By Ken Alltucker
Enquirers staff writer
A Cincinnati private development group known by its catchy moniker has raised more than a few eyebrows during its first year.
Enquirer file/STEVEN M. HERPPICH
Since its founding July 3, 2003, the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., better known as 3CDC, has:
Helped negotiate a deal to build 25 market-rate condos on Vine Street, one of the city's most troubled streets.
Secured $50 million in federal tax credits for new development.
Pursued big-ticket fixes for Fountain Square and Over-the-Rhine.
Signed an agreement with the regional port authority that could alter the course of the planned riverfront development known as The Banks.
Mayor Charlie Luken, who commissioned the panel that recommended creation of 3CDC, expects to see tangible results from the groundwork over the next year.
"I think the big tests remain ahead of them," Luken said. "But if you look at where we are on the square, Over-the-Rhine and, to a lesser extent, even The Banks, we are jumpstarting these things that would have been lying inert if we hadn't had 3CDC."
The group came about as a result of recommendations by a Luken-appointed commission chaired by City Manager Valerie Lemmie and Fifth Third Bank CEO George Schaefer Jr.
The private development group isn't the only new weapon in Cincinnati's economic development arsenal.
The city also created a one-stop permit center and hired a new chief development officer, Chad Munitz.
The overhaul comes as Cincinnati fights back against signs of decline.
Recent U.S. Census data showed Cincinnati's population declined in 2003 at a faster rate than any other major U.S. city, although some larger cities such as Detroit and St. Louis lost a larger number of people.
Meanwhile, suburban communities have boomed with new people, businesses and shopping malls.
Many are looking to the corporate leaders who make up 3CDC's brain trust (3CDC is chaired by Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley) for solutions that ensure that regional growth also means new business and residential development at the city's downtown core.
But even though the group spearheaded several high-profile development proposals in its first year, retired Federated Department Stores chairman Jim Zimmerman said the group's role is "catalyst" for new development from the riverfront through Over-the-Rhine. 3CDC, he said, wasn't formed to usurp government's role in economic development.
"This is not a bunch of high-handed business people off alone doing their thing," said Zimmerman, vice chairman of 3CDC.
Among the group's most important accomplishments, Zimmerman said, was securing $50 million in federal tax credits. These so-called New Markets Tax Credits reward investors who pay for homes, shops, office space and other investment.
Zimmerman suggested an "invisible process" helped Cincinnati land more than its fair share of these federal tax credits during a competitive bid process.
"Getting the $50 million was difficult," Zimmerman said. "The merits were strong, but there was some work that was done. ... Some of the things that influential people in this community did (was) to make certain we'd get a thorough review of the merits or our issue, maybe more equal than some other" cities.
The tax credits will provide a critical funding source for the group's working agenda over the coming months, including:
Tackling the Fountain Square overhaul. 3CDC last week unveiled its plan for Fountain Square that called for relocating the Tyler Davidson Fountain to the square's center, planting trees and demolishing the square's center stage and skywalk link, and repairing the city-owned garage beneath the square. The group expects to return to City Council this fall with a more detailed plan, including cost estimates and potential funding sources. Luken expects the plan will cost from $20 million to $25 million.
Executing the Washington Park redevelopment that includes relocating two schools. The plan would expand Washington Park north about one block, add a 950-space parking garage south of Music Hall and relocate two schools. No cost estimates have been released.
The group has released few details for its third major area of focus - The Banks. The regional port authority secured about $24 million in grants and other funds, and both the port authority and the private development group expect construction of parking garages could start within a year.
Both the port authority and 3CDC have hinted that some major changes in The Banks plan could be ahead. A plan could be developed in 90 days, said Stephen Leeper, the group's chief executive.
Both Leeper and Zimmerman acknowledge that the scope of 3CDC's task will generate controversy. In fact, some of its proposals have drawn at least a ripple of criticism. Last week, a loose coalition of homeless advocates protested the group's Over-the-Rhine plan at City Hall.
"I'm sure some folks don't totally agree with everything we're doing," Leeper said.
David Crowley, who chairs City Council's Community Development Committee overseeing the Over-the-Rhine and Fountain Square plans, said it's important that the city strikes a balance between swift development and public input.
"There is political tension back and forth," Crowley said. "We want to bring in fresh ideas from the private sector, but we as elected officials are ultimately responsible for community development as a city."
Zimmerman said the group's goal is to be "transparent" to the public. Though the privately funded group has declined to make public its operating budget, salaries or conflict-of-interest policies, it has sought some public input for its proposals.
That can be seen through the Fountain Square plan, Zimmerman said. The group held a half-dozen public meetings in May to gather ideas. The public will have a chance to critique the initial design during another five meetings scheduled over the next month.
The Over-the-Rhine plan was released in swifter fashion. There were no public meetings held before the plan was released, but there was a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations with school officials and others.
Leeper said the Over-the-Rhine plan was released in a "hectic" fashion because of all the various project requirements.
"I don't know how we could have done it differently ... to get the public and public bodies to vet it," Leeper said. "So for those folks who claim we could have, should have, rolled it out differently, we find ourselves begging for forgiveness."
Despite the rapid pace the group has established, Zimmerman said he remains "impatient and dissatisfied" with progress. He's optimistic, though.
"This structure and this approach and this combination of players runs a high probability of getting more done over the next five to 10 years by far than the last 15 years I've observed," he said.
Key players downtown
The Cincinnati Center Development Corp. is one of several organizations working with the public and private sectors in efforts to revitalize downtown.
3CDC: Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. is a privately funded, nonprofit group that formed in July 2003 to revitalize the riverfront through Over-the-Rhine. The group aims to create high-value jobs and real estate at or near downtown and attract diverse housing, cultural and entertainment venues. More information on the Web: 3cdc.org
DCI: Downtown Cincinnati Inc.'s chief goals include promoting a clean and safe downtown. The private, nonprofit group is primarily funded by downtown property owners through a special assessment district. More information: downtowncincinati.com
Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority: The regional port authority, created and funded by the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, is charged with building the planned riverfront project called The Banks and revitalizing abandoned industrial areas in Hamilton County. More information: www.cincinnatiport.org
Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce: Its purpose is to grow the region's economy and promote opportunity through economic development, government lobbying, promoting festivals and events and other business activities. More information: www.gccc.com
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