Sunday, April 18, 2004

Stores could clean up area

Retail might leave no place for crime

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ruth Richmond, manager of the Willow Creek Condominiums in Sycamore Township, stands in front of the Carrousel Inn and the closed Royal Crown Convention Center. A developer wants to bring stores, possibly including a Wal-Mart, to the site.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GLENN HARTONG
SYCAMORE TWP. - Ruth Richmond has watched her share of prostitutes work the bus stop at Chaucer Drive and Reading Road.

She has picked up used condoms by the tennis courts and hypodermic needles in the clubhouse parking lot before kids in the Willow Creek Condominiums step out in the morning.

For residents at the complex, a plan by Montgomery-based Bear Creek Capital to replace the burned-out Royal Crown Hotel and Convention Center and Carrousel Inn with stores, restaurants and a bank can't happen soon enough - even if that means having a Wal-Mart Supercenter next door.

While Wal-Mart plans have stirred opposition from Milford to Oxford, this 35-acre site off Ronald Reagan Highway is a place where the Arkansas-based discounter would be met with an embrace instead of a battle.

"We said, 'Bring them in. Bring them in.' Anything to get rid of those hotels," said Richmond, who manages Willow Creek and has lived there for 13 years."They are infested with drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps."

For now, the proposed project - in an isolated pocket of the township bordering Reading and Cincinnati's Roselawn neighborhood - is being called Cross County Marketplace.

Bear Creek officials won't identify prospective tenants. But Zoning Administrator Greg Bickford said they have said Wal-Mart is a contender, and that a national home improvement center already had signed on. A Wal-Mart spokesman could not be reached last week, but confirmed earlier that the retailer was engaged in discussions with Bear Creek.

A zoning measure changing the property from a mix of office, retail and multi-family housing to all retail passed late last year. Township officials were concerned that police and medical runs to the property had put a strain on emergency services, and Richmond said residents at Willow Creek had been complaining to them for years.

"We had situations such as prostitution, liquor violations, robberies ... a lot of drug abuse," township Administrator Mike Berens said. "There were just a lot of undesirables in the area there. I guess that's a nice way to put it."

It wasn't always like that.

The Carrousel Inn complex dominated Reading Road near Galbraith Road for decades. The complex featured a hotel, restaurant, banquet rooms, a health club and retail shops. During its heyday in the 1960s, it was a popular stop for entertainers and other celebrities who performed at nearby Cincinnati Gardens.

However, the township condemned the Royal Crown on countless building and fire code violations last year, just months before it was gutted by an arson.

The Carrousel is still open, as are some small shops. The nearby Drake Motel is not part of the land deal, although Bear Creek officials said they have made overtures to buy it.

Besides the deteriorating hotels, much of the site was home to public housing until the 1970s, then used as a barrow pit for the construction of Cross County Highway, which was later renamed after former President Ronald Reagan.

"Usually, there are people who don't want you there," said Greg Scheper, who is in charge of acquisitions and government affairs for Bear Creek. "But this truly is taking a very bad piece of property where a lot of bad things are happening and changing that."

The city of Reading is counting on the project to jump-start revitalization of the Reading Road corridor. The city began construction last month on a $2.7 million streetscape project on a 10-block stretch of Reading Road. Traffic signals are being updated to improve flow.

"We're very excited about all the development down there. We really are very optimistic," Mayor Robert "Bo" Bemmes said. He said Bear Creek officials have expressed interest in developing a 10-acre tract of land in Reading across from the proposed Marketplace once that project is complete.

Scheper said Bear Creek could break ground on the marketplace this summer. The company is waiting for permits from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers to redirect Amberley Creek, which flows through the property and spills into the Mill Creek. A traffic study also is under way, he said.


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