Tuesday, February 25, 2003

County will revise Memorial Hall lease

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hamilton County commissioners decided Monday to scrap their lease of Memorial Hall to the Cincinnati Preservation Association, with one commissioner saying he doesn't want "hate-mongers" to be allowed to use it.

The 3-0 vote allows the county to renegotiate the lease, in place since 1989.

Commissioner Phil Heimlich is displeased that a settlement agreement between the Cincinnati Arts Association - which manages Memorial Hall for the Preservation Association - and organizers of a downtown boycott, allows the boycotters to use the historic Over-the-Rhine hall for free four times.

Heimlich also is concerned that Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan could seek to rent the hall.

"I think the message that Farrakhan preaches is racist and anti-Semitic," Heimlich said. "Similarly, I don't agree with the message of the boycotters."

However, Commissioner Todd Portune said he voted to revisit the lease only to update some legal and insurance issues, as county officials recommended.

"When you talk about the boycotters, there you've got an issue of, I think, pure political speech and not hate speech," he said.

"You really start treading on dangerous ground when you want to exclude people from your facility based on your opposition to their political views."

The Preservation Association has leased 95-year-old Memorial Hall from the county since they partnered to renovate it in 1989. The association raised most of the money for repairs, and in return the county did not charge rent.

Under a separate agreement, the Cincinnati Arts Association was later brought in to handle day-to-day management. Memorial Hall is regularly rented out for events such as weddings and fund raisers.

"We are certainly interested in renegotiating a lease with Hamilton County that would assure the preservation of Memorial Hall as a significant architectural asset," Preservation Association Vice President Chuck Schroer said late Monday. "It's a wonderful building."

Boycott leaders could not be reached for comment, but Arts Association President Steve Loftin said his group believed it was within their discretion to grant boycotters use of the building.

E-mail candrews@enquirer.com

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