Thursday, August 5, 2004

Reactions emotional as seating ban lifted

By Cliff Radel
Enquirer staff writer

In Cincinnati, the seemingly playful term "festival seating" will always be linked with the harsh reality of the word "tragedy."

The connection occurred Dec. 3, 1979. That's when 11 people died in a rush for the doors before a Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum. Now known as U.S. Bank Arena,the coliseum that night offered first-come, first-served festival seating.

Considering that fateful history, it should come as no surprise that strong reactions came from City Council's Wednesday decision. Council unanimously repealed the festival seating ban established after the Who tragedy and replaced it with a new set of requirements.

Good riddance to "a bad law, a knee-jerk reaction," said Bill Donabedian. He's the president and co-founder of the MidPoint Music Festival, the annual September music showcase held downtown.

"Getting rid of the festival seating ban will have a huge cultural and economic impact on the city," Donabedian added. He predicted the new rules would spawn everything from more concerts and money spent downtown to retaining the Queen City's youth.

Mary Bowes sees things differently.

"This is going to make Cincinnati a mecca for rock bands? I don't think so," she said. "This just proves once again that money talks. City Hall is going to do what it wants and listen to what big business wants."

Bowes lives in Wyoming. She lost a son at the Who concert. Peter Bowes was 18.

"I have this little picture of Peter with a little guitar next to it," she said. "Every time I look at it, I think: 'It shouldn't have happened.'

"I hope they know what they're doing down at City Hall."

Paul Wertheimer shares that hope. After the Who tragedy, he served as chief of staff on the task force that led to Cincinnati's festival seating ban. He's the founder of Crowd Management Strategies.

Following fatal concert crushes in Rhode Island and Chicago in 2003, Wertheimer served as a consultant for officials investigating what caused the loss of a combined 121 lives.

Wertheimer also serves on the board that helped establish the Life Safety Code of the National Fire Protection Association.

Portions of that code are incorporated into Cincinnati's new festival seating ordinance.

"That has me worried," Wertheimer said.

"Festival seating can be reasonably safe - if all of the provisions of the Life Safety Code are included.

"If the city is not careful, it could be heading for chaos, injury and possibly tragedy - things Cincinnati has avoided for nearly a quarter of a century."


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