BY JOE WESSELS
Loveland Local News
LOVELAND, Ohio — “I don’t think a lot of people in the community see what’s going on,” former Loveland resident Karen Hawkes told City Council at their February 11, 2020 meeting, about a planned parking garage.
“I live right here on Railroad Ave. and I never got notification of anything in this plan,” she continued.
Without acknowledging Hawkes’ assertion, Loveland Mayor Kathy Bailey moved to carry on with the meeting.
“Okay, do you have any other comments you’d like to make?” she said. “All right. Thank you. Keeping checking our website because there will dates for public hearings and you can certainly make your opinions known then. But is this a done plan now? There is no done plan, but there will be a parking facility on that location.”
More than a year later, good luck finding any mention on Loveland’s website about a parking garage to be built next to The Works pizza restaurant on First Street behind Loveland City Hall on newly vacant land. Garage or “parking facility” mentions are virtually non-existent – unless you’re into digging into city government website sitemaps and search results.
Offering comment about a plan not made public until after Council voted to start the project is not really possible. Citizens would have to be avid Council-watchers – or maybe a downtown business owner – to have an inkling about the more than $7 million project.
Bailey’s suggestion about Council’s plan was for Hawkes to return to a Council meeting for a future public hearing segment and give input on what type of facade or paint scheme the garage might include. More than a year later, not even that meeting has happened – but behind-the-scenes planning continues and is unrelenting, according to City Hall insiders.
A $7 million parking faclity in downtown Loveland, Bailey said, was going to be built. Hawkes asked if residents would get to vote on this project. Bailey responded.
“Well, you, you voted on your elected officials and those are the decisions that, that we’ve been elected to make,” Bailey said.
Not Blanket Support on Council
Maybe not surprisingly, Hawkes was the only person to address Council that night and oppose the parking garage – and few have followed in her footsteps – for or against the project.
At the May 25 City Council meaning, the liberal-leaning Political Action Committee “Loveland Community Heartbeat PAC”‘ chimed in, but not on the garage and its merits, but instead attacking Councilman Tim Butler about his votes opposing moving forward on the parking garage. Heartbeat PAC secretary and Bailey-appointee to a few city committees Shanda Gentry, speaking during the public forum, cited Council meeting dates when Butler raised questions about the garage or voted against it, saying he was interfering with the city’s business. Butler had originally been supportive of the project but has said at more recent Council meetings he was concerned about the city’s financial outlook going forward and questioned why the city had not conducted any studies showing a garage need.
Gentry’s group actively supported Mayor Bailey, Vice Mayor Robert Weisgerber, Councilmen Neal Oury, Ted Phelps, Andy Bateman and Kent Blair in their most recent election battles. They had also supported Councilman Tim Butler. Gentry said she had helped Butler win last time and voted for him, but would not in 2021. Butler responded in Council saying he thought his votes were based on “reasonable judgment” and “would continue to do what (he) thought was in the best interest of Loveland taxpayers.”
Another person, former Council candidate Cory O’Donnell, expressed “concern” about the garage, while business owners expressed support, like Scott Gordon, owner of The Works restaurant near City Hall. His establishment is next to where the parking garage would be built, reasonably becoming the downtown Loveland business to benefit most from the garage. That was in the late summer and fall of 2019.
Unpredictable financial outlook
Loveland’s very under-the-radar plan to build a parking garage – which City Manager David Kennedy called the largest public works project in Loveland’s history – is still in the works. That is even though an anticipated economic downturn from the pandemic’s after-effects could choke the city’s coffers. Financial forecasts have been better than expected, but no one knows if that will continue.
“(It’s) still in the works,” City Manager David Kennedy said in a June 2020 email. “Currently we are seeking funding through various grants which are available for these types of projects.” Those efforts continue now, officials have said.
Asked about where those funds would come from and a breakdown, Kennedy said he is still working on it. Kennedy has not been willing to do a sit-down interview about the project, only answering emails with short answers.
What is known is those funds would likely come from a variety of areas including grants, federal money, state gas taxes and, the biggest chunk from municipal bonds – a loan – taken out by the city and approved by City Council. State gas taxes were expected to generate a large amount, but those funds are now in question following state-level budget cuts after the recent coronavirus lockdown and stay-at-home order stifled revenues.
Now, The Public Record of the Day
In August 2019, the Loveland officials applied (and were subsequently awarded) a Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, from Hamilton County to help pay for a parking garage slated for downtown Loveland. The funds are pass-through funds received from the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development – but county officials and the commissioners determine which entity is awarded the grants.
The land – which the city purchased in May 2019 for $550,000 (including an added a $50,000 payment to settle an undisclosed legal dispute involving the sale) – is on a parcel where two homes were once located on First Street next to The Works Pizza restaurant. Those two homes were subsequently demolished, along with another home. That last home was demolished with the grant funds awarded from this application.
The city was awarded $35,000 in grant money and does not have to re-pay the money to Hamilton County. This document was also the first time the garage’s actual expected $7 million cost was ever known publicly. The price tag could go higher – especially with construction delays related to funding shortages and the pandemic.
Planning for the garage was done entirely out of public view
The process to buy this property and the garage planning was done almost entirely in secret. There was no public discussion about what was happening until a May 28, 2019 meeting when the purchase of the property was voted on during a City Council meeting and approved by an “emergency.” Council did not discuss any aspect of the vote during the meeting.
Why the garage out of nowhere? Hard to say. The issue was never discussed publicly at any open-to-the-public City Council meeting. Agenda items related to the garage come up, and until Butler began to oppose it, there was just a vote and no discussion. Butler is still the only Council member to discuss the garage at any length publicly.
However, City Solicitor Joe Braun, a quorum (five or more) of City Council members, city committee members and their supporters routinely had been meeting at The Works immediately after City Council meetings until August 2019 – when a reporter caught them doing it. Those meetings – where several sources have said city business is regularly discussed but Braun has denied – have begun again. City Council members, Braun, committee members and political activists have been seen all dining together right after Council meetings in recent months on several occaisions.
When questioned, Braun said it is his job to police any discussions outside of the public meetings. Past attendees, who asked not to be named, have told Loveland Local News city business is discussed there and attending it was implied to be very important to keep the respect of other members of Council, supporters and committee members who also attended. Councilman Tim Butler and then-Councilwoman Angela Settell were not in attendance – all others were. Vice Mayor Rob Weisgerber told Loveland Local News “everyone was always invited” to join him and the others at the after-Council get-togethers, which apparently have been going on for years. Settell said it never happened that way.
“I was never asked,” Settell said when contacted by phone. “That is not true.”
The only plan did not include a parking garage
In 2018, City Council hired an outside firm to prepare a comprehensive downtown plan (see below), which included addressing parking and traffic concerns. The more than $120,000 report includes the specific downtown report and a second forthcoming report on the city as a whole.
Council fully adopted the report’s downtown recommendations in 2019. However, there was no mention of a parking garage in the report or its earlier drafts. But the city had apparently already started planning the garage before the final report was released, even as draft reports were released in the months leading up to the final release. The report did suggest wayfinding signs to direct motorists to areas east of downtown where there is ample and underutilized on-street parking and a city-owned parking lot – and a short walk to downtown. Those signs have not materialized.
Pre-pandemic lockdown and the move to Council meetings online, Loveland City Council held several “executive sessions,” or private, closed-door meetings. Those are now believed to have been used to plan for the garage and the details were hidden from the public. Numerous times city officials have refused to confirm any detail about what was discussed in those meetings – including a convoluted response to a Loveland Local News public records request in an attempt to find out. Despite this, at least two Council members, Oury and Blair, mentioned other meetings seemingly about the garage in Council meetings, possibly errantly, making it all-but-certain specific parking garage details were discussed in those closed meetings. In 2019, City Council conducted “executive sessions” at more than 80 percent of its meetings and nearly all were described vaguely – as minimally required by law – to be about the lease, sale or purchase of real estate.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ohio public meetings law allows nine fairly specific reasons a public body can go into an executive session. Legislators recognized a need for government bodies to discuss some sensitive issues in private and carved out those exceptions. Moreover, while public officials do not have to disclose what was specifically discussed, Ohio dictates they must cite which of the nine permissible reasons to enter into an executive session. Many times the public City Council agenda said the executive sessions were to discuss “leasing land.” Leasing land is not one of the legal reasons to have an executive session – even if it was not the purpose of the meeting.
Works owner Scott Gordon spoke at the August 13, 2019 City Council meeting – after Council had mentioned their intention to use the parcel for a garage and three months after the parcel was purchased – and said his business receipts had decreased 20 percent. He said a lack of downtown parking was the main culprit. When he heard about a parking garage he told Council he could “see the light,” adding his customers would finally be happy they would have an easier time parking. He added he appreciated the Council’s willingness to build a new parking structure to help his and other businesses in the area.
Resident wonders how this all happened and she didn’t know
The super-secret parking garage was so secret, in fact, at least one right-next-door neighbor was unaware and at least partially figured it out through rumors and people talking around town.
Hawkes, who lived on Railroad Avenue until recently, said at the February meeting among her main concern was the city using eminent domain to buy other properties – a concern quickly corrected by City Manager Kennedy, who said all property needed for the garage the city had already purchased. Railroad Avenue is adjacent to where the new structure would be built and Hawkes wasn’t sure if the new structure was a multi-story garage or just a surface lot.
Bailey said, “There is no done plan. There will be a parking facility on that location.”
Hawkes then asked if the outside consultant’s Downtown Development Plan, which she said she read the night prior on the city’s website – and does not mention a parking facility and instead suggests parking issues can be alleviated better utilizing already-existing on-street parking and surface lots – is in the plan. And if so, would residents be able to give input.
Hawkes asked, “Will we be able to see blueprints and actual pictures of what’s going to happen? Because on that website all you can see is a likeness or an image.”
Bailey responded, “There certainly is a plan to have more than one public hearing to get input from the residents as to, um, what residents think about the various options for this garage. But, but residents will not be voting on it. That’s the job of Council to make that decision.”
“I think that’s a valid question because a lot of people are unhappy with the current plan or they don’t know of it. It seems like I just recently found out,” she said. “I don’t know, I think they need to put it in the local newspaper or send it out (to residents)…”