Oct 6, 2023

State of the City: Hamilton’s ‘Main Street is really turning into one heck of a district’

City Manager Joshua Smith, in his 14th State of the City address

The renaissance Hamilton has been experiencing for the last dozen or so years, is, in a way, history repeating itself. Hamilton is booming with new businesses and developments newly opened or in planning, and in a few years, close to 1,000 hotel rooms will be available in the city’s urban core, and hundreds of new apartments will open in various neighborhoods of the city, and more places to eat and drink will be available for Hamiltonians and visitors.


This resurgence is not unlike what Hamilton experienced more than a century ago — Hamilton’s first go at being a boomtown. City Manager Joshua Smith, in his 14th State of the City address on Thursday, said the growth was “exponential” for years in Hamilton’s heyday, especially after the creation of the hydraulic canal in the 1830s, the start of Hamilton creating and operating its own energy grid. That led to businesses such as Beckett Paper Co., Cincinnati Brewing Co., and Niles Tool Works. Hamilton was becoming “an industrial juggernaut,” and Smith said it was “based on the ingenuity of people that lived in Hamilton.” He said it was unparalleled success in Hamilton. Two of the biggest safe makers, Mosler Safe and Herring-Hall-Marvin, relocated to Hamilton. Mercy Hospital was built in the early 1900s. Champion Coated Paper Mill became the largest coated paper company in 1910. Schuler Benninghoffen Woolen Mill saw unprecedented growth in Lindenwald. The city saw the need to start its own natural gas and electric companies (and they still operate them today). “Hamilton, Ohio, was on a roll,” Smith said.


But Hamilton’s run slowed significantly after World War II as suburban flight, the lack of investments, and bad decisions caused the city to miss out on many things, including the possibility of having Interstate 75 be closer to the city. “Instead of Hamilton booming like a lot of areas did, we felt a lot of post-industrial pain,” he said.


Though things were on the downturn for many years, it got worse in a few short years, starting right before the turn of the century, in 1999, when Ohio Casualty decided to move to Fairfield. International Paper’s decline started in 2000. Mercy Hospital announced in 2001 that it was leaving, the same year Mosler Safe closed. Thousands of jobs were lost. Dozens of buildings were vacant or razed and the city was simply managing the decline.


“I talked to a lot of people and there was a certain amount of resignation that’s settled in around Hamilton,” he said to the hundreds that attended the State of the City address at the Courtyard by Marriott. “When you think about for 125 years, at least, Hamilton was on the cutting edge, Hamilton was the leader, Hamilton was producing everything from safes to paper, and it took a little turn for the worse.” But 1999 was also when the people of Hamilton began to claw their way out of the decline when it established the Vision Commission. “Hamilton strikes back,” Smith said. Everyone was pitching in, from City Council to the Hamilton Community Foundation to the formation of the 17Strong Advisory Committee and other groups.


Today, Hamilton is a boomtown again, with city leaders focusing on small businesses, redeveloping old buildings, and creating gathering places such as Marcum Park and RiversEdge. The latest effort, Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill, has sparked even more growth. But none of it’s possible without people, as people “is what makes a community.” “We’ve been around for 230-plus years, it’s because of the people,” Smith said.


Mayor Pat Moeller said the city’s “pathway to our success now, and yes, there is success now, is manufacturing, the service industry and quality of life.” The mayor, who’s been known at times to make a sports reference or two, said, quoting Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, “‘World, it is us,’ and they’re going to find out more and more about us.”


What’s coming

There will be a lot of new businesses either announced or coming over the next year, and projects that have been previously announced can be realities in the next year to several years. While there were no big projects announced at Thursday’s address, Smith hinted at a pair of projects expected to be announced soon, including what’s being dubbed as “an elevated cocktail lounge on Main Street” and a Main Street restaurant with a focus on craft cocktails and wine. That second business venture, Smith said, “is a done deal, it’s just a matter of ... they want to handle their own PR.”


“Our main street is really turning into one heck of a district,” he said, adding that Agave & Rye will be built and open in 2024. He talked briefly about a variety of projects, including two known apartment developments seeking historic tax credits. They will see progress if they are awarded the tax credits this fall and spring, respectively. The developers of the Becket Mill apartments (the redevelopment of the former Becket Paper site) have applied for the state historic tax credits for the fall round, and the developers of the former Schuler Benninghoffen mill will apply for the spring round of the historic tax credits.


Crawford Hoying, which is redeveloping the soon-to-be-former Cohen Recycling plant on North Third and Black streets, will begin work in 2024 on its $150 million-minimum mixed-use development that will feature, among other things, another hotel and more apartments. “We have so many projects lined up, but if there’s an overarching theme here, it’s because of the progress we’ve made as a community that has gotten us to this point,” Smith said, adding there are close to $1 billion in developments that are pending for various reasons. That includes the former CSX train depotthe city purchased a few years ago and then relocated at the end of 2022 and the start of 2023 will see activity once the building is white-boxed. “If I’m a betting man,” Smith said, “I would bet it’s going to be a restaurant of some type, but we’re going to keep pushing through.” The former Anthony Wayne building, which will be The Well House Hotel will have an Irish pub attached to it, and Smith said, “It’s going to be a great addition to Hamilton, Ohio.” Cohatch, a co-working space, has started interior work at the former Second National Bank on High Street and will also feature a restaurant and bar. Smith said that project “will be another great addition in the heart of Hamilton.” He also mentioned the dual Hilton hotel project at the parking lot at North MLK Boulevard and High Street, which will feature a total of 160 hotels and a restaurant that was announced last month, is “a fabulous reuse of a site that’s literally been sitting as a parking lot for over 60 years.”


Other projects mentioned in Smith’s address include the Ciao Vino wine bar at Artspace to open in 2024, Third Eye Brewing to open later this month, and Shooters Sports Grill to open, possibly, by this winter’s Super Bowl, if not a few weeks sooner.


“Hamilton has certainly faced tough times in the past,” Smith said. “But we’ve always, always come out of it better and stronger.”

This article was originally published on October 6, 2023, through the Journal News. Read the original piece here.