Task force recommends leasing Central Connections to agency to serve seniors, events

Jan. 22—MIDDLETOWN — City staff, City Council members and residents heard recommendations from a task force regarding the future of city-owned Central Connections during a six-hour special meeting Saturday.

After the city purchased the property last year for $1.8 million with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, City Manager Paul Lolli formed a task force of business leaders to “guide the city,” he said.

The task force met for months, and Bob Nolan, a business consultant and tax specialist, made a presentation Saturday at Central Connections.

Nolan said the task force considered three options for Central Connections: Continue operating as it is with limited senior programs and no banquet services; lease the property to a company that can run it as a senior center/event center; or sell the property.

The city has hired a part-time employee to oversee operations at Central Connections and reduced hours to 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and closed the cafe, he said. He estimates it will cost the city $150,000 a year to operate the center.

Another option, Nolan said, would be for the city to sell the property for an estimated $1 million to $2.5 million, far lower than its value of $4.5 million to $5 million. If the building is sold, the city would have to locate another site for senior services and lose control of the property, he said.

Leasing the property to an operator was the recommendation from the task force, he said. He said the city should send out requests for proposals to determine if there is interest in a catering business leasing the building and operating the senior and event center.

The building at 3907 Central Ave., offers a kitchen that’s the “envy of any restaurant,” a banquet room with a 600-person capacity, office space and additional room for senior activities, he said.

Leasing to one operator “makes the most sense” because senior services and the event center would be under one roof, according to Nolan.

During one of the earlier task force meetings, Nolan called the event center “a gold mine for someone to open” and said there are “millions” of potential revenue dollars sitting there.

Later, he added the center could be “a shining star” in the city because of the potential to host events and meetings and rent office space.

The $1.8 million purchase price, which is $300,000 less than the property was appraised by the Butler County Auditor’s Office before the $1.5 million renovations, was paid to Middletown Senior Citizens Inc., the owner of the property, Lolli said.

Council member Steve West II said the city purchasing the property “was the right move” because the seniors “have been through enough.”

He hopes the city gets out of operating the facility and it should look for a “name brand” company to operate the center so the city is “never put in this situation again.”

Mayor Elizabeth Slamka told the Journal-News on Monday that serving the seniors was her top priority.

“We have to focus on them first,” she said.

Central Connections found itself in financial difficulty after then Executive Director Diane Rodgers was terminated in July 2023. She is under investigation for possible theft, though no charges have been filed, according to Middletown police.

This is the second time Middletown residents have invested in the center. Voters approved two five-year, 1-mill senior levies that generated $7 million to provide or maintain senior services at the center. The levy expired on Dec. 31, 2022 after 10 years.

Counting the $1.8 million purchase price, $8.8 million in taxpayers’ money has been spent on the center in the last 11 years.

Besides Central Connections, City Council also discussed city finances, economic development, city parks, fire stations, and homelessness/substance abuse/mental heath concerns during Saturday’s meeting.

Discussing the police review study, the last item on the agenda, was tabled due to the length of the meeting, Slamka said.

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Central Connections: A timeline

Nov. 6, 2012: Middletown taxpayers pass a five-year, 1-mill levy to provide or maintain senior services at the Middletown Area Senior Center.

Aug. 16, 2015: The name of the Middletown Area Senior Center is changed to Central Connections.

May 2, 2017: Middletown taxpayers renew a five-year, 1-mill levy to provide or maintain senior services at the center.

November 2021: Diane Rodgers is hired as executive director. She says she moved from Reno, Nev., where she oversaw a senior center and worked with the homeless population, to be closer to her daughter who lives in New York.

July 29, 2022: Rodgers signs for a mortgage loan through First Financial Bank for $450,000, then does a loan modification that increases the amount to $650,000, according to the Butler County Recorder’s Office. Her signature and job title are listed on the loan that matures on July 29, 2024.

Nov. 1, 2022: Ribbon-cutting is held to celebrate the $1.5 million in renovations of Central Connections, 3907 Central Ave.

Dec. 31, 2022: Senior citizens center levy expires after generating $7 million over 10 years.

May 5, 2023: D.E.R. Development Co. files a lien against Central Connections, saying the company is owed $266,594.52, plus allowable interest.

May 31, 2023: Rodgers files vandalism report at Central Connections. Middletown police say that leads to the investigation of center’s finances.

July 24, 2023: The Council on Aging terminates its three-year contract with Central Connections. Fifty employees are laid off.

July 25, 2023: Nearly 75 senior citizens and former and current employees of Central Connections attend a meeting in the café with Rick Fishbaugh, board president, and Rodgers.

July 27, 2023: Rodgers is terminated as executive director of Central Connections and escorted out of the building by Middletown police.

Aug. 3, 2023: During a special City Council meeting and after an executive session, City Manager Paul Lolli announces council has agreed to move forward with the possible purchase of the Central Connections building and land and for an unknown amount that will come out of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) fund.

Aug. 5, 2023: In an email to the Journal-News, attorney Tyrone Borger, who is representing Rodgers, writes that he and his client have been “informed that there is an ongoing investigation. As such, while my client would like to comment and clear up several misconceptions. She is taking my advice and refusing to comment on any allegations at this time.”

Aug. 9, 2023: Middletown Police Chief David Birk says his department is working with the Ohio attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation into the criminal investigation into the finances of Central Connections.

Aug. 11, 2023: Central Connections announces more layoffs and the closing of the cafe and bar. The hours are reduced to 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Aug. 15, 2023: City Council votes unanimously to allow City Manager Paul Lolli to enter into a lease agreement with Central Connections. The lease is $50 per month. By the end of 2023, the city has the right to purchase the building and property for $1.8 million.

Aug. 21, 2023: Vincent “Scott” Smith, husband of the former executive director, arrested and charged with seven counts of passing bad checks, all felonies.

Aug. 23, 2023: Smith appears in Middletown Municipal Court for his arraignment. Judge James Sherron sets Smith’s OR bond at $5,000.

Sept. 6, 2023: A Middletown detective testifies that Smith’s signature on the seven bounced checks doesn’t match his signature on a court document. The charges against Smith are bound over to a Butler County grand jury by Middletown Municipal Court Judge James Sherron.

Sept. 19, 2023: Middletown City Council authorizes city manager to enter into an agreement to purchase Central Connections property for $1.8 million, using ARPA funds.

Oct. 4, 2023: A Butler County grand jury declines to indict Smith of passing bad check charges.

Oct. 12, 2023: City of Middletown closes on the purchase of Central Connections.

Jan. 20, 2024: During a special City Council meeting, a representative from a task force says the recommendation is for the city to lease the property to a company that can operate the senior center and event center.

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