Friday, February 18, 2000

Bigg's plan will go to ballot box

Sides argue on agenda being labor-related

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLERAIN TOWNSHIP — Voters will be asked to approve or reject a development project on Colerain Avenue near Ronald Reagan Highway that would allow a Bigg's grocery store to be built.

        Both the township's zoning commission and trustees have approved redevelopment plans for the strip mall known as Crossing of Colerain to knock down much of what is there and build a Bigg's.

        Those plans were approved in October, but about 3,000 signatures of township residents were collected on a petition drive to place the issue on the March 7 ballot.

        A yes vote would approve the trustees' decision and allow Bigg's to build the store. A no vote would block it.

        Backers of Issue 12, which urges a yes vote, say the underlying motive for the petition drive and the referendum is an ongoing fight between the grocery giant and Local 1099 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

        “There is a hidden agenda here,” says Hal Silverman, president of Silverman and Co. Inc., which owns the Crossing. “It is that Bigg's is nonunion, and they just don't like Bigg's because it's nonunion.”

        But Tom Bierman of Colerain Township, a financial manager with Local 1099, said the issue at its heart involves increased traffic and that enough residents oppose it to thwart the development.

        “The main argument is traffic congestion,” Mr. Bierman said. “There is too much traffic congestion.”

        Mr. Bierman acknowledged that he had help from Local 1099 in collecting signatures, and that some of them came from outside Colerain Township. But, he said, the important point is that township res idents legitimately signed the petition.

        He acknowledged the battles between the union and Bigg's. But, he said, he would oppose any large retail merchant opening at that location.

        “They're going to hide under traffic, but the real agenda is something else,” Mr. Silverman said.

        Pierre-Albert Wevers, chief executive officer of Bigg's, agreed.

        “The reason why it's on the ballot is because it's a Bigg's,” Mr. Wevers said. “We have nonunion stores. Would we be union, we would not be on the ballot. We are not union because our employees have decided not to be represented by the union.”

        Both Mr. Silverman and Frank Birkenhauer, assistant township administrator, said a traffic study that the company had done shows a Bigg's store would attract no more traffic to Colerain Avenue than another retail merchant.

        Mr. Silverman said the Crossings is 70 percent vacant right now. Mr. Birkenhauer said a Bigg's store would increase the square footage on the property by a net of 17,000 square feet. The Bigg's would be about 68,500 square feet. About two-thirds of the mall there now would be torn down.

        “Bigg's approached us about a year ago and were very interested in the location,” Mr. Silverman said. “This would allow a high-quality, first-class, major tenant to come into the center. It would take a vacant center and make it a thriving center. They'll bring in new jobs to the community.”

        Organizations have formed both opposing and supporting the development. Mr. Bierman is a member of the Colerain Citizens Coalition; a group called Residents for Grocery Choices supports Issue 12.

        Mr. Birkenhauer said the approval of the plans did not require a change in zoning.


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