Riverview property proposal not intended to be secret

EAST LIVERPOOL – Interest by a Westerville development firm in a portion of the former Riverview Florist property had not reached more than the discussion stage before the proposal was scrapped, and planning director Bill Cowan said this past week there was no attempt to keep the proposed project a secret.

The proposal by Frank Fugate of the Woda Group to construct residential homes on the property first came to public light at the recent re-organizational meeting of the city’s Community Improvement Corporation (CIC) meeting when President Sam Scafide said it was a “done deal,” meaning it was no longer in the works.

News coverage of the meeting was followed by a firestorm of controversy, with both city officials and residents asking who had authorized using the property for low to moderate income housing, who was involved in the negotiations and whether any members of City Council had been aware of the proposal.

During the last council meeting, Councilman Russell Dray said he had “overheard” a conversation by Cowan in reference to the proposal, and he had then told other council members.

However, in a detailed timeline provided to the paper by Cowan, he said Dray was made directly aware of the proposal during a Dec. 18 meeting with Law Director Charles Payne that included Cowan, Dray and Councilman Ray Perorazio.

According to Cowan, they had met to discuss amendments to housing codes and, since all four are CIC members, he informed them he expected to receive a proposal from a developer to purchase between eight and 10 acres of the Riverview property, telling them that the developer builds single- and multi-family homes but that he did not have many details at that point.

The timeline showed that Cowan had been contacted Nov. 21 by Fugate, acquisition manager for the Woda Group, saying he was looking for a building in the downtown area to rehab for housing. Since Fugate had in the past expressed interest in a building project in the city, Cowan referred him to Todd Alexander of Soaring Eagle, which owns the former YMCA, Crooks, Elks and Little buildings.

At that time, Fugate spoke of rehabbing an existing building for apartments with a mix of market rate and low/moderate income availability, according to Cowan, who said they discussed single family homes built by Woda in other communities.

“He said he would be interested in doing something along those lines if the numbers worked. It was then I informed Frank of the Riverview property and that some of the land may be available,” Cowan wrote in the timeline.

The property was purchased by the city with industrial or commercial development in mind but was transferred recently to the CIC, which is an entity with more leeway for selling and transferring property than city council.

Asked last week who made the decision that the Riverview property could be used for residential purposes, Cowan said the CIC was “looking at anything” that might help generate revenue for cleaning up and developing the property.

He pointed out that, had the Woda Group purchased 10 acres, about 76 acres would remain for development.

After touring the Soaring Eagle buildings Dec. 2, Fugate walked the Riverview property and in a Dec. 4 phone call advised Cowan he was interested in the Riverview property, asking for information regarding the availability of utilities and a legal description of the property.

At that time, Cowan advised Fugate that the East Liverpool Youth Baseball League had also expressed interest in leasing some of the property for ball fields and Fugate said he would contact league officials, saying perhaps they could do a “comprehensive project.”

On Dec. 13, Fugate told Cowan he would be interested in purchasing about 10 acres of the property and would forward a purchase agreement for the CIC to review and a few days later said 40 housing units were being considered for the site.

During a call Dec. 20, Fugate advised Cowan he needed to be placed on the agenda of a City Council meeting to request a letter of support from Mayor Jim Swoger. Cowan said such letters are required for any project involving tax credit programs.

Three days later, Cowan informed Fugate that CIC President Sam Scafide had recommended the proposal be forwarded to the property committee for discussion at a meeting to be held the first week in February which would include council members and the CIC board of trustees so all could hear the proposal. Fugate agreed to the meeting, and Cowan said he advised Fugate at that time that Swoger would most likely not sign a letter of support for the project without the backing of council.

A revised purchase agreement requesting to buy 6.5 acres was sent to Cowan on Jan. 13, followed by a Jan. 16 phone call from Fugate informing him that he was withdrawing the proposal because time constraints would not allow for a phase II environmental study necessary for success of his funding application.

Cowan said this week he still is not certain what type of housing Fugate planned to construct at the Riverview property but that he believes a private company cannot build so-called “Section 8” housing.

“But anyone with a voucher can rent anywhere. He could have rented to those with vouchers like anyone else,” Cowan said. “His purchase agreement (for the Riverview property) mentioned nothing about low income housing.”

A review of the proposed purchase agreement showed it mentioned construction of “at least 40 multi-family units and a community building.”

Cowan said he and Scafide were relying on the meeting in February for Fugate to explain the proposal in detail to council and CIC members.

“I warned him it was an uphill battle,” Cowan said, referring to some officials’ opposition to any type of subsidized housing being built in the city.

He said the issue was blown out of proportion since it was nothing more than a proposal, with no decisions or agreements finalized.

The city purchased the property in August 2009 and annexed it from Liverpool Township after an unsuccessful attempt to form a Joint Economic Development District (JEDD) with township trustees which would have provided for joint development of the property.