Friday, June 30, 2000

Batsakes casualty of city planning

Family-owned dry cleaner a local institution

Spartans live to work. The Batsakes are Spartans. "We don't miss work for nothing,'' said dry cleaner George Batsakes. Except when Cincinnati, the town that can't think straight, makes a muddle of downtown development. New stores receive handsome subsidies from City Hall while old firms get the shaft.

Such unfair treatment leaves the owners of J&G Batsakes Dry Cleaners with no choice. They're going out of business.

Owners George and Jim Batsakes and George's son, Peter.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
For 93 years, three generations of this family, so proud of its Greek heritage and work ethic, have done business at the corner of Sixth and Walnut.

First they peddled fruit. Then they shined shoes, sold hats and cleaned clothes.

Batsakes (pronounced BAT-sakes) dry cleaners became a Cincinnati institution. Through hard work and long hours, the Batsakes earned a reputation for excellence and expertise as they established a tradition of service and smiles.

Today, that tradition ends.

After they lock their door at 7 p.m. Batsakes' co-owners, brothers George and Jim Batsakes - along with George's son, Peter - will not take in any more Cincinnatians' clothes that are stained, spotted and rumpled yarning yearning to be cleaned and pressed.

They'll dry-clean what's left in their store. Then they'll close.

Another Cincinnati institution gone. Another victim of poor city planning.

On Wednesday, I wrote a column about the city not having a comprehensive plan for developing downtown. With no plan, the city loses its identity and its character. Confusion reigns.

In the column, I facetiously called for changing Cincinnati's nickname from "The Queen City of the West'' to "The Town That Can't Think Straight.''

I never dreamed Batsakes would be the next casualty of the city's confusion. I knew the city wanted the futuristic Contemporary Arts Center building to go where Batsakes stands. Negotiations were still in progress. There was hope Batsakes would move elsewhere downtown.

Word of the dry cleaners' plan to close dashed that hope. Gus Miller's Batsakes Hat Shop will stay open until the building is sold.

Early Thursday morning, as George Batsakes sorted piles of garments, I asked him about closing his family business.

"You're going to hear 100 versions of 100 stories about why we are closing,'' he said over the hiss of a steam gun.

His son, Peter, was using the gun to remove spots from a pair of linen slacks.

Next to Peter, his Uncle Jim was working on a badly stained blouse.

They were in the middle of the dry cleaners' morning shift. It was 7:30 a.m. George had started at 4:30 a.m.

"I tell you, we are Spartans,'' he said. ""We live to work.''

They work with broken bones. When George broke his wrist, he had part of the cast cut away so he could hold the steam gun.

They work through pain and throughout the day. Among the three Batsakes, they have put in 126 years of 12-hour shifts and 70-hour weeks.

George gave these reasons for closing:

"It's time.

"We fought it with lawsuits. We just made the lawyers rich.

"I'm tired,'' he added. "My brother, Jim, is tired, too. I'm 70. He's 71.

"I need a hip replacement. I haven't had a vacation in three years.''

None of the Batsakes would say anything bad about the way they have been treated by the city.

They didn't have to. The numbers say it all.

The city offered Batsakes $20,000 - the standard amount - to help find a new location.

The Batsakes need "at least $200,000 to move our equipment and buy new pieces,'' Peter said as he shot another jet of steam.

Nordstrom is getting $26 million from City Hall to come to town.

Walgreens got $3.7 million from the city when a promised location didn't materialize.

Batsakes gets a $20,000 offer.

Shabby treatment for a Cincinnati institution.

For 93 years, Batsakes stayed in Cincinnati, paid its taxes, brought customers to town.

"Every day we have 200-300 people walk through this door,'' Peter said.

The money can be found to pay off Walgreens or bring in a Nordstrom store that has never done a thing for Cincinnati except hold out its hand for millions in corporate welfare.

But for Batsakes, it's $20,000. Take it or leave it.

George told me of one relocation plan proposed by Downtown Cincinnati Inc. Batsakes would have a plant in Over-the-Rhine and a storefront drop-off spot downtown.

"But we'd be paying rent, which we don't do now,'' George said, "and we wouldn't be in the heart of downtown.''

Today, George's heart is not in downtown.

After he gets his hip replaced and takes a little vacation - "I'm just going to stay home and rest'' - he's considering going back to work.

"I might open a little dry cleaners up the road,'' he said. His shop would be in Western Hills, near his home and far, far away from the corner of Sixth and Walnut.

"I've had enough,'' George said, "of downtown.''

Who can blame him.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at (513) 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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