Friday, March 24, 2000

Emery vies for state funding

Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Nearly a decade after Ohio lawmakers diverted $5 million intended to renovate the Emery Theater, supporters of the Over-the-Rhine landmark are asking the state again to help complete the long-delayed project.

        Their request is the latest addition to an already burgeoning list of Cincinnati-area civic projects vying for a share of the state's $1.7 billion construction budget. A portion of it is spread around the state every two years for sports stadiums, museums, bike paths and other community improvements.

        The theater's supporters say they should get special consideration because the last appropriation ended up going to construction projects at the University of Cincinnati, which owns the Emery and the former College of Applied Science building next door.

        But with more money for the Bengals and Reds stadiums topping the region's agenda, some civic leaders fear the Emery could siphon money away from other projects, such as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center planned for Cincinnati's riverfront and the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) downtown.

        “I would love to see the Emery restored,” Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken said this week. “I also think it needs to get in line.”

        The behind-the-scenes competition between groups pushing a common goal — downtown development — highlights the political deal-brokering that often dictates winners and losers in the battle for taxpayer dollars.

        Coordinating an aggressive campaign on behalf of the Emery is former Senate PresidentStanley Aronoff, a Cincinnati Republican who also is lobbying for money for the Freedom Center, the CAC, the Cincinnati Ballet and the Institute for Applied Manufacturing Sciences in Bond Hill.

        Relying on Mr. Aronoff's influence, the nonprofit Emery Center Corp. has enlisted dozens of supporters, including U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, to urge Gov. Bob Taft and Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, to secure funding.

        Ironically, Mr. Aronoff also played a role in delaying the Emery restoration a decade ago.

        In 1988, as chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, Mr. Aronoff secured $4.5 million for the Emery. As Senate president two years later, he made sure another half-million was set aside for the project.

        Beth Sullebarger, executive director of the Emery Center Corp., said private financing for the restoration fell through after downtown leaders decided to build what became the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts.

        State money for the Emery was to be funneled through UC. With the project on hold, Mr. Aronoff helped the university divert $3.2 million of the original appropriation to a building that houses the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning.

        UC trustees were so grateful for the transfer and other state money they named the building for Mr. Aronoff.

        The university used another $1.4 million slated for the Emery to renovate French Hall for University College, according to state records. Of the total amount allocated for the theater, $400,000 went to planning the restoration.

        “We needed to address critical problems in other projects that required immediate solutions,” UC President Joe Steger wrote in 1995 to Lorrence Kellar, then a Kroger Co. executive who served on the Emery Center Board of Trustees.

        Supporters of the Emery revived the project after UC left the building next door to the theater, which is being converted into apartments.

        They say the now-shuttered 1,700-seat theater is needed as a mid-size performing space for the Cincinnati Opera, the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and the Cincinnati Men's Chorus.

        A plan drafted by arts consultants would preserve the fine acoustics and historic status while bringing the venue up to current standards. The project would cost $17.5 million, including the $5 million in state money its supporters are requesting.

        Cincinnati is expected to get about $30 million from the $130 million set aside for community projects. The sports stadiums are in line for $20 million to $25 million.


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