Wednesday, July 17, 1996
Baton is passed; now will anyone dare run with it?

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

They called it a picnic supper.

Dinner was served at 6:30 p.m. to a party of 60 deal-makers. The guests gathered inside Riverbend's members-only Club, a place many concertgoers peek into but few can afford to enter.

One look around the room and I knew this would be far less about food and much more about power and money. And how this city works.

Erich Kunzel was the host. He invited these politicians, patrons, educators and executives to tell them about his dream of moving the School for Creative and Performing Arts from Pendleton to the vicinity of Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine. And, to use the school as a catalyst for reviving the neighborhood surrounding Washington Park.

City Manager John Shirey and Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus - sporting polo shirts and summer tans - huddled near the finger food with Congressman Steve Chabot, in a coat and tie and no tan.

Superintendent J. Michael Brandt led a Cincinnati Public Schools contingent of board members, faculty and interested parents that took up seats at the back of the room.

Dave Phillips, chief executive officer of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., grabbed a chair next to arts supporter Norma Petersen. In front of them were leaders from the Cincinnati Business Committee and the Corbett Foundation.

Robert Wehling, Procter & Gamble's ubiquitous liaison to community projects from the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative to bringing the Olympics to town, found a sofa across the room. Skilled at putting a human, avuncular face on the city's biggest corporate citizen, the senior vice president shook hands and greeted old friends.

This is Cincinnati's power grid. These people guide the community. They work together through a network of relationships, agendas, common histories and outlooks on the future. But they seldom are found in the same place at the same time, sitting on burgundy-colored plastic lawn chairs.

Erich Kunzel is one of the few people in this city with the star power to attract such a crowd. He is a conductor. Bringing diverse elements together to explore common themes is what he does. But in this meeting, he faced an ensemble that is not used to playing together.

Nothing ventured

On the surface, the meeting was a presentation and nothing more. No funds were pledged. No site was chosen. No one stepped up, as in some old Jimmy Stewart movie, with a check and a dare: ''I'm in for a million. Who'll join me?''

But on a deeper level, the way the picnic supper unfolded illustrated why downtown development has long been a matter of unfinished business.

Speaking for corporate Cincinnati, Robert Wehling sounded the familiar call for a master plan for developing downtown. Without one, he complained, companies like P&G ''get hit up'' for every project - big and small. With no big-picture blueprint, firms take their sweet time considering every project. Most play it safe and wait. And, the city suffers.

John Shirey raised another familiar issue: Who's going to pay? The conductor's dream could run $20 million. Answering his own question, the city manager re-introduced the notion of a ticket tax. A piece of every ticket sold in Cincinnati would be set aside to pay for a new SCPA.

Like a dull performance of the Cincinnati Pops, neither idea drew cheers.

Same-old same-old

Drawn by Erich Kunzel's wattage and shown his vision, the reaction of these local leaders was guarded caution. When the colorful trial balloon rises, Cincinnatians tend to cling to the sandbags.

Fortunately, the discussion did not blunt the conductor's enthusiasm. To a dreamer, master plans, taxes and studies are details to be worked out later. The important thing is to have the dream and get on with the quest.

You can't plan to have a vision. And one doesn't come along every day. When it does, sometimes it's best to take a chance, to tap the energy and fleeting glimpse of a future the rest of us can't quite yet see.

The people in that room should follow Erich Kunzel's lead. Get excited. Don't debate this to death. This is a new idea. And it's not that complicated. Meet it halfway with new solutions.

Cliff Radel's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He's available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.