Sunday, January 03, 1999

'99 already holds promise

What will you do to make life in city better?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Wouldn't you like to start the new year on a high note? Wouldn't it be nice to have something to look forward to? Something tangible. Something we can count on. And count.

        We already know what our elected officials will do for us — not nearly as much as they promised. And what service people will do for us — less than they have in the past. So what can we do for each other?

        “Make us a promise,” Iurged people with clout and imagination, warning that somebody will keep score. (If I win the lottery or am hit by a bus, The Cincinnati Enquirer has promised to hire another typist to report the results next year.)

        Mike Wilson of the Conven tion and Visitors Bureau says if he gets an expanded convention center, he'll bring $50 million to town. John Pepper promises not to abandon us. And Rabbi Abie Ingber says his Hillel Center students will up the ante from 600 shopping bags full of stuff for the needy to 1,000.

        I myself promise not to write poetry or wear a thong to the office. I promise to continue to ask impertinent questions every time I get a chance. Such as:

        Why does Delta Air Lines gouge the good citizens of Greater Cincinnati?

        What kind of return are we getting for our investment in a football team?

        Will Arnold's Restaurant be any fun without Jim Tarbell?

        Will Procter & Gamble be any fun without John Pepper?

        Mr. Pepper says he promises to live in Cincinnati even after he retires as chairman of the company in September. This is a big promise, if I may say so.

        How different might we have been as a community if this man had not used his influence to push for schools, for children's programs, for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center? This year, he says he'll

        help the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative find 800 more mentors — boosting the list to 2,000.

        Don Hoffman also is making a promise to schoolchildren. “It's pretty hard to learn anything if you're sick,” says Mr. Hoffman, president of the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati. Last year, the foundation invested $7 million in the health of Tristate residents, and Mr. Hoffman promises at least $10 million more in 1999.

        He promises specifically that the foundation, which gave money to nine school-based health clinics last year, will fund eight more. “It'll be a stretch.”

        That's the idea.

        “We oughta have box scores that tell us every day what we're doing for children,” says Dick Aft, executive director of United Way & Community Chest. I asked him to commit to something specific, measurable.

        “How about 40 fewer children who will die before their first birthday?” he says. “And 2,000 fewer children abused.”

        He pins his hopes — and his promise — on money for home visitation to new mothers. Last year, he says, 200 infants died before their first birthday and 10,000 were victims of abuse.

        Measurable. Achingly specific.

        But what about adults? What about personal responsibility?

        “Most people are willing to give a helping hand,” says Don Thomas, director of Hamilton County's Department of Human Services, “but they want to know that everybody works for their money. At its peak, we had nearly 23,000 welfare recipients,” he says.

        “Now, we're down to about 6,000 people with serious problems.” He said he aims to get 50 percent of those “doing something to work off welfare benefits.”

        He promises to help people who need it. In return, they have to do whatever they can to earn it. A mutual promise, a pact.

        So, what kind of pact will be struck between the suspicious taxpayers of Greater Cincinnati and the Convention & Visitors Bureau, which needs more space? Mike Wilson, bureau president, promises to deliver $50 million in new business to Cincinnati “no less than six months” after approval to build an expanded convention center. He's guessing approval, if it comes, will be by July.

        Charlene Ventura is in the home stretch on her building project. Last year, the YWCA she directs raised $6.5 million for a new shelter and transitional living center for battered women and to refurbish the downtown headquarters.

        This year, she pledges to help the mothers of 42 children make better lives by providing day care. And every day of the year, this is a rare place where people of all colors gather comfortably. The project also underscores the YWCA's commitment to urban areas.

        Which brings us to the Cincinnati Business Committee and its new executive director, Laura Long. She makes a vague but intriguing promise.

        She'll deliver “one very innovative attraction for the downtown that doesn't exist now and that everybody can use and you won't be able to experience anywhere else in the region.”

        What is it?

        “Can't tell you yet,” she says, “but it will be unveiled by April.”

        And it's something you can't get at the mall, right?

        She assured me that it is not something you can get at the mall. It will be unique to our city. And wonderful.

        “In the 19th century,” says Rabbi Abie Ingber, “this was a community that was full of itself, a city that believed it had something to give to America.”

        Ed Rigaud, the Underground Railroad Freedom Center's executive director, thinks we're there again. And it must be said that if Laura Long's promise is vague, his is immeasurable.

        “The Freedom Center,” reads the formal mission statement, “will lead an effort to set a national vision in the first half of the 21st century. We will finally put an end to the racial divide in the United States through an understanding of our common humanity.”

        In his own words, the thoroughly likeable and considerably less formal Mr. Rigaud says, “We are going to include everybody. And everybody can help.”

        Starting this year.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 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.

        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