Shopping for downtown's selling points

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Attention shoppers: Ruthie Keefe aims to make downtown a bargain-hunter's dream.

As Downtown Cincinnati Inc.'s (DCI) new retail marketing director, she's in charge of promoting downtown shopping. It's a job she's starting at street level. She's pounding the pavement, poking her head into stores and asking: How's business?

She's shopping for how-to ideas. How to bring customers downtown and keep them coming back. How to make good service even better. How to ballyhoo downtown's special shops and one-of-a-kind restaurants. How to unite shopkeepers and department store managers from Fountain Square to Over-the-Rhine into a team that'll fight for downtown's revival. (She wants to hear from everybody; call her at 421-4440.)

Others have shopped for these ideas. But Ruthie Keefe has a better chance of finding them because of her attitude, her passion and her down-to-earth style.

Her business cards read: Ruth S. Keefe. ''But call me, Ruthie,'' she insists. ''If I go into a store and use my full name, people will look at me cockeyed. It's too formal. It's not me. It's not real.''

Spoken like a Cincinnati native who's a homegrown realist, not some high-blown import who thinks she knows this city better than the thick-headed locals.

Ms. Keefe realizes that promoting downtown shopping is a tough sell. ''A daunting task,'' she calls it.

She knows who needs help. ''Small retailers aren't getting the attention they need downtown. They're just as important to the total picture as the big guys.''

In a town that takes more pride in its boosterism than its boosters, this is forthright talk. Credit that to her upbringing.

''At my family's dinner table, we were always given the opportunity to state what was on our minds,'' she says. ''So I'm not one to keep my mouth shut. But I'm also sensitive to others. I don't ruffle feathers. I listen to other ideas.''

Ruthie Keefe comes from a good Cincinnati family. Her father is a retired Hamilton County common pleas judge, John Keefe. Decades of public service are associated with the name of Keefe.

The judge's daughter intends to keep up the family tradition. This woman has a passion to succeed in the hometown she loves, where she grew up, where she went back to work after her two children started school.

Her retailing career began on the ground floor. Literally.

She sold makeup behind a first-floor counter in the downtown Lazarus store. Eight years later, when she left retailing, she was director of cosmetic administration for the Rich's-Lazarus-Goldsmith's division of Federated Department Stores.

She knows what it's like to sell stuff downtown. And buy it, too.

As a kid, she came downtown on the bus from Hyde Park. ''It was always an event,'' she says. Her eyes sparkle remembering past shopping trips. The sidewalks were crowded with shoppers. She would wear gloves and patent leather shoes. And meet her dad for lunch.

''We still get together for lunch,'' she says, ''downtown.''

But she doesn't wear gloves. And little girls in patent leather shoes are a thing of the past downtown. So, too, unfortunately, are sidewalks lined with shoppers.

Ms. Keefe is not out to turn back the clock. Today's fashions suit her just fine. But she knows empty sidewalks are always out of style.

''We have to bring back enthusiasm and excitement to downtown,'' she says. ''I want another generation of children to come down here and feel like it's an event.'' Do that, and the sidewalks will go from empty to full.

Ruthie Keefe doesn't know exactly how this will be accomplished. She's not going to blow smoke and say she has it all figured out.

''The problems are too complex,'' she says, ''and I'm too new on the job.''

She's sure of one thing. Downtown can't be re-created as it was. That's in the past. Her goal is to create a downtown as it should be for the future.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.

Published Nov. 8, 1996.