Union Terminal restoration to cost about $900,000 more than originally expected

Builders hope for no more big 'surprises'

CINCINNATI -- It will cost about $900,000 more than expected to restore historic Union Terminal.

But taxpayers won't be on the hook for any extra cash.

The $212.7 million project still has a contingency fund of about $9 million for any other unexpected cost increases, John Silverman told Hamilton County commissioners Monday.

"The proper headline is that we have found that we are overall on budget and on time," said Silverman, chairman of the Union Terminal Restoration Advisory Committee. "The difference is about half a percentage point."

The higher cost is the result of additional masonry work needed on two of the building's large walls -- the drum wall under the building's dome and the west wall in the rear of the structure. The original cost estimate was based on the work of the Cultural Facilities Task Force, which Silverman noted came very close to the current figure.

Hamilton County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase in 2014 to fund a large portion of the restoration. The tax is expected to generate $175.7 million toward the cost of the project for the five years that it is in place.

Federal historic tax credits are expected to cover another $21.3 million of the cost. Supporters already have raised another $7.5 million in private philanthropy to help pay for the restoration, too, and state historic tax credits and a grant from the state of Ohio are expected to cover the balance.

Commissioner Chris Monzel asked Cincinnati Museum Center CEO Elizabeth Pierce if she and her staff thought there would be any other "surprises" -- beyond the extra $900,000 -- during the restoration effort.

Elizabeth Pierce

"I think there will always be surprises when we open an 80-year-old building," Pierce said. "Those have been mitigated as much as possible with laser scanning. And we have a contingency."

Michael Burson, the owner's representative for the restoration project, said he doesn't expect any "surprises" as big as the added masonry work that boosted the cost by $900,000.

Commissioners are expected to vote Wednesday on whether to approve the latest cost estimates.

'Knock on wood'

During the 2014 campaign, there was concern that relying on a sales tax could be financially dangerous because of Hamilton County's history with the construction of Paul Brown Stadium.

The half-cent sales tax passed in 1996 to help fund construction of new homes for both the Bengals and the Reds didn't bring in as much money as originally projected.

For the Union Terminal restoration, the budget was based on absolutely no growth in county sales tax revenues.

So far, the tax has brought in more than expected, Silverman noted during the meeting with commissioners.

"Knock on wood," Monzel replied.

Monzel added later that the sales tax is designed to expire five years after taking effect no matter what.

"Whatever is collected, if it's above and beyond what's needed here, will be set aside for the maintenance and upkeep of the facility," he said.

Pierce said after the meeting that she, her staff and advisors remain "cautiously optimistic" that the sales tax will generate the money that is needed to cover the county's $175.7 million contribution to the project.

The renovation will create a more inviting space for the holiday train exhibit.

"We are absolutely paying attention to the fact that nobody knows what's going to happen in the economy in the next five years," she said.

If for some reason the sales tax growth were to slip and the increase did not generate as much money as expected, Cincinnati Museum Center would be responsible for covering the difference, she said.

Meanwhile, as work begins on the Union Terminal building itself, Cincinnati Museum Center is working to raise private dollars to update and improve the exhibits that will move back inside after the restoration is completed in Fall 2018.

"We've had 18 million people come through in the last 25 years, and many have said, 'When are you going to update the exhibits?'" Pierce said. "But it was difficult to update the exhibits when the building was leaking into them."

Pierce stressed that there are no firm details for new exhibits, but the museum center staff is considering more dinosaurs, a more in-depth exhibit related to space exploration and activities that explore the relationship between science and industry.

"Fixing the building is the first step to being able to provide new and refreshed content inside the building," Pierce said.

A rendering of Union Terminal's exterior after the restoration.

The presentation made to Hamilton County Commissioners Monday is available online. For more information about the Union Terminal restoration project, go to myunionterminal.com.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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