More cash needed to finish vision for Smale Riverfront Park

Parks needs $1.5M to build marina

CINCINNATI -- A marina, an upscale restaurant and a spruced up riverfront edge are all planned for Smale Riverfront Park’s future, but nobody’s offered up enough cash yet to get those projects done.

If voters had passed a levy this fall agreeing to pay more property taxes to fund the parks, the city would be getting a marina on the Ohio River. But with that levy’s failure, the Cincinnati Parks Board is now trying to figure out where – if at all – they can dig up $1.5 million to build the marina.

The parks board has a $1.8 million funding promise from the federal government for the marina but has to come up with an extra $1.5 million in order to actually get the cash.

“The council, the mayor and the (parks) board still need to sit down and tell me, 'Is this something you want me to do?'” said Parks Board Director Willie Carden.

If the marina is constructed, the idea is that up to 30 boats could stop at the marina at one time. Boaters would pay to dock at the marina, and they might hop off their watercraft to grab lunch at a nearby restaurant or spend the afternoon at the park.

“You could dock and go to a Red’s game,” Carden said. “How cool would that be? Where’s that experience anywhere within Cincinnati?”

Carden believes the marina could make enough money to be self-sustaining – the parks system would charge boaters fees to dock, hook up to water and sewer or get laundry services.

The marina is one of three more projects planned for Smale Riverfront Park that haven’t been finished yet. The $40 million phase of the park opened more than three years ago in 2012, but additions continue to pop up.

An indoor carousel opened up late last year while the new pavilion, swings and a foot piano were unveiled this summer.

Still, the park isn’t complete – at least not to the initial vision. So, far roughly $100 million has been spent on a project that’s expected to cost closer to $120 million once everything is done.

The marina was supposed to be the next step in the project. Carden wanted to work on luring a white-cloth-table restaurant to the park and build a stone edge along the riverfront after that within the next three to five years.

But then the parks levy failed. Now, Carden isn’t as confident all -- or any -- of that will happen.

He hopes the city might kick in the funding for the marina next year but he also realizes he’s competing with other city priorities – such as police and fire – for those extra dollars.

“I’m not getting any illusions,” Carden said in an interview this week. “The city has some really tough budget (decisions).”

It doesn’t help that the parks capital budget – money the board uses to build new playgrounds or trails around the city – has been on the decline, too, in recent years. In 2010, the city handed over more than $3 million for new parks projects – last year the parks got $2 million.

Cincinnati Councilman David Mann supported the parks levy but he’s not decided if he’ll support spending money to build the new marina.

“It’s not my priority; I would rather fix trails and broken picnic tables,” Mann said. “We’ve got a lot of demands on the budget. It’s sort of ironic to me that some of my colleagues that were strong opponents are now saying, ‘The parks desperately need money.’”

Yvette Simpson is one of the City Council members who stood up against the parks levy and now she’s vowing to find an extra $4 million to fund the parks – marina included – next year. She hasn’t said yet where that money might come from.

“I am asking the city administration to list the marina project as a top priority mega project in next year’s budget,” Simpson said in an email.

A spokesman for the city manager’s office said departments are currently submitting budget priorities. A new city budget won’t pass, however, until June – two months before the parks must match the $1.8 million federal grant. 

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