Thursday, January 20, 2000

Convention center could be a good bet

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Last week, while you were aerobicizing your buns off, getting rid of holiday cookies, I was dancing with one-armed bandits in Las Vegas.

        I was trying to come home with something more valuable than unused hotel soap (“oatmeal skincare bars” in Vegas-speak). Although I was hoping for a million dollars in quarters, I settled for a lesson.

        Approximately 32.3 million other people also traveled to Vegas last year, leaving $25 billion behind. Visitors spend some of it, no doubt, on aspirin and tickets to see Wayne Newton and Tom Jones.

        But people go there to gamble. Saying you go there for the shows is like pretending to buy Playboy magazinefor the articles or shop at Graeter's for the bread.

Their money's worth
        Actually, of course, people go to Las Vegas not to gamble but to win. Instead, most of them lose the money they already had. Then they go home and save up new money to bring back to give to the casinos. They had a good time. The drinks are free, the food is cheap. And this place is considerably different from home.

        Considerably. An artificial Eiffel tower in fake Paris, a statue of Liberty in fake New York, a pyramid in fake Egypt. Real life includes the Liberace Museum, the Happy Wild Card Child Care and the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel.

        The strip, the “new” Las Vegas, with its megaresorts should have killed downtown Vegas where the casinos were smaller and (dare I say it?) parking was a problem. The strip had covered walkways and trams. Downtown gamblers had to walk outside.

        So, the city closed off one of the main streets to cars, making it easier to walk around. It installed a canopy and offers a light show, which is spectacular. And unique.

        I'm not suggesting we buy a light show. Or put a slot machine on Fountain Square. I'm just saying Las Vegas is a gazillion-kilowatt reminder that it doesn't hurt to show off. Brag about what you have. And try to figure out how to make it attractive to more people.

Sleepy old gal
        In his State of the City address, Cincinnati's new mayor, Charlie Luken, said, “People have lost faith in the city. But the city is being reborn. ... The sleepy old gal is waking up a bit.”

        Of course, our “gal” is not going to wake up to the sound of slot machines and gigantic fake cities in our backyard. That's not us. We had a chance to put gambling on our riverfront in 1996 and we made the excellent decision to refuse.

        We already had other, better uses for people's entertainment dollars. The Symphony, the Opera, the Ballet, the Reds, the Maisonette, the Taft Museum, the Zoo, the Bengals, the Aronoff Center, the Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center.

        We already had buildings that cannot be duplicated, even with mob money. Music Hall, Union Terminal, Emery Theater, Over-the-Rhine housing.

        These attractions can't be found in the suburbs of Cincinnati or any other city. Wouldn't it make sense to use them to lure people here, encourage them to drop off some money, then save up to do the same thing again?

        If Cincinnati would put as much faith in our charm as Vegas did in its glitz, we'd be unbeatable. We are a river city with a cultural history other cities cannot buy. It's easy to walk around here. And the people are extra-nice.

        I hope those who figured out how to spend $1.4 billion on two new stadiums will find a way to expand our convention center. History tells us we could fill it with out-of-town visitors. Tourists, conventioneers. Just here for a visit, nothing permanent. We wouldn't have to educate their children or make sure they have adequate sewers or garbage collection.

        They could just stop in for a few days, spend lots of money and leave, vowing to come back and do it again. If we show them who we are I bet they'll like us. A bigger convention center is one more gamble with public money.

        But we might hit the jackpot.

        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