Friday, October 19, 2001


Cincinnati needs a fire lit

        John Shirey fantasizes about “pulling a Cleveland” on Cincinnati.

        Some night, he says, when everyone else is asleep, he'd like to pilot a boat to the middle of the Ohio River. He'd pour a mixture of “oil and gasoline on the water and light it on fire.”

        Just kidding, he said. But he also made this point:

        “Maybe that's what we need to wake up and do something here.”

        Aye, aye skipper. First mate at your service. Matches are on me.

        Cincinnati's city manager made these remarks this week in front of a bunch of people who are — or should be — in the same boat.

        His audience packed a ballroom at the Hyatt for the Wednesday morning session of the International Council of Shopping Centers' two-day program on Tristate development. The session dealt with the public and private sectors joining forces to make Cincinnati a great city.

        For that to happen, said the city manager, Cincinnati must be jolted from its debilitating state of complacency.

        He doesn't recommend a literal repeat of what happened in Cleveland. But he couldn't help but note that Cleveland didn't get serious about its rebirth until after the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire in the summer of 1969.

        Fire on the water woke up Cleveland. He hopes something less drastic helps Cincinnati emerge from its complacent slumber.

        The city manager's words could easily be dismissed. After weathering eight stormy years, he'll be out of a job come Dec. 1. So, his comments could be interpreted as quacks from a lame duck. Or sour grapes.

        Both interpretations would be wrong. His words are of a rare, reasoned vintage. Ignore them and the city is doomed to mediocrity. Or worse.

        To hear more about Cincinnati's complacency, I caught up with the city manager later in the day. He had just spent another grueling afternoon at Cincinnati's oldest comedy club — City Council's weekly meeting.

        Leaning against a wall in Council chambers, the city manager traced the roots of Cincinnati's complacency.

        A peculiar form of “Cincinnati polite” topped his list. “We don't want to upset anyone, ruffle any feathers,” he said. “If somebody objects to a project, we'll back off.”

        The complacency feeds off a fear of outsiders and an unwillingness of insiders to share any piece of the pie.

        “People here will do anything to kill development because the developer is an outsider,” he said. “There's an atmosphere that says: "People from elsewhere can't tell us anything. We kinda know it all ourselves.'”

        He predicted a rise in know-it-all-ism. Just let Hamilton County find funds to build parking garages for The Banks, the stalled riverfront development of shops, housing and parkland.

        “You watch the fighting over that,” he warned, “because outside developers” have made proposals “as well as local yokels.”

        Instead of fighting, he advocated “banding together, with more concerted business leadership.”

        “We shouldn't have to wait for the bottom to drop out, like it did in Detroit and Cleveland, for us to get something done.”

        The longer the city manager spoke, the more sense he made. For the city to progress, Cincinnati does indeed need a wake-up call.


       Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340; e-mail


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