Thursday, March 07, 2002

Garage financing plan provides project a boost

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A $600 million development meant to transform Cincinnati's riverfront from a sea of asphalt parking lots into a thriving neighborhood has received a jump start.

        The project, known as The Banks, had been stalled for months as officials with Hamilton County government searched for ways to pay for $68 million in parking garages needed to lift the development out of the flood plain.

        County commissioners voted Wednesday to dedicate $20.8 million to the first of what will be three phases of construction on two of the eastern-most blocks, between Walnut and Main streets.

        Construction would begin on that first phase in September 2003 and take about two years, but only if all the details can be resolved. And there are hurdles to clear.

        “This action commits the board and this community to (our) future,” Commissioner Tom Neyer said. “This is an attempt to all these people pulling oars in the same direction.

        “If we don't do that, this community's boat will spin around in a circle.”

        The $20.8 million for the garages will come out of the half-penny sales tax increase passed by voters in 1996 as a way to pay for new sports stadiums.

        The county will use a “rainy day” fund established last year with sales tax receipts to guarantee half the debt incurred in building the garages. The county is suggesting the city of Cincinnati guarantee the other half.

        That came as news to Acting City Manager Tim Riordan.

        “I'm not aware of any of that,” he said. “I'm sure we'll enter into discussions with them.”

        There are other strings attached to the proposed deal:

        • The city's funding about $6.5 million in street construction — Freedom Way from Walnut to Main, Ted Berry Way from Walnut to Main, and Mehring Way, from the Roebling Suspension Bridge to Main.

        • The city's funding utility lines to serve the development, at a cost of between $1.5 million and $3 million.

        • The city's making central riverfront property available for parking and staging during construction.

        Jack Rouse, chairman of the Greater Cincinnati Port and Development Authority, played down the specific requirements attached to the money.

        “What we have now is an endorsement of The Banks plan, and an endorsement that we've got to get going on it,” Mr. Rouse said. “At the end of the day, the market will drive it — whatever "it' becomes.”

        By passing the measure, commissioners are asking county staff to huddle with the Port Authority and city officials to work out the details. The vote was 2-1, with John Dowlin voting against it.

        Commissioners want a report, along with recommendations on how to proceed, by March 20.

        Commissioner Todd Portune said the endorsement of The Banks is more important than any specifics.

        “This affirms a broad commitment and puts on the table a framework for discussion and hard work over concepts of how to get the project off the dime,” Mr. Portune said.

        Still, there are hard realities in the county's recommendations.

        Ted Ricci, the county's financial adviser, said using the rainy day fund to guarantee half the debt is the only way the county can make it work. He said the city also must step up.

        Under the county's proposal, the second phase of the development would commence in September 2005 and take about 16 months. That $41.9 million piece of the puzzle would be paid for by sales tax, taxes paid on the first phase of development, rent and parking revenue bonds.

        The city would be asked to pay for streets ($10 million), utilities ($1.5 million to $3 million) and make land available for staging.

        The third phase, parking garages north of Third Street, would be the responsibility of the Port Authority, said Tom Gabelman, consulting attorney working for the county.


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