Cover Story: Over the Top

City laughs all the way to The Banks

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Jimbo Cubcubbatu

People rushed to climb the Purple People Bridge in 2006.

As usual, Peter Bronson of The Cincinnati Enquirer said it best. "In the end," he wrote, "it wasn't liberal social engineering and root-cause breast-beating that saved Cincinnati. It was that much maligned can-do spirit of American ingenuity."

It was Ellen van der Horst, however, who said it first. In mid-June she predicted 80,000 people a year would climb the Purple People Bridge. "Yeah, right," was almost everyone's response.

But no one's saying "Yeah, right" anymore. After its first season of operation, the Purple People Bridge Climb drew almost 81,000 participants, all of them being persons with disposable income. They had, after all, just paid $60 each to climb a lot of stairs.

When they came down, they were hungry and thirsty, and entrepreneurs saw it and said that it was good.

Van der Horst, president of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, remembers the first time she did the math.

"When I forecast an annual economic impact of $25 million for the Purple People Bridge Climb, people said this was wishful thinking, even for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber," she says, laughing. "But the multiplier effect works. Give people a reason to engage in a, let's face it, fairly strenuous activity, and they'll pay a premium to do it. And afterward they're going to want to have a meal and talk about it. And if the activity is exciting enough and it's marketed right and regulatory agencies don't muck it all up, people will come from out of town just to climb the Purple People Bridge. And then they'll spend the night in a hotel. Next morning? They're going to want breakfast. It all adds up."

What it adds up to is the solution to a question that had dogged Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials for nearly a decade — how to turn the Ohio side of the Ohio River into something other than a muddy field. With $25 million a year waiting to be tapped into, all it took was one of those public-private partnerships, helpfully created by Mayor Mark Mallory and County Commissioner Phil Heimlich, and some creative financing to finally launch The Banks.

"I actually got the idea when I was on top of the bridge," Mallory says. "I was hungry, and I realized that all of us climbing the bridge were going to be walking back to Newport after we got down. There was nothing to do on the Cincinnati side of the river."

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does a free market economy. Next thing you know, hot dog vendors, T-shirt booths and street musicians began frequenting the Cincinnati side of the bridge. It was only a matter of time before serious developers realized how lucrative the riverfront could be.

Likewise, it was only a matter of time before Citizens for Community Values (CCV) threatened a boycott. CCV President Phil Burress said he believes the bridge is, in fact, lavender.

"It's a none-too-subtle monument to the homosexual agenda," he says. "Climbing that bridge is like mounting a giant phallus. Is that what we want people to think of Cincinnati?"

But a backlash from an unexpected quarter put a quick end to that kind of talk. None other than Police Chief Thomas Streicher declared the bridge "100 percent purple." He should know; he's a graduate of Elder High School. Streicher urged police officers — nearly all the white ones are also Elder alumni — to take their families on a bridge climb.

Blogger/activist Nate Livingston, sensing opportunity, started a petition to paint the bridge black.

The resulting controversy triggered an utterly unexpected series of positive political developments. The presence of so many police officers climbing the bridge made the riverfront one of the safest places downtown. The GLBT community's "Get High with a Cop" program, with gay men and lesbian women climbing alongside officers, led to not only good times but — more importantlt — good feelings about police-community relations.

But perhaps the defining moment came during the Tall Stacks Festival, when the Kroger Co., Procter & Gamble and other local corporations hung huge advertisements on the Purple People Bridge so that anyone on one of those paddlewheels could see what makes Cincinnati tick.

"It was unbelievably heritagey," van der Horst says. "These were some of our oldest corporate citizens, and here they were putting their names on the Purple People Bridge. It was like the perfect fusion of old-time Cincinnati with modern-day advertising opportunity."

With old boats plying the muddy river, crowds lining the Cincinnati riverfront and people in purple and yellow jump suits lining up to climb the bridge, it could truly be said that people were coming by land, water and air just to visit Cincinnati.

When ground is broken on The Banks next year, it will be with purple shovels. What could be more fitting? ©

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