Monday, August 26, 2002

Suburbanites eschew downtown


Some say suburbs have same amenities, less risk

By Jennifer Edwards jedwards@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WEST CHESTER TWP. - The latest melees in Cincinnati have many suburbanites wondering why they should risk a trip downtown, especially when there are so many new things do closer to home.

        And given the weakened state of the nation's economy, some suburban leaders also worry that bad news about Cincinnati will make it that much harder to promote their own growing businesses and communities.

        “It's bad enough you have to pay for parking down there and now this,” said West Chester Township Trustee Catherine Stoker. “All of us up here are really hoping Cincinnati can pull itself together and get people talking instead of there being confrontation... Nobody wants to put down Cincinnati, but it's a problem.”

        Two consecutive nights of violence last weekend at the Black Family Reunion resulted in a flurry of negative images of Cincinnati splashed across the national media and a fresh wave of talk in Greater Cincinnati suburbs about the state of downtown.

        Nearly two dozen people were injured after hundreds of youths - some as young as 9 - fought in the streets; threw rocks, bottles and bricks at passing cars and Metro buses; and tipped trash cans and newspaper stands downtown.

        In West Chester last week, an economic development luncheon for 45 investors sought to reassure business leaders that regional, Butler County and West Chester workforce officials are aggressively pursuing new commerce and marketing the area.

        Nick Vehr, vice president of economic development at the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, warned investors that should the city's collaborative agreement settling a federal racial profiling lawsuit fail, it would impact the Cincinnati-Dayton metropolis.

        “I hope we all know that, because that is absolutely the truth,” Mr. Vehr said, adding that he firmly believed the collaborative would be successful but cautioned changes would be gradual, not instant.

        The agreement, signed this spring, creates a new focus on “problem-oriented policing” and will ensure oversight of the police department by a federal monitor.

        Some Over-the-Rhine businesses have reached out to the suburbs for help, in part to pull outsiders back downtown. They recently formed a partnership with the Southeastern Butler County Chamber of Commerce to share ideas.

        “Situations like that (last weekend's unrest) seem to be happening more than we would like, (causing) perceptions from the suburbs as one where "this could happen while I'm there and then what do I do? What happens to me?”' said Joe Hinson, SEBC's president and chief executive officer. “To avoid that, they just avoid downtown completely.”

        Downtown's woes and impact on the suburbs are common talk in the bustling suburban communities.

        “Investors feel with the economy the way it has been shrinking, they worry Cincinnati will experience more shrinking because of negative press about it,” said Ms. Stoker, who attended Wednesday's luncheon. “The developers in West Chester feel that's unfair, because they think there's enough room between them and Cincinnati.

        Bonnie Landers, a 27-year West Chester resident, says she used to love going downtown but now only goes to the Aronoff Center for the Arts.

        “If I didn't have those Aronoff tickets, I wouldn't go at all. I wouldn't feel safe because of the atmosphere of racial unrest downtown now,” Ms. Landers said. “The African-American population feel the police treat them unjustly. Living in the suburbs, I don't know if that's true or not,” she said. “I don't want to find out if it's true or not. I don't want to risk it by going downtown because of all the racial unrest.”

        Liberty Trustee Bob Shelley and his wife enjoy dining on Saturday nights at Palomino restaurant overlooking Fountain Square, and his daughter works downtown. But, he said he feels skittish downtown now.

        “As a whole area, I think we are somewhat intimidated and fearful,” Mr. Shelley said. “We have a fear of being injured or a family member being injured, and I think instances such as (the melee following the Black Family Reunion) does exacerbate your fear.”

        Gary Hines, president of the Fairfield, Hamilton, and West Chester and Liberty townships chapter of the NAACP, said he is abiding by the boycott of downtown by African-American activist groups.

        But if the boycott weren't ongoing, he said, he and his family would not be deterred from venturing to Cincinnati.

        “I think there are a lot of suburbanites who don't want to go downtown. But I think a lot of that is inexperience,” Mr. Hines said. “But if I wasn't supporting the boycott, I would go downtown. It's like people who still fly after Sept. 11. I am not going to let the terrorists stop me from flying. I am not going to let anyone stop me from doing what I want to do.”

        But why go downtown, many suburbanites wonder, when many areas are developing mini-downtowns of their own. Restaurants, malls, movie theaters and community centers are popping up left and right in the counties surrounding the city.

        Fairfield resident Jack Loeffler lives within a short walk of Village Green, a new downtown emerging in Fairfield that holds the public library, a park with an amphitheater, offices and shopping.

        An Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar recently opened to packed crowds. More shopping, another upscale restaurant with outdoor seating and a coffee house also are under construction. “We haven't gone downtown except to go to Reds games for a long time because everything is here,” said Mr. Loeffler, who also is the president of the Village Green Homeowners Association. “We believe in staying local and supporting everything local.”

        Though they are staying away, many suburbanites still sympathize with Cincinnati's woes and lament the unrest, outbreaks of violence and boycott.

        “It's just a shame that all this is happening in Cincinnati,” Mr. Loeffler said. “The only way to get things solved is to continue to have events and make them go off very smoothly. Canceling events, boycotting events, doesn't solve anything.”

        But it is hurting downtown business profits, Cincinnati restaurateur Jeff Ruby said. There was more to do downtown when he moved to Cincinnati in 1970 than there is now, he said, especially as development crops up in nearby Newport on the Levee and in West Chester.

        “If the city was a restaurant, it would have gone out of business years ago,” Mr. Ruby said. “Cincinnati's business climate isn't good. The racial climate isn't good. The social climate isn't good. I think people are fed up with the picketing, the boycott, the whole attitude and aggravation. Thank God for Newport.”

        However, the same problems that cause some to stay away have prompted other suburban residents and leaders to increase their time downtown and in Over-the-Rhine. For example, about 200 members of Vineyard Community Church in Springdale trek to Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine each Saturday to dole out free food and company to homeless people.

        Among them:

        West Chester Township Administrator Dave Gully. He plays checkers and cards every Saturday afternoon with homeless people in the park, many he knows by name and considers friends.

        “Everything that happens in Cincinnati happens in West Chester,” Mr. Gully said. “You just hear about it downtown because there are more people there and it's on a different scale.”

        BRONSON: Black parents 'mortified' after melee



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