Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Merchants need cash, new image

By Ken Alltucker and Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Over-the-Rhine business owners say immediate cash and an image make-over are desperately needed to sustain a neighborhood scarred by a week of rioting.

Police investigator Joe Milek returns a couple of stolen lamps to Gerald Mallin, co-owner of Leader Furniture Co.
(Gary Landers photos)
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        The biggest challenge for businesses struggling to keep afloat is persuading people to return to shop, eat in and visit one of the city's poorest areas.

        Without immediate assistance, businesses say they will fail or move to the suburbs.

        “I need some help,” said William Edwards, co-owner of the Millennium stereo and general merchandise shop on Vine Street, “because I can't wait three weeks for paper to be shuffled around while leaders play political backgammon.”

        After hearing offers of low-interest loans and other programs during a Tuesday meeting arranged by Cincinnati Business Incubator, store owners told community leaders they would prefer grants over being saddled with more debt.

        Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune wants the county to match the city's aid plan — $1 million in low-interest loans and $250,000 in grants. Mr. Portune suggested the business community kick in an equal amount.

Neil Luken, owner of Charles Bare & Sons in Findlaty Market, says the city needs to offer financial assistance to spur economic growth.
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        Arson fires damaged $290,595 worth of property last week in Cincinnati, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Kroeger said Tuesday. He hasn't determined whether all were riot-related.

        Most fires were outdoors in trash bins or on streets, so they caused little property damage. Of last week's 359 fires, 210 were outdoors, 32 were vehicles and 117 were at homes and businesses.

        Wednesday night was the busiest for fire crews. They chased 150 fire and 108 emergency medical dispatches. The extra activity resulted in an overtime bill of $75,500.

        Two fire stations and seven vehicles were damaged with rocks and bottles - adding thousands more to the toll.

        City leaders still haven't added the cost of broken windows, looted storefronts and lost sales in Over-the-Rhine, West End, Madisonville, Avondale, Walnut Hills and downtown.

  Firstar Bank and the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce have launched a special loan program to help businesses hurt by last week's unrest. The bank's prime rate of 8 percent is available on loans between $2,500 and $100,000. For information, call 361-8260 or stop at two Firstar Bank branches, 125 E. Court St. or 1420 Sycamore St.
        Economic Development Director Evonne Kovach expects to know today the number of businesses affected. More than 120 stores and offices were damaged.

        Over-the-Rhine business owners say lack of sales — not costly repairs — is the biggest threat.

        Mr. Edwards' store was open during the most harrowing moments. His store closed each evening before the curfew kicked in.

        But few customers walked into the store. Looters were scampering down the street ahead of plastic bullets and beanbags shot by armed police in riot gear.

        “My damage was financial,” Mr. Edwards said. “Not physical.”

        David Ginsburg, of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., said an immediate advertising campaign should be launched to bolster sales. The area must draw suburbanites to Main Street, Vine Street and Findlay Market.

        Findlay merchants are nervous about how well the outdoor market will do this week. Many are busy repairing damage. Others are recovering stolen goods.

        Gerald Mallin, owner of Leader Furniture at Findlay Market, was in mid-sentence when a Cincinnati police squad car pulled up.

        The trunk sprang open, and officers began returning lamps and other items that were stolen last week during the riots. Police had received an anonymous call that an Over-the-Rhine man was trying to sell the items out of his apartment. They were recovered there.

        “I appreciate this so much,” Mr. Mallin told District 1 investigator Joe Milek. “People do care. It's great.”

        Leader has been at 130 West Elder for 38 years. Now, its front windows are boarded up, and walk-in traffic has slowed to a crawl.

        Damage to the storefront is in the thousands, Mr. Mallin said, but the real economic loss grows each week that business is down.

        “We're still having trouble convincing people that we're open,” said Mr. Mallin, who has placed radio ads to make his plea. “It's been very hard.”

        Mr. Mallin and Neil Luken, owner of Charles Bare & Sons in the market, agreed the city needs to offer financial assistance to spur economic growth.

        Mr. Luken, 37, has been working at Findlay Market since he was 12. He remains optimistic, but he was quick to point out how much can change in a mere week.

        “It's amazing,” he said, “to think that a week before this happened, we had the (Reds) Opening Day parade, with about 100,000 people here.”

        Some owners are angry about their predicament. Leonard Weinstein, owner of Barr's Loan pawn shop at 1724 Vine St., said about $100,000 in merchandise was stolen. The shop was raided repeatedly, most recently Easter Sunday.

        During Tuesday's meeting, Mr. Weinstein rejected a suggestion that he hire youths from the neighborhood. The type of people who looted his shop aren't willing to work, he said.

        He also argued that business owners shouldn't be forced to take out a loan to pay for riot damage.

        “I need a grant,” he said, or he may be forced to close.

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