they applied for another grant outside of the county, I don't know if we appreciated that, in terms of how that stood, so I think they then [put it out for bid] after we did the initial assessment. So we helped them with the initial assessment work, and then they went forward with the Elliott Hotel themselves.”

As addressed in Wilkin’s first letter, the memorandum of understanding between the HCLRC and the Village of Greenfield states that both parties agree that they “intend to redevelop the subject property into a commercial/industrial use property” and that the HCLRC was to “make all best efforts to find funding for and administer brownfield cleanup at the subject property.”

The MOU states that the Village “may at any time … terminate this agreement by providing written notice to the HCLRC,” although there is no such provision for the HCLRC to terminate the agreement.

Wilkin addressed Wagner’s comments later in the meeting, when he was invited by land bank coordinator Mackenzie Edison to discuss his letter.

“There were some comments earlier that Greenfield went out on their own and applied for Brownfield money, and that's not true,” Wilkin said. “When we signed the MOU with the land bank, there was an agreement in place.

“I want to make it very clear Greenfield never went on their own outside the MOU. The decision was made by I don't know who. I don’t know if it was the land bank board, I don't know if it was the previous administrator, but I have an email with her exact words of ‘I suggest we stop the work on the Elliott, do not apply for any more money on that project and use what we would have used for the Elliott on the truck stop.’”

According to a copy of the April 26 email from Bolender, after her suggestion to not apply for additional funds for the hotel project, she wrote to Britton, Duncan and Edison, "My opinion only, and I will do what you want me to do. If the Elliott is fully funded, the village will have received 64 percent of our available funds – and we have no idea what his plans are for round two applications. We can always apply to finish the Elliott in the 'Open Application’ period later this summer." 

“That's not Greenfield’s decision,” Wilkin said during Thursday’s meeting. “I don't think it was a land bank’s decision either as far as the board, and that's concerning to me because there was no communication.”

That issue of “communication” was a common theme throughout the discussion, as Wilkin said that there was also “no communication” from the land bank regarding their plans for the hotel.

“When Greenfield was awarded the money for the environmental review, we were never told that that's what we were going after,” Wilkin said. “Half of the Elliott is on the ground. My past life was working in demolition and tearing down old buildings in Over-the-Rhine. I know the process. If we treat that building as if it's all hot, all the materials are hot — that's the process.

“When TetraTech came out, and they walked the site, I gave them all the information. The report that was given to Greenfield did not help Greenfield at all. When the information in the report comes back and says that most of the information gleaned was from the city manager Todd Wilkin — that’s what the report is. It’s just that information.”

He added that the $19,000 allocated to the project for environmental review is “not what we needed,” and the village eventually obtained a bid due to the land bank not including the hotel in their second-round application.

According to a copy of the land bank’s initial Brownfield application for the hotel, the land bank sought $19,718 and were awarded the full amount for assessments. The description of the “demolition and cleanup activities proposed for the project” states, “The site is a blighted building in need of demolition. Once the assessments are conducted, the plan is to reapply and abate the asbestos and demolish the structures.”

A resolution of the land bank board from January 2022 also resolves that the HCLRC and Tetra Tech “will apply to the Ohio Department of Development for funding to carry out all required assessments, testing and other pre-cleanup measures, the cleanup and post-cleanup testing and requirements” for the properties outlined, including the Elliott Hotel.

“When we finally learned that the land bank was not applying on behalf of Greenfield, we had to put it back out for bid in August of this year,” Wilkin said. “We got a bid of $80,000. The budget that the land bank was working with was $331,000 to tear down the Elliott. It’s too much. That’s way too much money.

“A decision was made — I don't think with the land bank board actually voting on it or approving it — to not apply for any dollars for the Elliott. We didn’t go on our own. It was a decision made.”

HCLRC board member and county commissioner Terry Britton asked Wilkin, “So what did you apply for?”

As previously mentioned, the Village of Greenfield received $300,000 for assessments for the former site of a power plant in the first round of the Brownfield grant. Wilkin told him it “was no secret” that they were making that application.

From there, the discussion turned into land bank board members claiming that the village took money from “our” million dollars by applying for the power plant and also asserting that the village did that without notifying the county.

To address the argument that Greenfield took away money from what the land bank claims to be “their” million dollars, the Brownfield Remediation Program guidelines from the Ohio Department of Development state: “Units of local government, including counties, townships, municipal corporations, port authorities, or conservancy districts or park districts, or other similar park authorities, are eligible to apply. Other eligible applicants include county land reutilization corporations, nonprofit organizations, or organizations for profit. These entities must have entered into an agreement with a unit of local government to work in conjunction on the project for the purposes of this program.” 

“That was out of our million dollars,” Britton said, with board member and Hillsboro code enforcement Lauren Walker saying, “No one knew about that. That was a complete surprise.”

Wilkin said that their statements are “not true.”

“I can tell you I didn’t know anything about it until it was approved, until it came out,” Britton said.

Wilkin responded that there were “many meetings” between himself, Duncan and Britton.

According to a copy of an email from Wilkin to Bolender, Britton, Duncan, Edison and commissioner David Daniels, dated May 3, Wilkin claims that he had an approximately 35-minute meeting with Duncan and Britton in August 2021 to discuss the land bank. At that time, Wilkin said he “indicated a desire to apply” for funding for the old power plant. He also wrote that he had other meetings to discuss the land bank with Duncan and/or Britton in October and November 2021.

The May 3 email was written in response to a letter from Bolender, dated April 26, that said the land bank “noted the Village … applied separately and was awarded $300,000 of the $1M in the first round.” She told Wilkin in the email she “would welcome an opportunity to discuss our plans for second-round funding.”

In his reply, Wilkin said he was “concerned with your public correspondence regarding this matter.

“I have communicated with the Highland County commissioners for five months regarding the land bank and offered to cooperate with them to run the land [bank] or make it better,” he wrote. “We also discussed that Highland County needed to apply for the money and that Greenfield had intentions to utilize state dollars for the old power plant. We had legitimate concerns the money would disappear because it was on a first-come, first-serve basis.”

The email from Wilkin states that the village of Greenfield submitted their Brownfield grant assessment application for the power plant on Dec. 22, 2021. The land bank board did not have their list of Brownfield sites finalized until their Jan. 20, 2022 meeting, with an application deadline of Jan. 31, 2022, as previously reported by The Highland County Press.

According to Wilkin, former administrator Current approached the village with the idea to partner with the land bank on the Elliott Hotel demolition in January, with the MOU received Jan. 20.

“I had another conversation with Mr. Current on January 25, 2022, and I informed him again we wanted to go after the demolition money and that we were working on a Brownfield application for the old power plant,” Wilkin wrote.

Wilkin said that he “offered assistance” and “asked for an update” on the application process but was only told that “Wagner was working on the application.”

“Greenfield was never consulted on the actual needs of the building and the demolition,” Wilkin wrote in his May 3 email. “There was no further communication from the land bank, economic development office or TetraTech for information.

“It is essential to understand that no one from the county contacted me to partner with a property in Greenfield until 11 days before the due date of the application deadline. This is almost five months of working with our engineer to apply for the funds to meet the application deadline. We submitted our Brownfield grant on January 31, 2022 through our engineer.”

During the meeting Thursday, in response to Britton, Wilkin said he “even had a meeting” with commissioners in January regarding land bank issues.

“You didn't come right out and tell us that you were going to apply,” Britton said.

“I did,” Wilkin said. “It was between Mr. Duncan and yourself, absolutely. Absolutely.”

“I don’t think so,” Britton said.

Wilkin then returned to the issue of the MOU, saying that “at no point did the land bank ever come to us and say ‘you’re on your own’” with the Elliott Hotel project.

“We were always under the understanding you were still applying for it,” Wilkin said.

Britton said he “really” didn’t “want to argue” with Wilkin.

“But you know just as well as I do, if you take $300,000 out of that $1 million, and that's the pot we were working with, then that changes the ball game,” Britton said.

The Brownfield guidelines had $1 million set aside for each county for the first round, with any funds not obligated available for a second round in June. There was just over $60 million awarded in the first announcement and $192 million in the second award by the state.

According to the ODOD guidelines, the maximum amount that could be awarded for assessments was $300,000, while the maximum for cleanup/remediation costs was $10 million (with ODOD providing up to 75 percent and the applicant or associated entity making a 25-percent match). Several counties have already received far more than their $1 million set-aside, including agencies in Putnam and Franklin counties each receiving over $3 million for a specific project.

Wilkin argued that there were “two pots of money” involved, as the county had the $1 million set-aside from the Brownfield grant as well as $500,000 for the Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program, for non-brownfield properties.

“There was $1.5 million available to the county, and those were all in discussions that Terry, you and I and Jeff all had these discussions,” Wilkin said. “When the land bank could not meet and have quorums, we were having discussions.”

Britton responded, “I must have been asleep.”

“I had no idea until [the power plant project] was awarded,” Walker said, with Britton adding, “I didn’t, either.”

“And I don’t know where you’re coming up with this $1.5 million,” Britton said.

Wagner explained that Wilkin meant the two state grant programs totaled $1.5 million.

“Those are two different programs,” Walker said.

“They are,” Wagner agreed.

Britton then asked “how much money we have left” for the Brownfield program.

“Well, you can’t put an application in now,” Walker said.

“I know,” Britton said.

Wagner said the county is “right at” their allocation.

“Obviously, there is money going back from the hotel that wasn't spent,” Wagner said. “That'll go toward that million, and then of course, there's money that wasn't spent toward the [East Monroe] mill. There’s cost savings on both of those two projects, that once she officially closes them out, they'll reduce from the million. But the overall project for the Rocky Fork [truck stop], I think takes it to over a million.”

Wagner added that the Rocky Fork Truck Stop is “already committed” to making a 25-percent match for their project.

“So we've got the preliminary work going on the Elliott,” Duncan said. “All that paperwork has been done and finalized.”

Wagner agreed, saying that they had “estimates for the demo.” Wilkin reiterated that the village has already sought their own bid estimate.

Britton asked Wilkin, “So what are you asking for?”

“I'm asking for the land bank to uphold the MOU,” Wilkin said.

The city manager added that at the time the land bank approached the village regarding the Elliott Hotel application, Greenfield had already appropriated funds to tear down the building.

“We were moving forward and the land bank reached out to us,” he said. “At the time, it was Mark Current, and the next week, it was Julie Bolender. They said, ‘Hey, can we partner with you to tear down the Elliott Hotel?’ That was the communication. We held off, we stopped. The building would have been on the ground in January.”

Wagner responded that the state’s requirements included “a VAP [Ohio EPA’s Voluntary Action Program] phase one, as well as a pre-demo asbestos inspection and if necessary a VAP phase two, and unfortunately, we didn’t have any of those.

“That was why we had to apply in January for the assessment work, knowing that we would in April, apply for the demo,” he said.

“That was never communicated to the village of Greenfield at any point,” Wilkin said.

“That’s the program,” Walker said. “It’s black and white.”

“When the communication is ‘we’re going to partner with you to tear it down and we're applying for demo dollars,’ the MOU does not say phase one assessments,” Wilkin said. “It says demo dollars.”

After a 28-second pause, Walker then returned to the issue of Greenfield applying for grant funding separately from the land bank.

“I feel as though from the beginning, we should have all been discussing the project that you went out and applied for on your own,” she said. “That took [money] out of the pot, and if half this board didn’t know about it, then discussions weren't had with the current board. And if they weren't had with the current board, then they shouldn't have been happening because I had no idea about the project. That's $300,000 out of the million that we had to spend for those projects.

“The program was black and white. You had to pay to do assessments, and then you could apply for demolition. Your conversations are not black and white because nobody knew about them.”

Wilkin responded, “The conversations were absolutely had.”

Wagner then asked Wilkin if he was involved in the meetings “every month, in this room” while the Brownfield grant talks were taking place. Wilkin said he was at several meetings where quorums were not met.

“You were here in February, March, April?” Wagner asked.

Wilkin said the MOU had already been signed by that point and the meeting minutes indicate “at no point was the Elliott even discussed in the meeting minutes, from what I see, unless they weren’t provided to me.”

“What I'm asking is were you here in this room during February, March and April?” Wagner asked.

“After the applications were already submitted on January 20? No,” Wilkin said.

Walker then said the Elliott Hotel could be included in future grant application.

“ODOD is having another program,” she said. “I mean, they stated that this might be a yearly thing, so I mean, there's other funds that we can apply for. I know I have more properties that I need to apply for. We can look at it when there's other programs out.”

Edison asked Wilkin if he was asking the land bank to recoup the $30,000 from the increased cost of demolition from January to August.

“Honestly, I think I feel like the land bank should come up with the $80 [thousand] to tear down the Elliott Hotel,” Wilkin said.

“Maybe you should come up with the $300,000 that you took from our million,” Britton responded.

“Terry, we can talk about that for the rest of the meeting,” Wilkin said. “Conversations were had that we were applying for dollars. I started that work. I have documentation.”

Britton interrupted, “I’m not going to argue. You did not tell us. You did not tell us. It didn’t come out until the awards were made. That was the first time that we knew about it.”

Wilkin again asserted that Britton, Duncan and himself were involved in meetings in the administration building where the application came up. Britton asked Duncan if he “remembered a meeting where he told us he was going to apply for $300,000.”

“I don’t recall that,” Duncan said.

Wilkin then said the village of Greenfield has “not had much success with the land bank.”

As previously reported, Wilkin and Greenfield Law Director Hannah Bivens met with the land bank in April 2021, where they discussed a property on North Fifth Street. The representatives from Greenfield proposed that the land bank receive the property from the owner to clear the taxes, then place the property in Greenfield’s Community Improvement Corporation (CIC) for demolition and cleanup. The city of Hillsboro and villages of Leesburg and Lynchburg later reached out with interest in similar partnerships, with the land bank board ultimately deciding that municipalities should “use their own avenues” to take care of blighted properties.

“Two years ago we came and asked for assistance with properties in Greenfield, and we never got a call back,” Wilkin said. “We came to multiple meetings.”

Wilkin also pointed out that no blighted residences in the village of Greenfield were included in the county’s applications for the Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program.

“Did you give us a list?” Britton asked.

“Absolutely,” Wilkin said. “We came two years ago and gave you a list of properties. We met with Mrs. Bolender and gave her a list of properties.”

Britton said, “Well, I don’t think we left anybody out that’s gave us a list.”

The original application included 18 properties in Hillsboro, five in Mowrystown and three in Lynchburg, although that was eventually reduced to 11 properties in Hillsboro, five in Mowrystown and three in Lynchburg. Current had said in January that he wanted to work with HCLRC board member Randy Mustard to find properties in the Rocky Fork Lake area, and to talk to the Village of Greenfield for additional ideas. Britton said at that Jan. 20 meeting that the village of Leesburg had also submitted lists of properties for the board to look into.

“To me, you've been very vocal in terms of saying you want to help the whole county,” Wagner said.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Britton said, then said he believed the land bank board “needed to have a discussion” on the village of Greenfield’s request.

Duncan suggested that they revisit the topic at their December meeting with their attorney, Todd Book, who was unable to attend Thursday’s meeting.

“We’ll have counsel here and see how we need to proceed from here,” Duncan said.