Monday, July 7, 2003

Will new group let public in on downtown decisions?



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Don't worry, she told me. All is as it should be.

Cincinnati City Manager Valerie Lemmie was answering my questions about the new private organization that will oversee economic development in Cincinnati's downtown, along its waterfront and in Over-the-Rhine.

The group, called the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., will be led by Procter & Gamble chief executive A.G. Lafley and Federated Department Store chairman Jim Zimmerman. It's supposed to raise $50 million in private funds and tap into "up to $100 million" in city funds, tax breaks and other financial incentives to recruit developers and businesses to Cincinnati.

Lemmie says the development group should be welcomed with open arms. "The city should be applauding and celebrating from the rafters," she says.

But some of us wonder:

• How open will this group's meetings be to the public?

• How involved will our elected officials be in development deals?

• Who will make sure this group "correctly" implements existing plans for downtown, Over-the-Rhine and The Banks?

• How can we be sure that this group won't just steer more tax breaks and financial incentives to companies, with little public input?

Lafley and Zimmerman weren't available to comment, but Charlotte Otto, a P&G external affairs officer, provided some answers about the development group.

She says the nonprofit group will put together development deals and make decisions involving the $50 million it is raising. It is not subject to Ohio's open meetings laws, and most of its meetings probably will be private, Otto says.

If public funds - such as property tax abatements or low-interest bonds - are needed for a deal, the group will work with city council and a new and improved Port Authority, Lemmie says. Public oversight will come in the form of city council votes or port authority board action, she says.

"Quit trying to confuse" the public and private roles of economic development, Lemmie told me.

Perhaps she's right.

It's just that I don't recall a lot of advance discussion or public input into Cincinnati's decision to build a $15 million parking garage for Kroger Co. downtown. Need I even bring up Saks Fifth Avenue's visits to the public trough?

Those deals were pretty far along before the public heard about them. Will this new private group, which will act as an advocate for future projects, maintain that trend?

Lemmie assures me that the public will be as involved as their elected officials are in economic development decisions.

Then I asked about Convergys Corp., which is looking for financial reasons to stay downtown instead of moving to Northern Kentucky. A week ago, Ohio's Tax Credit Authority pledged more than $130 million in incentives to keep it here.

Cincinnati is planning its own incentives. I asked how much is involved.

No comment, Lemmie said.

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E-mail damos@enquirer.com or phone 768-8395




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