By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken gave City Council an ultimatum Wednesday: Adopt all the reforms recommended by an economic development commission, or don't do anything at all.
The Economic Development Task Force formally presented its 62-page report Wednesday after 10 months of work. Its main findings: Government should move many of its most important development decisions out of City Hall.
Unlike previous commissions, the task force didn't spend much time defining the problem. Most business and political leaders accept as self-evident that Cincinnati's economic development efforts have floundered over the last decade, as Newport and Norwood have flourished.
The proposals - which include a One-Stop Development Center for permits and a high-powered "strike team" in the city manager's office - will help create what Luken calls a "developer-friendly city."
"It's critically important that City Council support this, and support it as is," Luken said. "It should not be subject to tinkering and a lot of smaller political agendas."
The creation of an independent development authority is likely to be the most controversial.
It would replace the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority with an agency with citywide jurisdiction and stronger powers: to take property by eminent domain, to issue bonds and to clean up brownfields.
All those things would happen in concert with a new Cincinnati Development Corp., a nonprofit developer that would focus on Fountain Square and Over-the-Rhine.
Expecting a vigorous debate, Luken challenged council members: "What is it that's working so well at City Hall that we want to draw the Maginot line and say, 'We don't want to change this'? If you don't like these changes, what is it that you are trying to protect?"
The debate over the reforms is likely to split the city into two camps: those who believe a democratically elected City Council should have ultimate responsibility for development decisions; and those who believe the private sector should play a greater role.
The debate is not new. Former Councilman Phil Heimlich, now a Hamilton County commissioner, proposed it years ago.
"The important point is, whether we're talking about the city or county level, we need to turn development over to folks who have actually developed something," Heimlich said. "Here's my only concern: What about the rest of the county? The county is losing people at a faster rate than any other county in the country except two. What I'd like to see is expansion of this concept countywide."
Two councilmen, John Cranley and David Pepper, pushed for the task force last year. At the time, fellow Democrat David Crowley fought to remove language making the authority a top priority.
Wednesday, he said he hadn't studied the proposal but said, "The control has to stay, ultimately, with the council."
Neighborhood leaders, too, may have concerns.
J.J. Johnson-JioDucci, a banker and member of the task force, said the new structure would be a "significant force" for neighborhood business districts.
But Oakley Community Council President Susan Doucleff, who has been fighting what she sees as runaway big-box development along Interstate 71, worries about accountability.
"I'm all for privatizing what can be privatized. I mean, hey, why not let the experts do it?" she said. "The key comes down to who has input in the final decision. If these guys don't have to listen to neighborhoods - who better knows the neighborhoods than the people who live here?"
Luken said he doesn't think the development authority will change all the city's economic problems.
"I'd just want something so that every time we develop a property, it's not because the mayor had to cajole this building inspector or that development official," Luken said.
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