Friday, April 30, 1999

Campaign builds for Sabin expansion


Consultants seek funding without a tax vote

BY MICHAEL HAWTHORNE and LUCY MAY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As the annual luncheon of the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau drew to a close, a music video blared from giant TV screens.

INFOGRAPHIC
A look at the proposed expansion
        People may not have caught the lyrics. But like the February event itself, the words were carefully scripted to build support for a $325 million expansion of the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center.

        The election-style sales pitch has been honed during the past year by politically connected consultants paid $25,000 a month to revive the project, which has languished as area leaders focused on building new stadiums for the Bengals and Reds.

        Their message: Cincinnati must expand the center or risk falling behind other cities in the hunt for lucrative convention business.

        Employing a mix of upbeat boosterism and threats, the Columbus-based consultants bombarded luncheon participants with computer-generated graphics and videotaped testimonials from Hamilton County Commission President Tom Neyer Jr., Ohio Senate President Richard Finan and Procter & Gamble Chairman John Pepper.

        Then came the video:

        You can tell that we've got what it takes, to get back in the race. And you can't help believin' there's a new day shinin' through. But to keep the good times comin' you know what we've gotta do.

        What the expansion's backers failed to mention, at least officially, is what they want taxpayers to do: Finance a sizable chunk of the project through higher hotel taxes, a new city restaurant tax and money from state and local governments — all funding sources that would not require a vote of the people.

        While supporters have yet to agree on specific ways to fund the expansion, the video and presentation were designed to swing momentum their way.

        “You have very few opportunities to really make a good impression,” said Michael J. Wilson, president of the convention bureau.

        “We felt it was a key opportunity,” Mr. Wilson said. “The timing was key. We needed to make a statement here — needed to bring the project to life.”

        Unable to revive the idea themselves, backers of the expansion hired the consultants to find and sell ways to finance the project without asking voters for a general tax increase, as Hamilton County commissioners did for the two sports stadiums in 1996.

        The presentation, which cost about $64,000, was the first public display of the lobbying effort. Most of the work has been conducted quietly in meetings during the past year with key political and business leaders.

        “It's a lot like the advocacy effort you do to sell a product or a candidate,” said David Milenthal, one of the consultants working for the convention bureau.

        Mindful of T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Shoot Me, I Voted for the Stadium Tax,” the consultants conducted interviews with small groups to back up their premise that voters are too angry to back another massive public works project.

        Instead, the consultants have embarked on a form of shuttle diplomacy, trying to line up enough support from private donors to secure funding commitments from city, county and state officials.

        “It doesn't matter if it's the restaurant association or the county commissioners, everybody needs to be involved,” said Dennis Wojtanowski, another Columbus consultant working on the project. “They are all dominoes. Individuals will have to decide whether the collective weight of the dominoes will lead them to get involved.”

        Everything is scripted, from the order in which contributions should be collected (private first, to build pressure for public dollars), to what public officials tell citizens. (“Neyer wants to see what he is going to be saying,” says one memo about the luncheon plans. “Attached are the remarks for Mayor (Roxanne) Qualls,” says another.)

A familiar plan
        If the strategy appears familiar, it's because Mr. Milenthal has become a behind-the-scenes fixture in Cincinnati politics. His company, HMS Partners, engineered the successful campaign for the stadium tax and the initiative to keep the Reds stadium on the riverfront.

        This time he brought in an affiliated firm, HMS Success, to add lobbying muscle. Other consultants working on the convention center project include Curt Steiner, chief of staff for former Gov. George Voinovich, and Mr. Wojtanowski, a Columbus contract lobbyist.

        The group also has enlisted the services of Greg Browning, a former state budget director, and Jim Underwood, a former Columbus bureau chief for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

        To date, HMS Success has been paid more than $240,000 by the convention bureau for lobbying and public relations work. Mr. Underwood has a $75,000 contract with the city to develop the funding plan.

        Before HMS was brought in, the city and convention bureau paid other consultants a combined $277,500 for public relations, opinion surveys and an updated study of the center's economic impact.

        Among the documents produced by the previous consultants was a report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers that recommends expanding the 246,000-square-foot convention center to 640,000 square feet. A larger center could generate $312 million a year in economic benefits for Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio, Northern Kentucky and Kentucky, the report concludes.

Taxpayer complaint
        “It is just so incestuous — the relationship we have where taxpayers are forced to fund studies that force us to raise taxes,” said Chris Finney, an anti-tax activist and former chairman of Hamilton County's Tax Levy Review Committee.

        Mr. Finney opposes public financing of the expansion at a time when so many other major public projects are under way. And he doesn't like the use of tax dollars — even hotel and motel tax dollars — to pay for the studies and consultants.

        But Mr. Wilson said that characterization of using tax dollars to try to get more tax dollars for the project doesn't “ring true to me at all.”

        “You're going to employ the best people you can to get the job done,” he said.

        Mr. Neyer likened the consultants' role to that of a project manager for a major construction project, saying, “the expertise that is required is different at this conceptual stage, but it's no less important than the type of expertise needed at the construction stage.”

        But some question the results of the consultants' yearlong effort.

        “I really have no comment on the appropriateness of using them,” said Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin, who has opposed the use of county tax dollars to help fund the expansion. “All I know is they have a plan that doesn't seem to work.”

        Sharonville Mayor Virgil Lovitt II said he doesn't understand why the consultants and convention and visitors bureau officials haven't talked to suburbs, especially if they want regional support and funding.

        “If they're paying consultants to convince us, it might make more sense to ask us what it takes to convince us,” he said. “It might be cheaper.”

Lining up support
        The city's economic development department hired Mr. Underwood to see what other cities did that might work here and to jump-start the stalled project, said Andi Udris, economic development director for the city of Cincinnati.

        The consultant's interim report didn't do that. Rather, it confirmed the department's own research.

        “We wanted more,” Mr. Udris said. “There were no surprises in that report.”

        If they haven't been able to broker an agreement on the financing plan, the consultants at least have lined up support for the concept.

        The Cincinnati Business Committee, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Cincinnati Inc. have endorsed the expansion as the area's top priority for economic development.

        Moreover, seven of nine members of city council have endorsed the project.

        “I don't think anybody locally could do this,” Mr. Wojtanowski said. “We are not burdened by any local baggage. I've gotten incredibly close to people who aren't terribly fond of each other.”

        Once the private funding sources are lined up, Mr. Wojtanowski is expected to return to more familiar ground in Columbus, where the convention bureau is expected to seek legislative approval for changes in state law that would authorize the hotel and restaurant taxes.

        The consultants have talked to Mr. Finan about securing $30 million in state capital funds and a $15 million low-interest state loan. They also have prepared a two-page briefing paper for Gov. Bob Taft.

        Mr. Finan said proponents could have a tough time winning support for both the tax changes and state money.

        “They have a lot of people they need to talk to,” he said. “This isn't going to be easy.”

        John Williams, president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and a strong supporter of the expansion, said consultants are vital to carry the project through, even if the effort includes an MTV-style music video.

        “Having an independent consultant working on a project like this leads to more candid answers from politicians and business leaders,” he said. “I think some of that (video) stuff is kind of hokey, frankly. But if you're going to pay consultants, you ought to listen to them or get somebody else.”

        Even though proponents have yet to announce a single dollar to pay for the project, Mr. Milenthal said he and his colleagues are worth the effort.

        “I think it's an enormous skill, 25 years in the making from countless political and issue campaigns,” Mr. Milenthal said. “If this one works, the money we've been paid will be a very small investment that will reap gains for everybody.”

- Feb. 20 story: $325 Sabin expansion urged



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