June 29, 2017

Response to the Park- School-Township Concept: Josh Gerth, Anderson Township Trustee

In the spirit of FULL DISCLOSURE, I wanted to give a recap of how we came to be where we are today with the relocated Anderson High School concept. I have also pasted my entire interview with the Business Courier below.

Let me take you on a journey of the last nine months. Shortly after the school levy passed in November of last year, I reached out to Dallas Jackson to tell him that I wanted to start conversations between us (the Township), the school board and the park district to figure out a way to capitalize on the momentum that this community had going for it. My idea was that perhaps at one of the school sites we could possibly build an additional gym that we (the Township) could help finance and that the Park District could run. My hope was that by working together, we could realize some savings by using the same architects, contractors, etc. that the school was using when exploring this concept.

SIDEBAR: For those of you that don’t know, I served on the Park Board for 4+ years and currently still am a member of the Park’s Foundation Board (The Foundation the Park District’s private entity that runs events like Anderson Days). During that time, I became very aware of how much this community could use better, public, indoor space as the Park’s current RecPlex facility at Beech Acres was constantly booked and we were always looking for ways to expand our programing and be able to hold larger events (Daddy-Daughter Dance being just one) in the Township. Ever since I was elected Trustee, I have worked with our staff to try and figure out how we might be able to help the Park District accomplish this or at the very least allow the Park District to buy the existing RecPlex so that they could begin to put together a plan of how they could renovate that facility once they owned it.

Due to the holiday grind and the fact that School District was just getting started with their plans, my conversation with the School District stalled. Then, in late January/early February I was contacted by Rob Smyjunas, with Vandercar, who is involved in the West Clermont County school deal. He informed me that Beech Acres was selling its property and wanted to discuss the idea of moving Anderson High School to that site and unlocking the real estate at Beechmont and Forest for a brand-new mixed use development that could exceed $100 million in value.

Needless to say, I was very excited about this idea. In talking with Rob however, I was very adamant that we needed to try and figure out how to deliver this school at NO additional cost to taxpayers and I was also very adamant that the current Beech Acres Park owned by the Anderson Township Park District (ATPD) & the RecPlex which ATPD leases, were kept intact and fully included in this plan. I also asked if we could potentially get a brand-new recreational complex as part of this deal. We both agreed to move forward in the spirit of that concept.

I then had a conversation with Randy Smith, board president of the Forest Hills School District and told him about my idea. Randy was just as excited about this concept as I was. And so it began… That was the start of many hours of meetings. Discussing the site. Analyzing the finances. Trying to figure out if legally we could do this. Waiting on the developer to produce documentation and proof that they could guarantee the deal at no risk. Trying to determine shortfalls and whether or not the public was going to have to put any more money into this deal. Trying to understand if the school would actually fit on the site inclusive of the Park District’s RecPlex; either existing, renovated or rebuilt. All of which would potentially be show stoppers and therefore not even worth moving forward.

Now, this may come as a surprise but these things take a lot of time to vet. Especially with a proposal this complex encompassing three public entities.

However, for the first time in Anderson Township history the Township Government, the School District, and the Park District met not once, but twice in executive sessions to discuss the purchase of property in order to facilitate this plan.

You see, we did not want to approach the Beech Acres organization and suggest an idea that legally, financially, or collaboratively there was absolutely no way we would have been able to do without fully vetting the idea first. However, during these months, while we never got all of the answers we were looking for (a few questions still remain unanswered even today), we never got to an insurmountable roadblock. At this time, the only thing that would stop our ongoing exploration of this concept would be if Beech Acres said they did not want to sell their property to us.

About two months ago we scheduled a meeting with the Beech Acres senior executive team and their real estate representative to tell them of our idea. Before we met, I asked Randy Smith and Nadine Gelter a very specific question: “Do your boards want to continue to explore this as an option because we need to be unified when we go to Beech Acres to present this plan.” All of them said YES. Now mind you all of them, including myself, had contingencies to that “Yes” that we need answered before we would ever agree to do anything like this. But, the spirit of the conversations, the idea that this could be a great thing for our community, was absolutely there. We met with Beech Acres, we presented our plan and had a good discussion. Then, the Beech Acres real estate representative specifically asked Nadine Gelter if she was supportive of this plan. Unfortunately, Nadine’s answer did not convey the same spirit that we had discussed prior to this meeting.

This was a very disappointing point in the process.

Despite that, Beech Acres gave us about a month to figure out whether or not we could pull this off and get back to them with an answer if the three entities wanted to move forward with this plan by the end of June. During that time we had another set-back and came to learn that we simply could not fund the additional $10 million or more we thought it would take to build a brand-new recreational complex at no additional cost to taxpayers as part of this deal.

Recall that I had said publically that we were exploring a concept that would include the existing RecPlex (existing, renovated, or rebuilt) at no additional cost and that the only way I was going to support this concept was the inclusion of such. Well, unfortunately a new RecPlex was not in the cards. Randy and I met with the Park District again and explained that while we could not fund a brand-new RexPlex as part of this deal, we said that we could either 1) figure out a way to finance the renovations of the existing one (per similar conversations we’d already had) or 2) Since ATPD was talking about going out for a levy anyway, would they consider a levy to build a new one rather than just buying land? Yes, that would cost the taxpayer’s money (if it passed) but Randy and I believed that given the magnitude of this concept along with the collaborative spirit of all three entities joining forces, we felt that it would be well received.

Unfortunately when the deadline came, we still did not have all of our answers and therefore the Park District moved forward with their plans to purchase Beech Acres. Randy Smith did talk with Beech Acres and, independently, Rob Smyjunas with Vandercar Holdings LLC sent a document to Beech Acres stating his interest in pursuing the purchase of Beech Acres property. However, at this time, it is our understanding that Beech Acres has decided to continue to exclusively negotiate and sell to the Park District.

I still believe in the proposed plan and would still very much like to figure out a way to get this done. I’m not sure that my fellow Trustees or the School Board members feel the same given the delays, unanswered questions, and now this news of an agreement between Beech Acres and Park District. However, this would be a HUGE GAME CHANGER for A-Town, one which has the potential to completely change the landscape of the Township. I am not only excited about the opportunity of being able to deliver a new school, but what has really kept me up at night is the idea that we could unlock some of the most valuable real estate in our Township and deliver things that we need to continue to evolve and grow as a desirable community people want to move in to, live in, and stay here. Things like a hotel, luxury apartments, additional retail, and/or empty nester living options. This is exactly why I wanted to run for Trustee in the first place.

I have said to many people in our meetings over the last nine months my order of things I’d like to see happen with the Beech Acres site are as follows: 1) The Township-Park-School Development; 2) another public concept (i.e. a new YMCA, RexPlex, Anderson Senior Center, one of the smaller school facility needs); or 3) a private-public development where we would have someone build a brand-new senior living facility, luxury apartments or something that would generate TIF money that could be used towards the RexPlex renovation.

A very distant 4th would be using taxpayer money to just purchase Beech Acres for more land. This is NOT a political issue or a battle between the entities. As I mentioned I was on the Park Board and during that time I became very aware of the lack of quality indoor recreational space. I recall discussions where we talked about how great it would be to have the Beech Acres land to do something like that. Well hindsight is always 20/20 and now that I’ve been trustee for a year and a half I have quickly become aware of the bigger picture in our community. I consider everyone at the Park District and everyone on the Park Board friends. I suspect my opinion may hurt some of those relationships and if so that will be a shame. However, in my gut, I cannot support something that we simply do not need when there are bigger ideas at play. The Park District has never had a capital campaign levy. That is tremendous. Ken Kushner and his team have done an amazing job with the over 500 acres of park that we have. It is undoubtedly one of the best park systems in the state. I know they are proud that they never had a capital campaign and have literally built up our park system on their operating budget. They should be proud.

For me, this is simply a wants vs needs issue. I supported the school levy last year. I did so because that can has been kicked down the road for 20+ years and no one has done anything about it. We finally had the opportunity to address the critical needs that the district had to address with their facilities. The schools are the number one economic driver in our township. You can say what you want about taxes and you can say what you want about the schools but the fact of the matter is, if it wasn’t for the quality of our school district we would be nowhere close to where we are today. I did not support the bigger school facility plan because 1) it was way too expensive for taxpayers to absorb and 2) it was a “want” not a “need” and 3) I was fearful that by doing that we will once again kick the proverbial can down the road and be in real trouble. However, that said, it was not cheap, and taxpayers have to pay for it.

Second, the Township will have to go out for a public safety levy in the near future. It may be as soon as November, or next year. Our safety services costs have gone up by millions of dollars over the last several years. We have stretched our public safety levy from five years to almost 8 years. We cannot stretch it anymore. Public safety in Anderson Township is our number one priority. However that too will be another cost to taxpayers.

I firmly believe that economic driver of the school system and public safety are NEEDS for this Township. I believe that 36 more acres of park for $7 million and another $5.5 million dollars for improvements are wants. The park district is still very much part of the bigger plan. This plan allows the park district to OWN the facility that they have been leasing for the last 15 years at NO COST. Then they would have the ability to go out for a private capital campaign to do what they needed to do to the building and I suspect there would be a lot of support for that.

Although the tone of this letter may sound like it, this is not about railing against the Anderson Township Park District. The Park District is doing what the Park District thinks is best as it relates to their mission statement. I was there. I get it. I simply just happen to disagree with it. I suspect that there are people who will agree with them. If it makes it on the ballot for November then truly we will see what the majority of the public wants to do. However, if we wait any longer, it will likely be too late for this alternative concept to be realized. WE ARE OUT OF TIME.

As Randy Smith said, at this point, it is up Beech Acres.

So for those of you who want to see if we can pull this off, what can you do now? Voice your opinion and show your support. This weekend is Anderson Days. Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. Ironically, it is held at Beech Acres Park and all three entities (the Park the Township and the School) will have booths there. Many, if not all of board members will be there. (I will not be there until Sunday night as I am wrapping up a family “vacation”.) You can call or write Beech Acres and ask them to reconsider their direction. You can go to the school board meeting Monday night and urge them to continue to push for this as well.

Time is of the essence…Who’s in?

Josh Gerth
Anderson Township Trustee

 

BUSINESS COURIER INTERVIEW:

Tom Demeropolis (TD) What is the current status of the plan to buy property from Beech Acres, build a new Anderson High School and a new recreation center on it, and redevelop the existing Anderson High School site into a mixed-use development?

Josh Gerth (JS) The current status is we (the township and school district) have a LOI from a developer to build a new Anderson HS and redevelop the current Anderson HS site into a mixed use development with the potential to bring luxury apartments, hotel, more retail, and other amenities to Anderson twp. But the developer and LOI still leave several questions on the table that need to be answered; not the least of which is what, if anything, will this cost taxpayers and what entity will be fully guaranteeing this without any exposure to taxpayers. Our expectation all along has been we could build a new high school, keep beech acres park and the RexPlex intact (or improve) and unlock the most valuable real estate in Anderson at Beechmont and forest without ANY additional cost to taxpayers. That said, we have also been informed by Beech Acres that they have entered into a contract with the Park District for the Park to buy Beech Acres park so if the entity selling the land and the entity that we wanted to partner with don’t have any interest in this plan, then this plan is DOA.

(TD) Why has the park district decided to go forward with a plan to ask voters to approve a levy that provides money for the district to buy the land and update the rec center when this potential, larger project, has been discussed?

(JG) You will have to ask them.

(TD) Does the township and school district still want to move forward with the proposed purchase and development that is described in the letter of intent from April?

(JG) Speaking for myself, I would love nothing more than this plan come together. Shortly after the school district passed their levy in November , I reached out to them to find out how we (the township) could use the momentum of that community support to bring together the park district and township and build a new community center and/or expand the school plans to benefit the community. Shortly after that, I started talking to Vandercar about this concept and that is what we’ve been trying to figure out for the last several months. I believe our job is to think outside of the box and figure out creative ways to bring services and amenities to Anderson at the least cost to taxpayers. This concept has the potential to do that and is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I don’t believe we will ever have the chance to unlock a large block of valuable real estate in this location like this again. However, if the guarantees are not there and the entity selling the land are not interested, then it simply won’t happen.

(TD) What needs to happen for this project to come together? When does it need to happen?

(JG) We need the developer to deliver this concept at no cost or risk to the community and Beech Acres and the Park District to get on board with the concept.

(TD) Any additional thoughts on this potential project would be greatly appreciated.

(JG) The community should know that for the first time in history, the township, the school district and park district have engaged in meaningful executive session discussions about working together to do something collaborative that benefits this community. We have made great strides. If for some reason this concept cannot be realized, I am very confident that we will be able to work together in the near future for the overall good of Anderson Township.