Going Out With a Thud

The decade’s final year in local news was nothing to celebrate

By anyone’s account, 2008 was one for the history books with a bitterly fought presidential campaign, the election of an African-American president and the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression.

What about this year? Meh, not so much.

Although President Barack Obama promised change once he took office, 2009 held little progress on the same set of problems that has plagued a truly dismal decade. Forget Stanley Kubrick’s shining vision of the future in 2001: A Space Odyssey — the 21st century so far has been more like Blade Runner without the sexy androids.

This year has resembled a long post-party letdown, when you wake up the next morning and realize not much is different after a few joyous moments of revelry and hope.

Just like at the national level, events in Greater Cincinnati were mostly nothing to celebrate. But in the spirit of the old truism, “If you don’t remember history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” let’s take another glance at some of 2009’s most noteworthy events.

Shit Rolls Downhill

Cincinnati and Hamilton County weren’t immune from the U.S. economy’s freefall, with the shaky stock market and credit crunch impacting governments, businesses and individuals.

Providing a glimmer of hope, the three major indicators for the region’s housing market — number of homes sold, average sale price and median sale price — all slightly increased over the same period last year, according to area real estate agents. Still, they remain far below the all-time high of 2005. For example, the number of homes sold in November 2009 increased about 29 percent compared to the same month last year. That’s largely due to the $8,000 first-time homeowner tax credit pushed by Obama, analysts say.

But the major dilemma vexing the economy continues to be the jobless rate. Nationally, the unemployment rate hit 10 percent in November (December statistics weren’t available by deadline), down from 10.2 percent a month earlier. In Ohio, the rate was 10.6 percent, up slightly from a month earlier.

Despite Greater Cincinnati’s diverse mix of businesses, the region hasn’t fared much better. Cincinnati had a 9.6 percent unemployment rate in October, with few signs the situation would improve anytime soon.

The most telling economic sign, however, was the number of job layoffs announced by local companies in various industries including such previous stalwarts as Cincinnati Bell, Deaconess Hospital and The Cincinnati Enquirer.

All of this led to drops in tax revenues, leaving Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati scrambling to close budget deficits in the New Year. As a result, both governments are forcing their workers to take several unpaid days off and are dipping into emergency reserve funds.

If You Build It, They Might Come

After almost a decade of delays, 2009 was the year that finally saw construction crews get busy on Cincinnati’s central riverfront and begin making The Banks project a reality.

Work was begun to lift the project area out of the Ohio River’s flood plain. Concrete pilings were installed to support underground parking garages and other structures that will be built above ground.

In early 2010, crews will start construction on The Banks’ first phase consisting of 70,000 square feet of retail space and 300 apartments, which will take about a year to complete. So far, developers haven’t lined up any retail tenants but have pledged to include a mix of locally- and nationally-based shops.

Proposed in 1999, The Banks is envisioned as a mix of condominiums, apartments, offices and shops between the Reds’ and Bengals’ stadiums. The project’s goal is to attract crowds to the riverfront year-round, instead of just during baseball and football seasons, thus boosting the local economy.

Local politicians used the promise of massive riverfront redevelopment to lure voters to support a sales tax increase in 1996 to build the new stadiums. Because tax revenues have been less than expected, however, county officials have been looking for alternate funding sources in recent years, including getting some cash this year from Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan.

At least $200 million in taxpayer money is included in the financing plan for The Banks, which has an estimated price tag of more than $800 million.

More of the Same at City Hall

Crack open a newspaper, log onto a blog or listen to talk radio and you’ll find that no matter their politics, most people agree that the Cincinnati City Council in office during 2008-09 was one of the most contentious and embarrassing ever.

So, of course, change-adverse Cincinnati voters in November reelected every incumbent except one who was running again.

Other than Democrat David Crowley, who couldn’t seek reelection due to term limits, only Democrat Greg Harris — appointed last winter to replace John Cranley — didn’t get a return ticket to City Hall from voters.

Harris’ defeat primarily was due to his courage in taking on a local sacred cow by campaigning against excessive spending in the Cincinnati Police Department. The gutsy move provoked the city’s police and fire unions to actively campaign against Harris in conservative neighborhoods like Westwood and Price Hill.

Instead of Harris, voters elected the Rev. Charlie Winburn, a flamboyant former council man from the 1990s, who is an ultra-conservative that performs exorcisms on the side and has ties to Citizens for Community Values; and Laure Quinlivan, an ex-news reporter for WCPO-TV (Channel 9) who had no political experience but attracted well-heeled contributors.

Also reelected was Mayor Mark Mallory, a former state lawmaker from Mount Airy. Republican Brad Wenstrup, a podiatrist and Iraq War veteran from Columbia Tusculum, challenged Mallory but few observers thought the political newcomer had a shot at victory. Wenstrup’s fate was sealed during the heat of the campaign, when he said he felt safer walking the streets in Iraq than strolling through Over-the-Rhine.

My good doctor, it’s time to prescribe yourself some Valium.

Within weeks of the new council taking office, members were back to bickering over the budget, cutting deals without telling some members and criticizing each other publicly.

Among the council members returned to office were Jeff Berding, a Bengals executive who was unendorsed by the local Democratic Party for his controversial positions and tendency to attack fellow party members on talk radio; and Laketa Cole, a Democrat who was involved in a traffic stop when the motorcycles driven by her and her boyfriend were pulled over by police. During the stop, Cole called the city manager, prompting some to say she was trying to intimidate the cops.

Given their backgrounds and history together, 2010 likely will yield even more dysfunction in municipal government. Someone page Dr. Phil.

Voters Roll the Dice

Several times over the years, Ohio voters have rejected initiatives to bring casino gambling to the Buckeye State. In November, perhaps prompted by the bleak economic landscape, they decided to take a gamble and approve casinos in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo.

The constitutional amendment calls for levying a 33 percent tax on gross casino revenues and distributing the tax money to a variety of specific sources, with 85 percent being split among every Ohio county and public school district. Also, 5 percent of annual tax revenues will be split among the four host cities.

Cincinnati’s casino will be built at Broadway Commons, a sprawling downtown parking lot located where Broadway, Eggleston Avenue, Central Parkway and Reading Road converge across from the Hamilton County Justice Center. The prime parcel is considered ripe for redevelopment and was once considered as the site for the new Reds stadium.

Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans, owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and operator of its downtown home, Quicken Loans Arena, will build the local gambling venue. As part of the deal, Gilbert must invest at least $250 million in building the casino.

Deters Knows No Shame

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters is pretty ballsy, but that’s not always a good thing.

An ex-chairman of the county GOP, Deters still is the party’s major power broker, calling the shots from behind the scenes. While the prosecutor retains clout locally, his reputation statewide took a beating after he was elected as Ohio treasurer in 1998. Deters left that position when his office was investigated for a campaign contribution scandal that resulted in misdemeanor convictions for two staffers. The probe led Deters to run as a write-in candidate for his old job as county prosecutor in fall 2004, when he was reelected.

But even local voters might begin to have second thoughts after Deters’ latest questionable antics. The prosecutor began 2009 by taking a second, part-time job in the private sector, joining the prominent law firm of Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley (as in Stan Chesley, friend of Bill Clinton and a deeppocketed donor to Democratic and Republican candidates).

No other prosecutor in any of Ohio’s major cities hold second jobs; the situation is legal but is not exactly desirable.

Deters said he took the job so he could cut his county salary — in excess of $123,000 — in half and help the Prosecutor’s Office weather budget cuts. That didn’t stop him from hiring Warren County Republican Party Chairman Tom Grossmann later in the year and paying him $108,160 annually, despite Grossmann’s second job at another high-powered firm.

Then Deters and Chesley botched a major lawsuit in May when a local jury rejected a product liability claim seeking $62 million in damages on behalf of a man injured when a pressurized lid on a railroad tanker burst free. Although the defendant had offered a settlement worth millions of dollars, Deters and Chesley rejected it thinking they would fare better with a jury, but ultimately got nothing.

Four months later, just before Common Pleas Judge William Mallory left for a federal judgeship, he set aside the jury’s verdict and approved holding a new trial. Mallory — brother to Cincinnati’s mayor — also suggested that all sides should consider settling the case for tens of millions of dollars.

Critics said Deters’ influence as prosecutor sparked the decision for the unusual do-over. Attorneys for the plaintiffs are appealing.

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