Sunday, December 22, 1996
Baseball, Over-the-Rhine deserve more

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

This is such heresy that I hate to ask in public, but what if baseball is not the most wonderful sport on the face of the earth?

What if 20 years from now, the only people who sing ''Take Me Out to the Ballgame'' do it from nursing homes?

What if people from Fort Wayne and Lexington and Lima think Cincinnati is too far to drive ''just for a baseball game''?

Maybe I'm hanging out in the wrong back yards, but I never see kids playing pitch and catch. I see kids working on their spiral pass or their jump shot or soccer kick. There's some reason that Michael Jordan can sell shoes and Barry Larkin cannot. Barry Larkin is better-looking and an extraordinary athlete.

It's gotta be the sport.

Downside or disaster?

So, now Cincinnati is at an expensive crossroad. A consultant has laid out three possibilities for new stadium locations. Football is on the riverfront in all three plans, baseball in two. The third plan would put the Reds in Over-the-Rhine.

What can we be thinking? Why on earth would we take a struggling neighborhood and saddle it with a struggling sport? And vice versa.

The downside of the Reds in Over-the-Rhine scenario, according to the consultants, Urban Design Associates (UDA), would be that this option would draw baseball fans away from the riverfront and rule out the grand plan of an urban economic district.

That seems like a very big downside. Maybe downside is the wrong word. How about disaster? How about squandered public money? Maybe lost opportunity?

In 20 years, the Reds will need the riverfront more than the riverfront needs the Reds. Maybe the next generation of sports fans won't be crazy about baseball, but they might travel to a very nice city like Cincinnati where they could do a lot of things in a single location.

Sort of like a mall.

You might go out to Kenwood to shop at Parisian, but you know that Lazarus is there, too. And you have to walk past a lot of other stores in between. You wouldn't put one of them in Madeira.

Monopoly money

Putting two stadiums on the riverfront with an entertainment district is called the Big Bang plan. UDA says this would bring in 6 million visitors a year.

Think of how you spend money on vacation. It's travelers checks, Monopoly money. You throw it around like you never would at home. Visitors, 6 million of them, staying in our hotels, going to our zoo, our museums, our stores.

They'd put 5 cents of every $10 they spend here in the stadium fund. One benefit of the sales tax is that the entire burden is not borne by residents.

Tourism is an industry that comes to town with no smokestacks. They come. They spend money. They leave. They tell their friends how wonderful we are, how pretty the river looks, how charming Mount Adams is, how safe they felt.

They say things like, ''I got a package deal, including four tickets to the Reds, you know, the baseball team. Yeah, it was kind of fun. Made me remember how much Dad used to love that game.''

The voters of Hamilton County have agreed to spend a half billion dollars on two new sports stadiums. The only possible justification is that the money be spent ensuring long-term prosperity for the entire community.

Or we could be sentimental. Over-the-Rhine is a historic district with some lovely old buildings. Time and again, we've made bad decisions for this neighborhood. Subsidies, low-income housing, we did it out of love.

The Broadway Commons debate has proved that there is a determined group of merchants and residents who are willing to work for this area.

Why don't we figure out a way to bolster their efforts and enhance the enterprise there? Erich Kunzel's Music Hall-SCPA campus? A back lot for Paramount? A new better-than-the-Coliseum arena? A plan to help residents become home owners? Or we can put baseball in Over-the-Rhine.

And love them both to death.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.