Obstinate Tarbell isn't helping Reds

Thursday, June 18, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim Tarbell has made his case. Now he ought to make his exit.

The primal force pushing Broadway Commons as a ballpark site has conducted a brilliant campaign, but he has lately revealed himself to be a lousy loser. Having failed to convince the Cincinnati Reds of Broadway's bounty, Tarbell is now increasingly inclined to mutiny. He threatens to fight the riverfront plans with a petition drive, a zoning battle and Lord-knows-what-else.

Broadway's Bald Belligerent is like a spurned suitor who responds by taking the woman hostage. If the Reds won't go along willingly, Tarbell is determined to drag them.

His maneuvers are perfectly legal, and probably appropriate to a project involving so much public funding. But these efforts can no longer serve much purpose other than to delay and complicate construction. What began as a noble grassroots effort is rapidly becoming a nuisance.

Tarbell's uptown vision has gained broad consensus and the endorsement of various experts. What he has failed to do is convince the Reds that his idea is in their best interests.

This is, in the end, a pretty insurmountable obstacle.

Choice is Reds' to make

No matter how many people praise Broadway Commons, no matter how many politicians embrace its expediency, the decision on the Reds' future home ultimately comes down to where the Reds will agree to go.

Location is among the most critical decisions of any business that relies on public patronage. When Lazarus agreed to a subsidized downtown department store, the deal was contingent on a coveted site: Fountain Square West. When Gucci went global, it did not immediately open an outlet in the South Bronx.

If the Reds fear their customers may feel uncomfortable in Over-The-Rhine -- and they do -- it is lamentable, but it is also a legitimate concern. Any factor that threatens attendance, real or perceived, is a risk the team must weigh.

Taxpayers want to believe their interests are being protected in these negotiations, and the Broadway crowd expects the greater good to be the common goal. The fact is that no political body can impose its priorities on a private enterprise.

What may work best for the city requires a leap of faith the Reds are unwilling to make. What works best for the Reds may involve few residual benefits for the rest of us.

The ballclub is operating in an exponentially expensive baseball business. If it is deserving of public subsidy -- which is what the sales tax vote was essentially about -- those funds should be spent so the franchise can flourish.

Best in the long run

The Reds might be wrong about the riverfront. A new ballpark could be built several years sooner at the Broadway site, and would presumably provide an infusion of cash that would make the team more competitive more quickly.

But it is by no means certain that Broadway would be better for the Reds in the long run. What the Reds' John Allen envisions is not a neighborhood ballpark but a ballpark that is its own neighborhood. The model here is Atlanta's Turner Field, which includes shops and restaurants as well as Braves baseball.

Urban development is an admirable goal, but it could run contrary to the Reds' desire to maximize their own revenues. Allen is not interested in creating competition for himself, but in creating an attractive environment for a captive consumer; Disney World with dugouts.

To that end, the Reds believe their bottom line will be healthier if they remain on the riverfront. It says here they have a right to that opinion, even if it's wrong. It's their business at stake, after all.

But Jim Tarbell is a populist with no tolerance for dissent. He won't accept that the Reds could reach a conclusion that conflicts with his, and he appears determined to browbeat them into accepting Broadway.

He can't win, and he won't get out of the way. If he wants to run the Reds, he should buy them.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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