Sunday, October 12, 2003

Rondo's fueling hopes on west side

Can eatery save business area?

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Jesse Williams works for Pollman's Custom Upholstery on Montana Avenue in the Westwood business district.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
WESTWOOD - Chicken marsala and grilled swordfish kabobs may have a lot to say about whether the business district here lives or dies.

In a historic building at 3234 Harrison Ave., just east of the Cheviot city border, chef Ron Wise and his wife, Mona, have been busy for months converting the former Beech Flats restaurant - a Westwood institution until it went out of business earlier this year - into Rondo's.

The new restaurant will have a Mediterranean flavor that, to some, might seem out of place on Cincinnati's meat-and-potatoes west side.

But the couple hopes to create a Westwood institution, one that will draw even Cincinnati east-siders to the city's largest neighborhood and its business strip, which runs from Montana Avenue to the Cheviot border. They and other small business owners and neighborhood activists believe that Rondo's, and the handful of other retail businesses that have popped up along Harrison Avenue in the past year, can spark the revival of this business district.

"We live in this neighborhood, and we want to make it work,'' said Ron Wise, sitting at a round oak table in the main dining room as his wife held their 4-month-old daughter, Rory, in her lap.

"We believe in Westwood.''

But this group is not leaving anything to chance.

Nor are they looking to Cincinnati City Hall to solve their problems, after years of watching small businesses fold, traffic increase and parking become a nightmare.

Instead, the businesspeople and activists have revived a nonprofit organization created 25 years ago to spur neighborhood development - the Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corp.

For the past 10 years, the redevelopment corporation existed only on paper, said Mark Minges, who owns Neidhard-Minges Funeral Home on Harrison Avenue. Earlier this year, working with city grant money and a $7,500 grant from the Westwood-based Cincinnati Housing Partners, the redevelopment corporation was re-formed.

It hired a staff person that Westwood shares with a similar organization and is seeking private developers to invest millions in new businesses.

The redevelopment corporation strategy is one that other city neighborhoods have used for decades, among them Clifton Heights, which is doing a multimillion-dollar development on Calhoun Street.

"Those of us here in Westwood have to set the table; we have to decide what we want the business district to be,'' said Minges, a Westwood native. "Then, maybe, we can get City Hall to come along for the ride.''

Pleasant atmosphere

"We want to have the kind of business district that a Hyde Park or a Pleasant Ridge has, where people can come to shop, to eat, to walk the streets and feel safe,'' said Minges, standing Friday morning in the parking lot of the neighborhood's most recognizable building, the 115-year-old Westwood Town Hall.

The redevelopment corporation, Minges said, has plans for the Town Hall as well - plans that would make the historic building more accessible to people by creating a fountain and park-like atmosphere.

But across from the Town Hall, at the busy intersection of Harrison and Montana avenues, stands a large building typical of the problems that Westwood faces as neighborhood leaders try to breathe new life into the business district.

Kurt Brinkman, a Cincinnati firefighter, has owned the building for about 10 years. The upper floors are split into 17 apartments, which Brinkman said are almost always occupied.

The ground floor is retail storefront space. The Western Hills Kung-Fu and Tai Chi Center occupies one of the storefronts; an income tax preparation services occupies another. But the rest, including the one that faces the high-traffic corner, are empty; and Brinkman said it will be very difficult to fill them.

"I've got a spot that would make a great Baskin-Robbins, or a Busken's, or something like that - but parking is the problem,'' he said.

Aside from a handful of spots to the building's rear, the only parking spaces are metered ones on the street, and the city says they can't be used during morning and afternoon rush hours because of heavy traffic on Harrison.

Minges said that after months of pressure from the Westwood Civic Association, City Hall may lift the rush-hour restrictions.

Minges said the redevelopment corporation hopes to find the funds to buy two properties on LaRue Court, behind Brinkman's building, which could be leveled and turned into a 60-space parking lot.

If parking and traffic problems can be solved, Minges said, "it will make the job of getting new businesses to move into this area a lot easier.

"I'd like to see a coffee shop, an ice cream parlor, antique shops, maybe even a good old-fashioned neighborhood bar,'' Minges said.

"What the Wise family is doing at Rondo's fits Minges' vision perfectly.

"I did this because I wanted my own place,'' said Wise, an experienced chef who has plied his trade at restaurants such as Primavista and the Iron Horse Inn.

"But I also did it because I love this neighborhood. I'm willing to invest in Westwood.''


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