Mixed Signals for Uncertain Times

A year filled with anxiety and anger, but glimmers of hope

Dec 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Many economists allege the recession ended in June 2009, but they didn't make that assessment until September of this year — or a full 15 months afterward — showing the imprecise nature of understanding a fading economy that's based on rampant consumerism and a predatory, mutant strain of capitalism.

Anyone who lived during the past year, though, fully realizes that times still are tough all over.

With Greater Cincinnati's official unemployment rate at 9.3 percent and an estimated 105,200 people out of work in the region, it's likely that you know people without a job or are unemployed yourself.

In other words, this year was a lot like last year. And 2008 and 2007, for that matter.

The recession, which formally began in December 2007, lasted 18 months. That makes it the longest downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

"Obviously for the millions of people who are still out of work, people who have seen their home values decline, people who are struggling to pay their bills day to day, it's still very real for them,” President Obama said after the bureau's pronouncement.

Maybe that's why many voters decided — rightly or wrongly — they had given Democrats enough time to turn things around. Nationally, President Obama's approval ratings bounced around like a Mexican jumping bean, and control of the U.S. House of Representatives was handed back to Republicans after four years of Democratic control.

After taking a two-year, voter-enforced sabbatical while the heavy lifting of cleaning up the messes left by George W. Bush was done by Democrat Steve Driehaus, Republican Steve Chabot was returned to office to represent Ohio's 1st Congressional District. Chabot, a lawyer from Westwood, won the November election with 51 percent of the vote, compared to 47 percent for Driehaus.

Oddly, Chabot's victory depended heavily on conservative voters energized by the Tea Party movement. Although Tea Partiers say they dislike “politics as usual” and detest Washington insiders, in Chabot they have a person who served in the federal echelons of power for 14 years previously.

A day before the election, a chastened Chabot told a rally that a GOP landslide

“will be the voters giving us a second chance.”

Although Republicans retook the House, it wasn't quite the landslide that was hoped. And Chabot's slim margin of victory already has Democrats looking forward to the 2012 race. T

he Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting any district where a Republican won with less than 55 percent of the vote, and that Obama won in '08. (On Barack's coattails, Driehaus won with 53 percent back then.)

Still, with the GOP redrawing the district's boundaries next year, it might all just be wishful thinking.

Locally, 2010 also was the year that Republicans took control of Hamilton County government after four years under Democratic guidance, the first time that had occurred since Lyndon Johnson was president. During the period, Democratic commissioners

cut expenditures by 22 percent by laying off some employees and reducing some services, returning the county to 1998 spending levels.

But with popular Democratic incumbent David Pepper choosing not to seek reelection in lieu of an ultimately unsuccessful bid for state office, that left the commission seat up for grabs. Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Monzel, a Republican, faced off against former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell, a Democrat, in a lackluster campaign that was short on policy specifics and long on rhetoric.

Buoyed by support from anti-abortion groups and corporate interests, Monzel easily won, capturing 56 percent of the vote.

“I think the citizens of this county sent a message,” Monzel said on Election Night. “We're going to keep spending in check, keep taxes low and are really going to grow this county in the future.”

Perhaps it's fitting that Monzel and Commissioner Greg Hartmann, his fellow Republican, must now decide how to offset looming shortfalls in the county's stadium account. After all, it was the county's Republican political and corporate power structure that desperately wanted new facilities for the Bengals and Reds in the mid-1990s, and persuaded voters to tax themselves to pay for it.

As it turns out, the sales-tax hike wasn't enough to pay for stadium construction debt. That means the county is facing a $13.8 million deficit this year, an amount that will jump to $25 million in a few years and could cumulatively total more than $700 million by 2032, when the Bengals’ lease expires.

It looks like Monzel will endorse a Hartmann-backed plan to reduce a property-tax rebate in exchange for scaling back some property-tax levies for items like indigent care by up to 45 percent.

In reality, county voters approved the amount of such levies and it's unclear whether commissioners are legally allowed to unilaterally reduce their amounts. Critics have alleged the strategy equates to penalizing the poor to ensure tax breaks for the affluent. No doubt, the approach means a political firefight awaits in the New Year.

Unfortunately for the politicians, the war over how to pay for the stadiums comes at a time when the Bengals have experienced their own annus horribilis, to borrow a phrase made famous by Queen Elizabeth II.

After a strong 2009 season in which the team made it to the playoffs for only the second time in 20 years, fans had high hopes for 2010. Those aspirations were quickly dashed, with the Bengals losing 10 consecutive games. Even the much-heralded signing of receiver Terrell Owens didn't seem to help the sorry situation.

During a December appearance on teammate Chad Ochocinco's cable TV show, Owens remarked, "I think there's underachieving from the top down. You start with the owner, you start with the coaches. And obviously, we as players, we are a product of what the coaches are coaching us throughout the course of the week.”

As the holidays neared, coach Marvin Lewis still didn't have a contract for the 2011 season, although he said he wanted to remain in the Queen City. No doubt, notorious cheapskate Mike Brown is angling to keep Lewis at a discounted price. The predicament left many fans wondering if they could trade Brown for a new owner.

Events outside the stadium and elsewhere across Cincinnati's downtown took a brighter turn.

After nearly a decade of inactivity and then a year mostly of subterranean prep work, the framework of actual buildings were constructed in The Banks riverfront district. Work began on the project's first phase, which includes

300 upscale apartments and 80,000 square feet of retail. The phase, which also includes two restaurants and 1,600 parking spaces, are slated to open in 2011.

As part of the completed work, Mehring Way was relocated north of its original route, so development can begin on a 45-acre park along the central riverfront.

Also, the developer of a planned casino at Broadway Commons near Over-the-Rhine reached a deal with Caesars Entertainment to operate the site, once it's opened. Rock Gaming and Caesars created a joint venture to operate the casinos here and in Cleveland. The $400 million local facility is expected to begin construction next year and be completed in late 2012. It will create about 2,100 jobs during construction and employ about 1,700 people once operational, developers said.

And Cincinnati's long-discussed streetcar system finally looks like it's ready to roll following a series of victories lodged this year. In December, state transportation officials awarded a $35 million grant to help build its first phase. That brings the total allocated to the project so far to roughly $150 million, enough to cover initial capital costs for the project. Construction likely will begin in 2011, and the system will go online by spring 2013.

The prospect of the streetcar system and the new casino already has prompted some new businesses to open in Over-the-Rhine, as well as caused developers to buy some properties along the route.

In short, the year was marked by the ongoing tension between making short-term gains or long-term investments. Welcome to America in the new millennium.