The redevelopment consultant Cincinnati leaders hope can make Over-the-Rhine great again got off to a rocky start here by offending Chinese-Americans. At a meeting of the OTR Chamber of Commerce, John Elkington began saying in all his years of development he had learned two rules: Never follow bluesman Rufus Thomas on stage, and never rent to a Chinese restaurant. The Memphis Beale Street developer didn't explain what he meant. Chinese-American were more outraged after reading comments attributed to him in a CityBeat article.
At best his public remarks were inept. At worst they were offensive, especially since he promises his proposed OTR plan will be racially inclusive. "If people took it the wrong way," he told The Enquirer, "I apologize. I would never say disparaging things about any racial group."
Elkington says he meant his remark as a compliment to a "good personal friend" named Bernard Chang who out-negotiated Elkington on a 20-year restaurant lease deal that went on "forever." The restaurant is no longer in business, and Chang is dead. Elkington said he meant his comment as a joke, but a CityBeat reporter later quoted him saying it was his policy not to rent to Chinese restaurants and calling Chinese businessmen "hagglers" who use "different math."
Such stereotyping is contemptible, but Elkington denies the quote.
"We will rent to anyone with a good concept and good management," he said. He argues OTR needs more than land use plans; it needs a plan that can recruit tourist attractions, and he even quotes a Chinese proverb to warn, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there."
"Everyone is fighting about silly things," he said, but when OTR has almost 2 million square feet of vacant space, you need many private investors, but not enough will jump in until they see a few spectacular attractions risking their money. He puts at the top of his wish list a brewery with the "best German beer in America."
Mayor Charlie Luken and Councilman John Cranley want to hire Elkington for $100,000 to make bigger things happen on OTR's Main Street. But we can't get there by offending more ethnic groups. Luken says he's been flooded with e-mails, and will talk to Elkington again. OTR offers opportunities for all private investors. The city needs to make 100 percent sure Chinese-Americans are as welcome as any.
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