Sunday, April 23, 2000

Nordstrom deal


How much is too much?

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        People around here often have said they'd give anything for a Nordstrom. I hope the city doesn't take this literally.

        The Seattle-based department store famous for shoes, service and piano music wants $50 million to build a store in downtown Cincinnati. That's about all they'll say. Lord knows it's none of our beeswax. We taxpayers are just the moneybags.

        Western-Southern Insurance Co.'s Eagle Realty Group has development rights for the city-owned land at Fifth and Race. Herb Brown is the spokesman for them.

        His job apparently is to see how little he can say.

        “We will not release any details until we have a signed letter of intent,” Mr. Brown said. “All I can tell you is that we're extremely, extremely optimistic.”

        City officials have been working on a Nordstrom deal for at least five years. During that time, a lot has changed. We have thrown a boatload of money at stadiums. We have not thrown any money at our convention center. People have started shopping on the Internet.

        Oh, and there are no longer Nordstroms running the show. In February, the remaining three Nordstrom family members were “restructured” into “more meaningful roles” by CEO John Whitacre, who is not related to them.

        We have sort-of-a-Saks and sort-of-a-Tiffany and now we might pay $50 million to get sort-of-a-Nordstrom. Because surely at least some of the Nordstrom magic came from being a family store. Remember Shillito's?

        Nordstrom is in the midst of selling a new look in its stores. The tag line is “Reinvent Yourself.” Even the music is changing. While the store will keep its live piano music, some of the departments aimed at younger shoppers will play recorded jazz, blues and pop music.

        It's a different world out there. Nordstrom knows it. Do we?

        Cincinnati's City Council members have said they have questions about this deal. Questions about guarantees and jobs and leases. The only question I hope they answer is: Will we get our money back? At a bare minimum, I hope we insist that Nordstrom make the downtown store exclusive in our region.

        Nordstrom is not going to bring a store here because they heard we had a bunch of out-of-work piano players and a new football stadium. They will come here if they have a reasonable expectation of making money. And they will push hard for lease concessions.

        I hope we all remember the last big lease negotiated around here. And that no development in recent memory has come in at the price we were quoted. Even though the billion dollars — give or take a couple hundred million — we are throwing along the riverfront has blunted our sensibilities, $50 million is still a lot of money.

        “And the majority of it is coming from the city,” Mayor Charlie Luken told Enquirer reporter Robert Anglen. “But I don't look at this as just a store. I look at it as a catalyst for other things to happen downtown.”

        A catalyst? For $50 million, I want a freaking money machine. Something that will solve our parking problems. Something that will draw people from Dayton and Louisville and Lexington and Anderson Township. But I have to remember that Nordstrom is just one department store.

        And I hope when city officials look at the price tag, they'll remember the same thing.

        E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.

Nordstrom price tag seems worth it