Thursday, March 21, 1996
City learning how to be a big player

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Don't get your hopes up, but I think we may be getting the knack of being a city. This occurred to me in a very unlikely place. Cincinnati City Council chambers.

On the day after the election, there was a kiss-o-rama between both sides of the sales tax issue. And I say this with admiration. Councilman Nick Vehr was most eloquent and gracious in victory: ''I'd like to thank the opposition. This was a better plan because of your advocacy.''

Next, there was civilized debate on a tax break for Procter & Gamble Co. There was no Tom Luken throwing gas on the crowd, just some legitimate poking and prodding by Dwight Tillery and Todd Portune. And some incomprehensible logic from Tyrone Yates.

Then, with only Mr. Yates' dissenting vote, they approved the plan for the company to put $160 million worth of building and equipment in Winton Hills. They did the right thing.

Don't get me wrong. I have had my differences with this company. For instance, I think they should put benches in their downtown garden so I could eat my lunch there. And I wish they'd do something about the taste of Crest with baking soda. Also, they tell me just a little bit more about their toilet paper than I actually want to know.

When they come to my house, I suspect that my Proctoid friends snoop in my medicine chest to see whether I buy P&G brands. It also ticks me off that the company hires a cop to stop traffic midblock for their employees to cross Sixth Street. Why can't they just walk to the corner like the rest of us?

Sometimes this company can be a little heavy-handed. But not very often and not very heavy.

Oh, Procter does like to negotiate, of course. Ask some of the media folks what happens when they start dickering over, say, television time. Picture the gleam some women get in their eyes at the straw market in Freeport. Haggling. Bargains. The thrill of the deal.

That's what it is. A deal. A lure. We're not giving them anything. We set up this plan to encourage businesses to locate in industrial, older areas of town. Winton Hills is the proposed site for P&G's new $160 million Olestra plant. P&G will still have to pay taxes due Cincinnati Public Schools and try to hire city residents for the eventual 165 new jobs.

They will be excused from paying $771,000 in new taxes every year for 10 years. If somebody had cut a deal like this with Toyota, we'd be dancing in the streets. Councilman Yates says he isn't against offering a break for companies in need, ''but I can't agree on abatements of this size for a company this profitable.''

It's kind of like setting up a scholarship program to build a winning basketball team, then telling your star forward that he's not clumsy enough or poor enough to qualify.

Mr. Yates says he objects to ''national and international economic corporations who benefit by exercising power over cities when they force cities to compete with one another.'' Come again?

Why on earth would we want to prove to Procter & Gamble it would be cheaper, easier and more fun to be located somewhere else? And at a time when a lot of the fast-track execs are foreign born? We're not just competing for business with Kansas City. We're competing with Osaka.

Conversations like these are going on all over the country right now, as communities wrestle with the need to compete and our natural reluctance to give away money - especially to companies that are already wealthy.

The trick is to get the companies to do something we want them to do in return.

To qualify for abatements in Cincinnati, firms must set up or stay in one of three enterprise zones: the Mill Creek Valley zone, the Winton Hills-Winton Place zone and the Oakley-Madisonville zone. The company must prove that it's expanding or renovating operations, or be moving here. They have to promise investments and jobs.

Does Procter & Gamble need this money? No.

Will they give some of it back? They always have.

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