If you've been following the saga of the planned music venue at The Banks, you know there is nothing simple about the development. There's been a complicated land-swap needed to make it happen, negotiations with the Cincinnati Bengals, tensions between the city and Hamilton County and other issues.
But a vote by Cincinnati City Council tomorrow could at least clear the way for the deal to move forward. Or not.
Council tomorrow is poised to vote on a motion that would indicate whether the city would sell four acres of land along the Ohio River in Queensgate to building materials company Hilltop Basic Resources, which would need to move from its current home west of Paul Brown Stadium to replace tailgating space the Cincinnati Bengals would lose to the proposed Banks music venue built by MEMI. The Bengals can veto MEMI's venue due to a clause in the team's lease with the county.
Hilltop has said that it needs the riverfront access the land provides for shipping and receiving purposes, but that it must own the property. In exchange, it would hand over a purchase option on land on the other side of the Mill Creek near Lower Price Hill to the city, which could use it for a long-sought-after park for that neighborhood.
That plan has garnered support from some residents and groups in Lower Price Hill. Others in Queensgate and the three Price Hill neighborhoods, however, are opposed.
Some members of council have proposed offering a lease instead of selling the city land, but Hilltop has said that's a non-starter. So to move forward the land-swap necessary to advance MEMI's venue, council could indicate it's willing to sell.
Business owners at The Banks, county leaders and some city council members say the venue is a vital part of the future success of the massive riverfront development.
But not everyone is sold on that idea, on the land-swap itself — or even on the music venue at The Banks.
Mayor John Cranley has staunchly opposed the land-swap, saying it isn't clear how much the whole deal will cost taxpayers in the end.He wants MEMI's music venue to go on another parcel of land at The Banks — Lot 24 instead of Lot 27 — that is farther away from the stadium, where The Bengals will have no say over it.
"It's not like the Bengals are paying to move Hilltop," Cranley said. "The taxpayers are paying to move Hilltop… this is a government action that they're asking us to participate in. This is a decision that we need to make as to what's in the best interest of neighborhoods and people and business."
Hamilton County Commission President Denise Driehaus, who has been working to reach a deal between the city, county, Hilltop and the Bengals, has argued that Lot 24 should be saved for denser development than a music venue, since it doesn't have the height restrictions (a stipulation in the Bengals' lease with the county) that Lot 27 has.
In the background of that deal-making: renegotiations between the Bengals and the county over the team's lease that could see the county let off the hook for upgrades to Paul Brown Stadium worth tens of millions of dollars in the short term.
Cincinnati City Council member Chris Seelbach, meanwhile, has questioned whether the music venue should be built at all in light of a similar venue being constructed by PromoWest across the river in Newport.
"We're only here because the Bengals have a say in the lot that they want to put a music venue on," he said. "We could easily just not build a music venue, because Northern Kentucky is already doing that, or we could put it on another lot the Bengals have no say on. Now, that lot is on the only remaining spot where you can have a tall building, but we could split it and have a music venue on one side and the tall building on the other. Then all of this goes away. We should be having a conversation about whether we even need a music venue."
Council member Greg Landsman has another solution: the Bengals should just let go of their opposition to the venue without stipulations that require the complex land swap. Landsman says taxpayers have already paid enough on the team's generous contract and shouldn't be saddled with more concessions.
More than 20 opponents of the land-swap piled into City Hall yesterday to speak at council's Budget and Finance Committee meeting. Many wore bright green shirts reading "No Concrete, No Asphalt," a reference to two facilities Hilltop would move closer to — but not into — Lower Price Hill.
Some Price Hill residents questioned the environmental impacts of the Hilltop facilities on Lower Price Hill. It's unclear where a proposed asphalt plant would go, though that location would almost certainly be somewhere in Queensgate, not Lower Price Hill.
Another concrete facility already has a planned location in Queensgate about 2,000 feet from Lower Price Hill. Currently, Hilltop's site is about 1,500 feet from the nearest residences downtown.
Sheila Rosenthal, Vice President East Price Hill Improvement Association, said the facilities could still cause environmental problems in a community that has experienced them for years. EPHIA, the neighborhood's community council, originally wrote a letter supporting Hilltop's relocation based on the promise of land for a park, but has since rescinded its support.
"Our communities have been subjected to years of exposure to chemicals, odors, dust and noise," she said. "We've worked diligently to try and minimize that. To potentially have that thrown away basically for the Bengals to have more tailgating space and a music venue that may or may not benefit the city of Cincinnati and to ultimately benefit Hilltop's bottom line is unacceptable."
Other critics of the land-swap were employees of Noramco, another company caught in the middle of the land-swap saga.
Noramco sold the land it operates on along the Ohio River nine years ago and currently leases it month-to-month from the new owners, who are interested in selling to Hilltop to facilitate that company's move. That leaves Noramco, a barge shipping company that needs river access, with no place else to go, company leadership says.
"The one thing I want you to consider is the 40-plus jobs that we have," Noramco owner Michael Wetterich told council. "If this goes through, and we're out of business, it's not just those 40 employees, it's their wives and children."
Some council members, however, pointed out that Noramco opted to sell its land and that its tenure is shaky with or without the land-swap. Noramco President Mark Wetterich says the land was sold to railyard owner Dave Martin on an agreement that the company would be able to remain on the land into the foreseeable future. But, he says, the new owners received an offer from Hilltop that Martin couldn't refuse and that Noramco couldn't match.
"He told me man-to-man that we didn't need an agreement," Mark Wetterich said. "There is a point in time where you have to take somebody's word for it. Was it smart? Probably not. But the fact is, if Hilltop wasn't buying this property, we wouldn't be asked to move."
Councilmember P. G. Sittenfeld said that the city should step in to help Noramco if necessary no matter what deal gets struck.
"Even after this ends, I hope we still have a heart for the people we've heard from today," he said. "If you feel like, no matter what, there is immediate, looming, private sector risk, this building is also in the business of trying to help people. We appreciate this business has a long history in the city, and we'd like to keep it that way."