Wednesday, November 24, 1999

Qualls says goodbye to City Hall

Mayor reflects on eight years on council before her last council meeting today

The Cincinnati Enquirer

With her boxes packed, Mayor Roxanne Qualls is ready to move out of her City Hall office.
(Saed Hindash photo)
| ZOOM |
        Eight years ago, an idealistic Roxanne Qualls walked into Cincinnati City Hall and took her seat as a council member.

        A neighborhood activist, this was a new chance to help others, to make a difference.

        “It was the most exciting day of my entire life,” Ms. Qualls, 46, said.

        Her emotions these days are mixed.

        She will preside over her last council meeting this afternoon and by tonight vacate the mayor's office she has occupied since 1993. There is a new excitement about opportunities ahead. But because term limits don't permit another two years in of fice, Ms. Qualls is leaving a job she loves.

        On Tuesday, she spent a portion of her day recalling her time in Cincinnati politics — and preparing for a future away from it.

        When Ms. Qualls looks back at her tenure in City Hall, she lists the massive redevelopment of the riverfront and efforts to improve the city's chronically low rate of home ownership among her proudest work. They also top the list of projects left undone.

        “When you take on long-range projects, you realize that,” Ms. Qualls said.

        The city has built up momentum and for the first time

        in about a decade is attracting interest from developers, she said. Ms. Qualls hopes members of the next City Council, to be sworn in on Dec. 1, will work together and complete these projects.

        Like most cities, Cincinnati faces a number of problems, Ms. Qualls said. She fears that:

        • The 2000 Census will find that more city neighborhoods will be mired in poverty.

        • The incomes of the city's households will fall further below neighboring communities'.

        • Minorities will be left out of the opportunities spurred by economic growth.

        “There is a lot of unfinished business,” Ms. Qualls said.

        She takes offense at some of the criticism heaped on city leaders. While there has been bickering and contention in the past decade, the city has stemmed decades of neglect in its neighborhoods, started the riverfront redevelopment and looked at a regional approach to problems and solutions, she said.

        What the city needs is a strong coalition to form on council that will work to get things done, Ms. Qualls said. There are a number of large projects still out there that need addressed, from a new convention center to a rail transportation system.

        “These are projects that we really need the city to take the leadership on,” Ms. Qualls said.

        She also expressed concern about the state of race relations in Cincinnati.

        “We have one of the most rigid social hierarchies of any city in the country,” Ms. Qualls said, adding that what will break that down is an economy that is inclusive to all. Too many minorities who are professionals leave Cincinnati because they feel opportunities are lacking, she said.

        Both Cincinnati and its mayor have changed over the years. Before she was elected to council in 1991, the city was emerging from tough economic times. There was little visible cooperation between the city and its neighboring communities.

        Ms. Qualls had worked for the Ohio Public Interest Campaign, helping residents fight pollution. Her efforts often took her before Cincinnati City Council. “I often left frustrated,” she said. It's what prompted her to run.

        Now Ms. Qualls is a polished leader who attracts the support of downtown's business leaders as well as those pushing social issues in the neighborhoods. Yet today, much like eight years ago, she remains passionate when it comes to Cincinnati, said Sheila Adams, chief executive of the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati.

        “She is a woman who has served her city with dignity and a passion,” said Ms. Adams, who has known the mayor for about 12 years. Ms. Qualls held Mayor's Night In in her City Hall office, a sort of open house for residents with complaints.

        For years, neighbors of the gritty Carthage Mills factory complained about the grime and noise. Then two years ago, neighbors approached Ms. Qualls.

        Soon, the factory will be torn down to make way for new homes. The businesses will be relocated to expand. Fran Burns, one of the neighbors pushing for the factory's demolition, credits Ms. Qualls for getting the project under way.

        “She is an angel on our shoulder,” Ms. Burns said.

        “It was her knowledge, her drive, her ability to work with people,” added Ms. Burns, who has met regularly with the mayor the past two years pushing the project.

        When Ms. Qualls looks back at her first years on council, she describes herself as being naive. Her political roots were in public policy organizations. She relied upon a political support system of environmentalists, rights activists and neighborhood leaders.

        Her relationship with some of her peers on council was certainly contentious, said Nick Vehr, a Republican who served on council in the early 1990s and formed a working coalition with Ms. Qualls.

        “She was as tough in the fights at City Hall as anyone could be,” said Mr. Vehr, who now heads the effort to lure the Olympics to Cincinnati in 2012. “But she was also more than willing to find common ground. She understood she had to work across party lines.”

        It was that kind of cooperation that Ms. Qualls is encouraging among the council members she leaves behind.

        When the realities of term limits set in a few years back, she was anxious. She compared it to a grieving process, when she would lose something she had cared about.

        But she has found another way of contributing. She is now teaching a course, “Theories of Change,” on cities and planning at the University of Cincinnati. And at the beginning of 2000, she will serve a fellowship at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.

        As she packed up eight years of her life into cardboard boxes that litter her City Hall office, Ms. Qualls did not want to dwell on the past.

        “The closer I get to walking out of my office, the more excited I get,” Ms. Qualls said.


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