Ship of fools runs aground on riverfront

Sunday, April 19, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A gazelle. That's what we thought Cincinnati might be a couple of years ago. A graceful little antelope -- beautiful, gentle, perfectly formed, swift, ahead of the pack. Gazelle was the metaphor for cities that leaped ahead in the race for prosperity.

I wonder how we'll like being a camel instead.

A camel, of course, looks like a horse planned by a committee. And Cincinnati is a city run by committee, the committee being its city council. Not one single member of this governing body is empowered to actually do anything, so it's hardly surprising that they meet once a week to officially do nothing.

This is not their fault. It is ours.

Wanted: an actual leader

We are clinging to a system we've outgrown. The city-manager form of government was a good idea in 1925. So were corner grocery stores. These days we can't get everything we need from our neighbors. We have to deal with outsiders. And, increasingly, they have no reason to trust us. If we require further proof, all we have to do is notice what happened here last week.

Council sank a riverfront plan it had officially encouraged at least twice. Nevermind that it was a bad plan, which would have gobbled up riverfront land with movie theaters and mini-malls. (Do you really need a view of the river while you're buying popcorn at the concession stand?)

But the city dithered, encouraging Indianapolis and Charlotte developers to spend money. This is no skin off our civic nose, unless it bothers us that word might make its way around that you just can't count on anybody's word in Cincinnati, Ohio.

During its regular meeting Wednesday, a majority of council voted to scrap the plan for an entertainment center on the river. On top of that they recommended a regional riverfront development commission.

Perfect. Now the committee that can't do anything will have a subcommittee to blame. And we'll have another layer between us and developers, retailers, restaurateurs.

Andi Udris, Cincinnati's development director, is the guy on the hot seat. Can't you just see Andi, his round face bathed in sweat, being nailed by one of the Nordstrom boys? "Andi," one of them might reasonably say, "do we have a deal or not?"

And Andi would know that he needs to get approval from his boss, City Manager John Shirey.

"So, John," Nordstrom's might then ask, "do we have a deal?" But, of course, Mr. Shirey reports to City Council. And council members can't answer the question either. They have to count the votes they have in their coalition that day.

Our ship of fools has no captain. We need somebody in charge, and some doctored-up, hybrid plan grudgingly allowing the mayor to name committee chairs isn't good enough. We need somebody who can make promises the Nordstroms can take to the bank.

What might the excellent Roxanne Qualls have been able to accomplish over the past four years if she she'd had more than ribbon-cutting shears in her hands and a Ginsu knife in her back?

It's not as if we have to reinvent the wheel. We know about an executive branch of government, separate from the legislative and judicial branches. And we have heard of popular elections where each party comes up with a candidate for an important office.

Riverfront development is a replay of Fountain Square West. We can blame Andi Udris if we like. Just as we blamed Nell Surber before him. The headlines and delays are hauntingly similar.

As Edna St. Vincent Millay said, "It is simply not true that life is one damned thing after another. It's the same damned thing over and over again." Let's not repeat the Fountain Square West debacle. Instead, let's put somebody in charge before we wind up looking like a camel.

Or a jackass.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at