Holidays are a great chance to help fountain

Monday, November 23, 1998

Good thing the bronze lady atop the Tyler Davidson Fountain is firmly bolted in place.

If the Genius of Water could get loose, she'd leave Fountain Square, visit City Hall and plant a footprint on a few bureaucratic backsides.

The lady would be well within her rights. A kick in the pants is in order. The city has been going real slow deciding how to raise money for restoring the Tyler Davidson Fountain, the city's most recognizable landmark.

Fountain Square soon will be bustling. During the holiday season 250,000 visitors stop by. Passersby could drop a buck in a bucket to save the fountain, our fountain. But that's not likely to happen.

"We planned to have a presence, a booth maybe, on the square," said Kevin Shepard, Cincinnati's director of general services. "But the fund-raising plan hit a few snags."

The snags - including hiring a professional fund-raiser who quit because of personal problems - ate up lots of precious time. Five long months have passed since the news of the fountain's sorry state appeared first in this column. The news in June was bad. Our fountain, a gift to the people of Cincinnati, was falling apart.

The lady's bronze skin was peeling, her base rust-covered. Her pipes leaked and her foundation was crumbling. Propped by thick wooden beams deep within her innards, she was in danger of collapsing.

At the time, city officials said a communitywide fund-raising effort would start in September. Plans called for raising $1.5 million to fix the fountain and another $1 million to create an endowment fund to make sure she would be in great shape for her 200th birthday in the year 2071.

September has come and gone. The fountain's water is off for the winter. On Friday, a Christmas tree will light the square. But no kettle will be set up to take contributions for restoring the fountain.

Generosity needed

The city's fund-raising campaign has yet to kick off. And the delay has gone on so long, the Genius of Water might start practicing her drop kicks.

Since the lady is otherwise engaged, I asked Kevin Shepard for a fund-raising progress report. His report didn't contain much progress.

If the city gets lucky and quickly finds another professional fund-raiser, the money-gathering phase of the restoration could start after the first of the year. Work might start in May. If the fountain's still standing.

"We're regrouping," Kevin told me. He hopes someone will do the fund-raising as a charitable freebie.

How apropos. In 1871, Henry Probasco honored the memory of his brother-in-law, Tyler Davidson, by giving the fountain - as a medallion under the Genius of Water's feet reads - "to the people of Cincinnati."

The fountain's restoration needs a latter-day Henry Probasco. Someone universally liked and trusted. I nominate Gene Ruehlmann. The former mayor could raise corporate funds.

One of our city's civic-spirited public relations firms could create a campaign to solicit funds from the people. Money could be raised by setting up a camera at the fountain and charging $5 to have your photo taken in front of the bronze lady. Or a dollar could get you a button that reads: "I saved our fountain."

Kevin Shepard believes "the will is out there for the public to participate." Even without an organized drive, $94,065.15 has come in through private gifts and a $50,000 donation from Fifth Third Bank. Contributions still trickle in to Fifth Third locations and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

Gifts for the Lady

With every day, the holiday season draws closer. Ice skaters will soon share the square with elves, bell ringers, jugglers dressed as reindeer.

And visitors. Lots of people with out-of-town relatives in tow will take their once-a-year trip downtown to see the city's front room, the fountain, our fountain.

When these visitors hit town, I hope they find the city has a booth on the square detailing the bronze lady's restoration. An attendant could be on hand - I'd volunteer to work a shift - to explain the cost. Donations would be welcome.

After all, this is the season for giving.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.