News: Banking on Port Authority

After a summer of waiting, politicians seem ready to hand over riverfront development to a new, semi-private organization

The Riverfront Advisory Commission (RAC) is once again taking over the driver's seat of riverfront redevelopment — possibly for the last time.

On Aug. 29 the RAC presented an ordinance to remake an existing quasi-governmental organization to handle riverfront development between Interstate 75, the Ohio River, the L&N Bridge and Third Street.

After two years of shepherding riverfront development, this could be the RAC's last hurrah — although many of its 16 members would likely stay involved in riverfront development.

The proposed Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority would replace the Port Authority for Brownfields Redevelopment, which now only handles old industrial sites, and assign it The Banks, the RAC-proposed mix of offices, apartments, shops and a park to be built over parking garages between the football and baseball stadiums.

The new port authority would have an 18-member volunteer board supervising an executive director and two development directors — the organization's only paid positions. The city and county would fund the authority by each contributing $350,000 per year for the first three years. After that, the authority is expected to support itself from revenues generated by development, according to the draft ordinance, revealed Aug. 29 at a regular joint city/county meeting.

The port-authority board members must be Ohio residents, can't have conflicts of interest with authority business, and can't hold a public office besides being a notary public or a member of the armed forces or state militia. The RAC suggested 18 people for the board, 12 of whom are RAC members and two of whom are old port-authority members.

The proposal arrives not a minute too soon; with each passing day, The Banks proposal loses a little momentum, and the potential increases for a permanent sea of surface parking between the stadiums.

"We have a timing issue," says Jack Rouse, the RAC's chair since its start almost two years ago. "We are now two years in the process, and we simply must move forward."

Rouse had asked the city and county to create a new authority by July, which didn't happen. At the Aug. 29 meeting, Rouse prodded the city and county to create the authority by Sept. 18 — about as early as the city and county meeting schedule permits.

Nearly one year ago — after months of public input — the 16-member RAC unveiled a plan to build The Banks. The problem was the city and county were $52 million short on the $248 million, multi-year proposal to build the underground parking garages, park, and other infrastructure in The Banks. Hamilton County Commissioners rejected a proposal to close that gap with sales-tax dollars.

In late May, after months of number crunching, the RAC proposed a second, more comprehensive plan to finance the neighborhood. It advocated using a port authority to handle the next several years of development. Port authorities are not new; more than a dozen of them manage water ports and airports in other parts of Ohio, including Cleveland and Lorain County.

But even with the port authority's tax exemptions, the city and county still need $177 million to finish the entire $2.1 billion package of riverfront development.

The first attempt to create a new port authority failed in a 4-to-4 vote at the June 28 Cincinnati City Council meeting, the last regular meeting before council's summer break. The person with the deciding vote, Councilman Charlie Winburn, left the meeting early to attend a church event. Progress was slow with the county waiting for the city to act, and only one city-council meeting between June 28 and Sept. 6. The tie vote reflected city council's concern about the details of the port authority's operation, such as public accountability.

City Councilwoman Alicia Reece, who voted against the first ordinance, says she wants a public meeting devoted to only the port authority, because citizens should have their say in such an important decision.

Although a public meeting wasn't scheduled by press time, the port-authority ordinance will be discussed at a future Community Development and Intergovernmental Committee meeting, chaired by City Councilman Todd Portune.

Still, the new ordinance doesn't detail the level of public scrutiny the new authority would allow, such as which records and meetings would be open to the public.

"That's an issue I think we're going to clarify," Portune says.

None of the city or county leaders at the meeting raised strong objections to the ordinance; all three Hamilton County commissioners and six of the nine city-council members attended at least part of the meeting. But the officeholders did ask technical questions about the port authority's taxing powers and what problems might arise if it can't support itself in three years, as expected.

Even City Councilman Jim Tarbell, who has questioned putting so much attention and money in The Banks, now agrees with proponents that a port authority would allow the city to work harder on projects in Over-the-Rhine and other parts of the city.

If the city and county pass the port-authority ordinance, the next step is picking the authority's board, hiring a staff and asking developers to submit development ideas for the Banks.

After waiting all summer for the city to act, County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus says he is ready to begin pushing the port authority issue.

"I think we're going to get more involved at this point," Bedinghaus says.

But can the city meet Rouse's September deadline?

"We work quickly when we want to," Portune says.

The last question — whether the city wants to — will be answered in the next couple of weeks. ©

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