Sunday, September 09, 2001

Downtown awaits promised comeback

Results are slow from projects along riverfront

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The message to Hamilton County residents and downtown merchants from politicians and economists was unmistakable in March 1996.

        Pass a half-cent sales tax increase to fund two new stadiums on Cincinnati's riverfront, and a $1 billion-plus economic boom will follow, creating more jobs and triggering a downtown development renaissance.

        As the Bengals kick off the 2001 season today at taxpayer-funded Paul Brown Stadium, downtown retailers and restaurant owners recall that promise as they attempt to lure football fans into their establishments.

        Yet they realize a bustling riverfront still may be a few years away.

        “We really look forward to it,” said Nee Toy Chin, whose family owns Wah Mee Restaurant on Elm Street. “Maybe someday it will happen. I don't know when.”

        Many downtown merchants closest to the riverfront say they noticed little difference in their bottom line last year despite the opening of the stadium.

        “We were busy a few times last year on game days,” said Mary Ann Campanello, of Campanello's Restaurant on Central Avenue.

        Ms. Campanello said it defies logic to think the Bengals' eight regular-season home games will give downtown merchants a significant boost.

        She doesn't expect to see much benefit until the riverfront fills out — and city and convention officials figure out a way to expand the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center.

        “To tell the truth, I thought the convention center would be finished by now,” Ms. Campanello said. “I thought there would be something on the river. We are so behind. We need something to attract people downtown.”

        The politicians, economists and pro-tax leaders in 1996 often cited a University of Cincinnati study that predicted a one-time $1.1 billion economic boost during stadium construction followed by an annual impact of $296 million as Bengals and Reds fans joined free-spending tourists on the riverfront.

New study coming

        There has been no study gauging whether those figures are shaping up to be true. However, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce has tapped UC to produce another study measuring the riverfront's economic impact.

        This new study will not be limited to the sports stadiums, chamber spokesman Ray Buse said.

        It will also measure the dollars expected to be generated by the revamped Fort Washington Way, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Newport on the Levee, the shopping and entertainment complex to open soon south of the Ohio River.

        “The purpose is strictly to give people perspective of the positive economic impact of the riverfront,” Mr. Buse said.

        Mr. Buse said it will grade how the developments along the Ohio River stack up against cities nationwide.

        Port Authority Chairman Jack Rouse acknowledged development of the riverfront is progressing slower than expected. But he said progress is being made.

        The Port Authority recently unveiled a list of national and local developers who are interested in helping build The Banks, Cincinnati's 21st century neighborhood between the two stadiums.

        “The large message is without Paul Brown Stadium, the Reds stadium and the Freedom Center, we wouldn't have the critical mass and anchors in the first place,” Mr. Rouse said. “Frankly, we would still be looking at a sea of parking.”

        Mr. Rouse added that the struggling economy also has a role in slowing the pace of development. Retailers and real estate developers alike are scaling back expansion plans to prevent being stuck with a glut of unneeded or empty buildings.

Edge of a cliff

        The city's lack of progress since April's race riots hasn't helped either, said Arn Bortz, a partner with Towne Properties and a major downtown developer.

        “We're at the edge of a cliff when it comes to the future of downtown,” said Mr. Bortz, a former Cincinnati mayor. “The events of April have pushed us absolutely to the edge.”

        Mr. Bortz cites the lack of a downtown plan as the chief culprit to slow development. There is no overall vision for downtown despite the best efforts by civic and business groups such as Downtown Cincinnati Inc.

        Even if riverfront development picks up momentum, there's no plan on how it links to downtown's retail core at Tower Place Mall and Fountain Square or the arts district anchored by the Aronoff Center and the new Contemporary Arts Center, under construction at Sixth and Walnut streets.

        Greg Koch, vice president of Koch's Sporting Goods on Fourth Street, doesn't expect city or civic leaders to generate his business.

        But he does expect other help — such as ensuring construction zones or lack of parking don't scare away customers.

        More Bengals fans stop by his shop at the beginning of the season to pick up a new cap or jacket. The interest soon fades if the Bengals get off to a losing start.

        So for the 2001 season, downtown merchants may do well if they adopt Mr. Koch's expectations.

        “I didn't expect anything from Paul Brown Stadium,” he said. “Therefore I am not disappointed in Paul Brown Stadium.”


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