Saturday, March 10, 2001

Viability of center expansion questioned


Brent Spence Bridge project would conflict

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Plans to expand Cincinnati's convention center over Interstate 75 hit a $75 million roadblock Friday that raised questions about the project's viability.

        The problem, as outlined by state transportation officials, is that I-75 will have to be realigned to approach a replacement for the Brent Spence Bridge. Engineers say support structures for the expanded center would likely be in the path of the future highway.

[photo] An aerial view of the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center. High cost estimates have stalled expansion plans.
(Enquirer file photo)
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        They say the only foreseeable option is for designers to come up with a way to float the center like a suspension bridge over the highway, which could add as much as $75 million to the convention center's $335 million estimated budget.

        “We're back to the beginning unless someone can come up with a solution,” Kevin Shepard, the city's general services director, said after a convention-center-expansion task force meeting Friday. “It is significant.”

        If center supporters can't build a suspension bridge, or come up with an alternative, transportation officials say construction will have to wait until engineering plans for the Brent Spence Bridge replacement are finalized, which might not happen until 2005.

        “If they can give us a big enough window and stay out of our way, then we will say go ahead, just stay out of our way,” said Diana Martin, Ohio Department of Transportation planning administrator. “We can't even tell them what size that window would be.”

        The realignment is being studied by federal, state and local officials. Preliminary plans aren't expected for 18 months.

        Ms. Martin said those must be finished before Kentucky, which owns the bridge, can begin engineering studies for bridge construction.

        “Decisions have not yet been made on (the bridge). We can't give much assurance to the convention-center team about where to put piers and columns to support the convention center,” she said.

        While city and business officials have looked at expanding the convention center in other directions, they said Friday that going out over the interstate remains the best alternative, with the most available land.

        Mayor Charlie Luken described the revelations as a complicated setback for the city-owned Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center. But it is not the first one since officials first talked about doubling the size of the center to lure bigger and more high-profile conventions to the region.

        The biggest issue has been cost, and as task force member Tom Spegal said Friday, “I haven't heard of costs going down yet. Do we reach a point where it costs too much?”

        The task force, made up of business executives, community leaders, convention officials and local politicians, was set up by Mr. Luken last year to help sell the project to the public and determine the best way to pay for it.

        Cincinnati has committed $50.8 million in bonds to pay for the project. A city hotel room-tax increase would raise $17.9 million, but it would take effect only after private businesses contribute $20 million. Delta Air Lines has earmarked another $29.9 million in exchange for naming rights.

        But the city is depending on getting another $51 million from Hamilton County officials, who have been reluctant to give a nod to the plan and question the economic benefits to the county.

        The remaining financing would come from a citywide restaurant tax, a county hotel tax and state funds.

        But task-force members talked about other financing scenarios on Friday, including bumping up the hotel tax so that a visitor would pay as much as 15 percent in taxes for any room in the county.

        They also looked at a possible “sin tax,” which would be tacked on to purchases of cigarettes, beer, wine and liquor.

        While this was the first time the task force has considered hard-number alternatives for financing the center, much of it would still require the approval of reluctant county officials.

        Task force member Dan Fay, who is president of Commonwealth Hotels, said the numbers don't mean anything and nobody should be alarmed by them.

        “It's definitely something I would form an opinion on,” he said of increased hotel taxes. “But not yet. We're playing what-if scenarios.”

       



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