In contentious debate, Cranley, Simpson spar over Children's expansion

The debate touched a range of issues but always circled back to the battle over a $500 million expansion in Avondale.

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The shadow of a contentious fight around one of the city’s largest-ever developments hung over a Sept. 12 debate between Mayor John Cranley and his challenger, Cincinnati City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson.

The discussion ranged to other topics, including the Cincinnati’s high poverty rate, how to solve looming funding and service shortfalls for city’s Metro bus service, how to build the local economy and more, but it repeatedly circled back to the battle over a $500 million expansion of Children’s Hospital in Avondale.

That made the business-centered debate hosted by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and the Cincinnati Business Courier a tricky one for Simpson, who, with Councilman Wendell Young, presented a motion in Council last month requiring Children’s to contribute five percent of the project’s total cost — up to $32 million — to neighborhood development efforts. The hospital had committed to $11.5 million previously.

Underlying the argument: a contrast between how the candidates might treat future developments as mayor.

“We have to figure out how to balance the interests of our business community with the interests of our neighborhoods,” Simpson said.

Avondale Community Council opposed the expansion plans, which required the demolition of large houses and the relocation of several families, on the grounds that institutional expansion of the hospital, the Cincinnati Zoo as well as the new MLK/I-71 interchange has chipped away at the neighborhood.

Cranley, however, presented the development as a slam dunk and said that getting in the way of the city’s largest institutions would only hurt Cincinnati. He said that Simpson and Young created an “us vs. them” dynamic with their move. Simpson says she was working to create a “win-win” situation for the hospital and the community around it focused on avoiding further vacancy, blight and crime in the areas around the hospital.

“This is the single biggest investment in the city ever, if you leave the stadiums out,” Cranley said. “The difference is the stadiums are being paid for by taxpayers. Children’s isn’t the problem, it’s a symbol of our progress. I promise you that, as mayor, I will continue to partner with great institutions that want to benefit the city.”

During the debate, Simpson worked to play up her business credentials, touting her work convening the city’s small business advisory council and her support for startup accelerator Cintrifuse — sponsored by many major Cincinnati corporations — and the 2012 remodel of Washington Park, which was undertaken by 3CDC, the public-private partnership headed by many of the city’s business leaders.

But Simpson also sought to balance that approach with appeals to more grassroots efforts to extend opportunities to low and moderate income Cincinnati residents.

“We can’t just hope for great talent to move here, we have to build it from the ground up,” Simpson said, touting her own rise from poverty. “I worked hard, but I also had a village to support me. We have to have a village here.”

Cranley, meanwhile, took a more external focus, reviewing his major accomplishments during his tenure — including luring a major administrative office for General Electric to The Banks and other big development deals — and saying that helping companies and institutions like Children’s and Cincinnati’s major universities expand will help the city attract new talent.

“Anything that brings in more money and more talent into our universities is the future of our region,” he said.

The two candidates also sparred over transit — Cranley again bashed Simpson’s support of the streetcar and called for city efforts to partner with rideshare companies Uber and Lyft to fill gaps in public transit offerings in conjunction with a half-cent sales tax increase he hopes Hamilton County voters will pass next year. If that tax passes, Cranley says he would move most of the city’s earning tax funding, which currently pays for Metro.

Simpson, meanwhile, says that plan won’t put a dent in the city’s public transit needs and that a more holistic vision is needed. She wants to focus on winning federal grants — she dinged the Cranley administration for not applying for a big, federal Smart Cities grant last year — and partnering regionally to build an expansive, multi-modal transit system for the Greater Cincinnati area.

Between those subjects the candidates returned again and again to the Children’s deal, with Cranley attempting to paint Simpson as someone who can’t be trusted to negotiate with the city’s largest employers and other institutions.

“Councilwoman Simpson says the conversation isn’t over with Children’s,” Cranley said. “It’s pretty frightening.”

Simpson said she simply wants to work more on the issue of development in the neighborhood around the hospital.

“I think Michael (Fisher, Children’s CEO) understands there’s more to do in Avondale. I think the city understands that, too. The leader doesn’t pick yes versus no or win versus loss. The community and Children’s have to come together.”

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