Friday, February 26, 1999

Convention center could plant seed of regionalism

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The proposed expansion of Cincinnati's convention center will test our ability to act like a region.

        Pass the test, and we can use this project as a blueprint for joining forces and tackling other area-wide projects, from landing new businesses to developing light rail.

        Fail, and Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky will continue to fall behind regions that have learned the benefits of cooperation.

        Both sides of the river will benefit from the convention center expansion. Increasing the center's size could cost $350 million. Projections have put annual sales generated by an expanded center at $583 million, including $33 million for Northern Kentucky and $35 million for the Bluegrass state. But will both sides of the river pay their share of the expanded center's price tag?

        Talking with people involved with the proposed expansion, people on both sides of the Ohio, I learned that the spirit of cooperation is willing. But it needs to be refined.

        “We have to create a public and private partnership, including all aspects of government on both sides of the river, to fund this expansion,” Todd Garrett told me. The P&G executive and chairman of the Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau called such a partnership, “a grand collaboration.”

        With that grand collaboration, Greater Cincinnati could become a model for what city-planner types call regionalism.

        The benefits from this collaboration could be used for such future ventures as sharing utilities, attracting new businesses and linking the area with some form of mass transportation, be it light rail or monorail.

        For this to work, old barriers must be broken down. And so must old habits.

Powerful players
        The odds of this grand collaboration becoming a reality are better than they have been for years. People who see the value of regionalism occupy important positions of power.

        Hamilton County has its own contingent in Columbus, including Gov. Bob Taft and Richard Finan presiding over the state senate. As a county judge-executive, Ken Lucas was one of Northern Kentucky's original proponents of regionalism. Now, he represents the Bluegrass state's 4th District in Congress.

        “Downtown Cincinnati is everybody's downtown,” Mr. Lucas told me. “Business and civic leaders on both sides of the river must work out finances for this convention center project.”

        At the same time, he added, those leaders must not forget projects on the southern shore. “Those bridges to Northern Kentucky are two-way streets.”

        Someone should tell that to the Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau. Ken Lucas told me he was not invited to the bureau's annual luncheon Tuesday. That's where plans for the convention center's expansion were unveiled.

        Guest lists — who's on them and who's not — are vitally important in launching any venture.

        If you want someone to come to a party, and hope to convince them to pay for part of the shindig, you must send them an invitation.

Both sides now
        For this adventure in regionalism to succeed, both sides of the river must approach it as a win-win proposition.

        An increase in the hotel-motel room tax for Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey helped underwrite the bonds for Philadelphia's new convention center. A variation on that tax, or a sin tax on alcohol and cigarettes, may likely be the financial plan here, involving communities on both sides of the river.

        But, given the money would go for a building in downtown Cincinnati, there must be some way to make the deal attractive to everyone. And it's that kind of thinking that will make a regional solution viable.

        We need to learn new habits (like inviting everyone to the party) and new ways of doing business (on a regional scale) to keep Greater Cincinnati in the top tier of American cities.

        If the convention center expansion becomes a reality, the real benefit could be a true regional identity finally taking root.

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

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