Wednesday, May 30, 2001

Convention center expansion delayed

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The $325 million expansion of the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center will be delayed at least one more year because Ohio lawmakers didn't pass legislation needed to tax Hamilton County's hotels and restaurants.

        That blasts a $100.5 million hole in the expansion funding plan — the latest setback to a project that downtown business leaders have described as the city's top development priority.

        Now downtown businesses and hotels, anxious for a new shot of economic help, fear that another delay will cost them as lucrative conventions choose competing cities like Indianapolis and Louisville over Cincinnati.

   (in millions)
   Business community ... $20M
   Equity Fund ... $10M
   City hotel tax ... $17.9M
   Delta Air Lines ... $29.2M
   Cincinnati ... $50.8M
   Kentucky/Indiana ... $10M
   Ohio state loan ... $15M
   Hamilton County ... $50.8M
   Countywide hotel tax ... $34.7M
   City restaurant tax ... $65.8M
   State capital funds ... $30M
   Total ... $334.2M
Source: Mayor Charlie Luken's convention center expansion task force
        Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, who championed the cause two years ago as a Cincinnati city councilman, said he is disappointed by the stalled expansion.

        “Virtually nothing has been done,” Mr. Portune said.

        Since city and business leaders sang the project's praises during a February 1999 confetti-laced pep rally, key players still don't agree on the expanded center's size, direction or funding.

        The challenges include lack of funding and little consensus:

        • Hamilton County officials are unconvinced that the project will be the antidote for the city's and Hamilton County's struggling tax coffers as proponents contend.

        • Mayor Charlie Luken's expansion task force favors an expansion west over Interstate 75, but federal transportation officials have warned that move will be costly. A national planning group, Urban Land Institute, said the expansion should be smaller and target different types of conventions.

        • African-American leaders are urging the project be delayed or forgotten until more urgent problems in economically depressed neighborhoods are addressed.

        State Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, said too many questions linger about the expanded center's size, direction and funding to win approval of state lawmakers.

        “We still have some homework to do on the issues,” said Mr. Cates, the No. 2 Republican in the Ohio House of Representatives. “I doubt this will come up before next spring.”

        Expansion proponents were counting on new legislation in the state's budget allowing a 1 percent sales tax hike at county hotels and restaurants.

        Proponents say the expansion is progressing despite the mounting problems.


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