Wednesday, April 17, 1996
Muddy hole may well be mother lode

The Cincinnati Enquirer

On Tuesday, the streets of downtown were paved with mud.

The stuff ran down gutters. Puddles of it filled potholes. Muddy streams jaywalked from curb to curb.

The dirt came from the hole in the ground that will become Fountain Place.

No mud was found or flung during Tuesday's ground-breaking ceremonies for the site of Cincinnati's retailing future.

When it was Fountain Square West, it was a snake-bit money pit in the heart of town. Beginning in 1982, no less than $45 million in tax money went down the hole in dashed dreams to save downtown with malls, skyscrapers, hotels, hi-tech movie theaters, an aquarium and even a conservatory with plastic plants. Turning into a paved-over folly, it became the world's most expensive parking lot.

Where Fountain Square West stood for failure, Fountain Place stands for success. After 14 years of delays, it's where something is finally going to happen in a sleek modern structure of steel, glass and concrete whose art-deco touches mirror its next-door neighbor, the Carew Tower.

Fountain Place is the future home of a new Lazarus store, specialty shops and a Fifth Third Bank tower. On this piece of prime real estate rests the hopes that downtown can still be a place to shop.

''I hope it works,'' said Jim Moore of Price Hill. A former window washer who cleaned the panes of buildings on Fountain Square, he was killing time between doctor appointments by doing a guy thing - watching the construction workers.

''Downtown needs this to succeed,'' he said, looking at a bulldozer muddy its treads as it ripped up blacktop from the old Fountain Square West parking lot. ''It needs Fountain Place to draw people down here to live, work and shop.''

No mud allowed

The ground-breaking was a dirt-free event. It took place across the street under a tent on Fountain Square and out of the elements - rain, sleet, snow, a little hail and even some sunshine.

During 15 minutes of speeches, thank-yous and congratulations, 27 chrome-plated shovels leaned against a tent pole.

Jon Welage, a maintenance technician for downtown developer Duke Realty Investments, guarded the shovels. He divided his attention between listening to the speeches and watching the heavy machinery across the street.

''I normally shop at Tri-County,'' he said. ''But when those new stores are built over there, I'll come downtown to check them out. They'll be part of what's new down here along with two new stadiums on the riverfront.''

Close by the shovels, 24 white hard hats lined the base of the square's flag pole. The hats had never been worn. At the end of the ceremonies - which attracted a crowd of 200, about the same number of shoppers visiting the old Lazarus store in a day - the hard hats remained untouched by human heads.

Not one dignitary's dainty finger grabbed a shovel. No bigwig put on a hard hat. No one turned over a speck of dirt.

''We used air-dirt,'' quipped Dan Staton, CEO of the Cincinnati Development Group, the consortium transforming a parking lot into Fountain Place.

''We're all baby boomers. As kids, we played air-guitar to rock 'n' roll. So, as adults, we can use air-dirt at ground-breakings.'' And, leave the dirty work to the pros.

Across Vine Street, a track hoe dug into the red earth below Fifth and Vine. Its engine roaring, the hoe scooped up a mound of mud and dropped it into a waiting dump truck.

The truck pulled away. Every bump it hit left a clod of dirt on the street.

Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls watched this scene from the skywalk.

''I'm so happy to see this,'' she said, smiling as the sun shone between showers. ''For years, I told everyone: Have faith. This plan is going to become a reality. And it's not going to stand alone.''

That's the key to Fountain Place. It is not the be-all, end-all for downtown. It's just one piece in the puzzle. It fits with the Aronoff Center and its Backstage area, the expansion of the library and the growing residential district around Garfield Place, the Main Street entertainment district in Over-the-Rhine and the building of two new stadiums on the riverfront.

Put them all together. They show a downtown coming back to life.

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.