In five days Cincinnati will know whether it has a bright future. Or just a dim past.
A ''yes'' vote on the stadium tax will propel the city into the 21st century. Vote ''no'' and you turn back the clock to 1868, a year before the Reds became the first professional baseball team and a century before the Bengals played their first game.
To put a finer point on it, if you vote it down, they will go. The Bengals to Cleveland. The Reds to Turfway Park or some Ohio county where Marge Schott can smoke her brains out in her new stadium.
With them goes any chance of Cincinnati ever being taken seriously again as a cosmopolitan, open-minded town that dreams big. Instead, this speck on the map will become what its critics claimed it always was and what its boosters have always feared it would mutate into, a provincial, close-minded burg that thinks as small as it acts.
If you think a half-penny on the dollar tax is excessive, wait 'til you see your tax bill after the Reds and Bengals leave. Somebody will have to take up the slack for the millions they generate, and it will be us.
As high as the money stakes are on this deal, the stadium vote is not about a half-penny sales tax or spending $544.2 million to put two new stadiums on the Riverfront. It's about civic pride.
That's an indicator economists can't measure. But people can feel. When that pride is wounded, it hurts.
Meet me in St. Louie
They felt the hurt in St. Louis when the NFL Cardinals left for Phoenix in 1988.
''It was like kicking somebody when he was down,'' says Kevin Campbell, a St. Louis health-care industry executive. ''The city was depressed and hurting.''
St. Louis in 1988 was a lot like Cincinnati in 1996: A large, white-bread, Midwestern town on a big river. It had a fondness for baseball because the football team lost more games than it won and had an owner the fans didn't love.
But when the football team went, ''downtown became a ghost town,'' says Charlie Gitto Sr. For 22 years, his Charlie Gitto's Pasta House - a good restaurant decorated with lots of sports stuff - has been to St. Louis what Ted Gregory's Montgomery Inn is to Cincinnati.
''Believe me, you gotta have sports to make the city go good,'' the restaurant owner adds. ''Sports bring in tourists. They go to the zoo. They go to the arts. They laugh and drink and have a good time. They make the people who live here feel good about their town. If you lose a team, say goodbye to your city.''
Every morning Gary Easton puts on his park ranger hat and says hello to St. Louis from atop the city's signature landmark, the Gateway Arch. He's the superintendent of the park the arch straddles.
When the football Cardinals split, Ranger Gary saw a city that had taken ''a big blow to its ego. The mood was the pits.'' Then the Rams left Los Angeles to play the 1995-96 season in St. Louis. ''That created an uplift in civic pride.'' Today when he looks down from that arch, he sees a city ''with many opportunities and the desire to get things done.''
Twice before in its history, Cincinnati's civic pride has faced the tantalizing pitches of progress. Twice before, it has taken a swing and missed.
Strike One! In the 19th century, the riverboat boys told the city to bet on the steamboats. Let Chicago have the railroads. Cincinnati did. While the Windy City rode the rails to prominence and prosperity, the Queen City sank like the setting sun in the west.
Strike Two! At the beginning of the 20th century, Cincinnati poured millions into a subway system that became the little train that couldn't. By means of corruption, incompetence and that old Cincinnati standby SOS (Scared Of Success), no car ever left the station.
The subway system that could have triggered untold citywide growth and united east side and west, north and south was covered up and covered over.
On Tuesday, Cincinnati's civic pride goes to the plate for one final swing.
Vote ''no'' and it's strike three.
Vote ''yes'' and hit a home run.
It's up to us.
This is our last chance.
Swing for the fences.
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 at 768-8340.