My late uncle gave me a love of history, and lately I've been reading a lot of it in order to understand human behavior, politics, and decision making. On May 22, 1968, President Johnson announced his plan to transform America with the advent of "The Great Society". The plan, under the Johnson Administration, was an attempt to address--among other things--our decaying cities with a promise "to assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find answers for America". Incidentally, I've read that an unsympathetic Congress--seated at the time--coupled with the tragedy of the Vietnam War, drained much of this optimism away. Consequently, "The Great Society" foundered. The parallels to the fate of Cincinnati Music Hall and Union Terminal are similar.
The "best thought and the broadest knowledge" in Cincinnati civic and business leadership was assembled with formation of The Cultural Facilities Task Force. They worked tirelessly for 9 months studying decades of problems that confounded the City of Cincinnati regarding these landmark buildings. The plan they proposed was comprehensive in scope, and through competent and creative planning, actually solved decade-long problems.
When two Hamilton County Commissioners in Cincinnati, Ohio can wield enough power to sensor an issue that voters have every right to consider in a referendum, something is terribly flawed. It is nothing less than an insult to every voter's intelligence. Rather than embracing a well thought out plan that would have unwound decades of problems that led to the buildings being placed on the list of "The 11 Most Endangered Buildings in America" by The National Trust for Historic Preservation, political expediency has triumphed over principle. The Task Force created a solid plan that would have permanently repaired both buildings and maintained them for generations to come.
A dinner meeting was held with newly elected Cincinnati Mayor Cranley, Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann, and Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation CEO Steve Leeper. In that meeting, it is my understanding that Mayor Cranley answered claims that the city "wasn't doing enough" to save these buildings. The Mayor countered with the City Council's pledge of $10 million to Music Hall, and another $10 million for ongoing maintenance of both buildings. Mayor Cranley left the dinner believing that all issues were addressed. It was an occasion for handshakes and goodwill. After the dinner, Greg Hartmann told The Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper that the city still "wasn't doing enough".
In separate meetings, Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel, and Task Force Chairman Bob McDonald met with one another multiple times. In each of these meetings, the Task Force proposal to fund both landmarks was fully vetted. Had Messrs. Hartman and Monzel presented any misgivings during either of these meetings, the Task Force would have had ample opportunity to factor in their concerns to the final proposal that was created to be presented to Hamilton County voters in the November referendum.
In an action that is reminiscent to this writer of Judas leaving The Last Supper, a power play was initiated at the 11th hour striking Music Hall from the renovation plans. This is simply nasty politics at its worst that insulted the Mayor, and the intelligence of every voter in Hamilton County. It was beyond an innocent example of being short-sighted. It was, in fact, a cold slap in the face to intelligent people who expect to be given the opportunity to let their votes be heard about this issue. Instead, political expediency over principle appears to have prevailed. The Hamilton County Commissioners passed a five year, quarter-cent sales tax (and not a 14-year plan) that totally excludes Music Hall, and underfunds Union Terminal's need for comprehensive repairs by at least $33 million (by my calculations).
I find it incredulous that Bob McDonald, who led as Chairman of the Task Force, and who has just been placed in charge of The U.S. Veterans Affairs Office to assist 9 million veterans was undermined in this situation. Apparently, the Hamilton County Commissioners felt that he either couldn't be trusted, or needed to be micromanaged. They were wrong, and this entire debacle is embarrassing.
Again, I call on Messrs. Hartmann and Monzel to be accountable, along with the rest of the Hamilton County Commissioners they influenced in what amounted to an 11th hour coup de grace.
Music Hall and Union Terminal are not partisan political issues limited exclusively to Democrats or Republicans. The buildings are the birthright of The People of Cincinnati. Just as the 1988 film of the same name directs, Greg Hartmann and Chris Monzel now need to "stand and deliver" answers to the questions their actions have created. Here are the questions again:
- Will their actions permanently restore Union Terminal?
- What is the bonding capacity?
- What is the construction timeline?
- How does "pay-as-you-go" financing impact the project timeline?
- Does this delay the construction, increasing construction costs?
- What is the impact on Historic Tax Credits?
- What is the status of the City of Cincinnati's commitment?
- What- is the status of the $40 million in philanthropic commitments to this plan?
These questions need to be answered immediately. This brinksmanship has created a new crisis for the Music Hall, Union Terminal, The Cincinnati Museum Center, and the City of Cincinnati. Music Hall is part of Hamilton County, and to deliberately exclude the landmark building under the excuse that "it isn't part of Hamilton County" is a glaring outrage. The Hamilton County Commissioners know better and so do I. Again, Union Terminal would be underfunded by this plan, and 9 months of hard work by The Cultural Facilities Task Force has been dismissed overnight.
I seriously doubt the voters in Hamilton County will let this stand. This matter is far from over.