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People behind the “Save Our Icons” campaign , to fund the renovations of Music Hall and Union Terminal in part by raising Hamilton County’s sales tax, are staying true to a strategy and script designed to clear three high hurdles.
CINCINNATI—People behind the “Save Our Icons” campaign, to fund the renovations of Music Hall and Union Terminal in part by raising Hamilton County’s sales tax, are staying true to a strategy and script designed to clear three high hurdles.
The first obstacle is history—specifically, taxpayers who, in 1996, shouldered an unprecedented amount of the costs for new Reds and Bengals stadiums. The second hurdle is a trio of county commissioners, who are wary of sending a new tax increase to voters. Should the campaign clear that commissioners, the final hurdle is Hamilton County voters who will ultimately decide its fate on the November ballot.
“Save Our Icons” is asking to raise the county sales tax a quarter-cent as one leg of a plan to raise $331 million to repair Union Terminal and Music Hall. Such an increase would raise Hamilton County's total sales tax from 6.75 cents on the dollar to 7 cents on the dollar.
If the commissioners agree, and if voters approve the measure, the tax increase would fund about $225 million of the cost of the overall project.
The plan also includes money from individual and corporate donors, the City of Cincinnati and, to a small but undetermined degree, fees attached to ticket sales at both centers.
County commissioners are holding public hearings at 6:30 p.m. July 23 at the Sharonville Convention Center, and 11 a.m. July 28 at the Hamilton County Administration Building in Cincinnati. Commissioners have until Aug. 6 to send the measure along for placement on the November ballot.
Hamilton County's Tax Levy Review Committee will submit its recommendation to Hamilton County commissioners before the public hearing.
The committee will recommend:
Tax Levy Review Committee Chairman Tom Cooney said the group wasn't troubled by the fact that its consultant, Hines Inc., said the project could cost about $10 million more than the task force estimated.
"It actually gave us a fair amount of comfort about the estimates," Cooney said. "Some of that was a change in scope where they're recommending things differently. And some of it was I think where they didn't totally understand the cost estimates. In a job like that – it's certainly reasonably close."
Campaign insiders are mixing a defensive game plan framed by balance sheets, economic forecasts and tax policy with an offensive game plan rooted in sentimentality and community spirit. It’s all waged by a cast of business and civic leaders armed with the research of accountants, architects and engineers.
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Union Terminal, left, and Music Hall in Cincinnati. (File images)
CINCINNATI—People behind the “Save Our Icons” campaign , to fund the renovations of Music Hall and Union Terminal in part by raising Hamilton County’s sales tax, are staying true to a strategy and script designed to clear three high hurdles.
The first obstacle is history—specifically, taxpayers who, in 1996, shouldered an unprecedented amount of the costs for new Reds and Bengals stadiums. The second hurdle is a trio of county commissioners, who are wary of sending a new tax increase to voters. Should the campaign clear commissioners, the final hurdle is Hamilton County voters, who will ultimately decide its fate in November.
“Save Our Icons” is asking to raise the county sales tax a quarter-cent as one leg of a plan to raise $331 million to repair Union Terminal and Music Hall. Such an increase would raise Hamilton County's total sales tax from 6.75 cents to 7 cents on the dollar.
If commissioners agree, and if voters approve the measure, the tax increase would fund about $225 million of the cost of the overall project.
Bob McDonald, the former P&G CEO nominated by President Barack Obama to head Veterans Affairs, directed the research and recommendations behind the campaign. He cited his time at West Point and studies of military history when framing the strategy.
“Many commanders have been outmanned during specific battles, but they've still been able to win by creating an innovative organizational structure that allows them to move more soldiers to the point of attack than the enemy,” McDonald said. “In some ways, that's what I see the role of this task force to be—provide a lightning rod.”
At its first presentation to commissioners on June 23, McDonald and other principals on the task force stressed the rigor, objectivity and independent analysis of their studies, along with the credentials of the people behind them. The underlying message to commissioners was clear: Any slowdown to further vet the task force’s findings would lead only to needless and costly delays.
Answering the concerns of commissioners and critics who cite the stadium deals, advocates are quick to point out differences: There are fewer surprises in the work and cost of renovating existing buildings than in starting from scratch. And money generated from the plan is restricted to these renovations.
One difference few mention: Those who manage Union Terminal and Music Hall can’t threaten to take their buildings and programs elsewhere, which was the case with Bengals stadium funding. Music Hall and Union Terminal, and programs housed in each are non-commercial community assets with histories and futures fixed in Cincinnati.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so we’re spending a lot of our time clearing that up,” said Trey Devey, president of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Advocates of the plan say it’s a better way than through property taxes to share the investment in these buildings with Hamilton County visitors. About 1.3 million people each year visit the Museum Center, many of whom come from outside the county.
Attendance is roughly even between the Children’s Museum, the Museum of Natural History & Science, the OmniMax theater and special exhibitions.
“The importance of this building as a platform for delivering content is absolutely essential,” said Elizabeth Pierce, vice president of the Museum Center.
Answering critics who suggest separating the buildings and funding requests, advocates point out that while Museum Center draws far more people than Music Hall each year, most of the pledged private money for renovations comes from people with deep stakes in the arts groups that call Music Hall home. Also, they say, coupling these renovation projects makes better sense with voters.
While insiders can’t threaten to take their buildings elsewhere, they’re leaning hard on commissioners to move the issue to voters, citing private funding and projected construction costs contingent on a timeline that includes a ballot measure this November. Email from the group, with bulleted talking points, have urged supporters to contact commissioners and attend public hearings.
“County commissioners and the public see the issue totally differently, I believe,” said Mu Sinclaire, a founding partner in the investment firm Ross, Sinclaire & Associates and longtime board member of the Cincinnati Opera, who headed up the the Save Our Icons funding committee.
“How do you get county commissioners, wondering ‘Can I become senator or governor if I ever pass a (tax increase) in my life?’ How do you get them on board?” Sinclaire said. “But it’s not all about finance. There’s emotion to it. I’m more interested in the fabric of the city, and I hope that’s one of the selling points we’ll get more into with the public.”
Beyond the numbers, arts and campaign leaders plan to inspire senses of public ownership by tugging at the memories of those who’ve graduated or married at the Museum Center or seen memorable performances at Music Hall, which borders Washington Park in Over-The-Rhine.
They’re also drawing lessons from research conducted by the Topos Partnership of Cincinnati, which studies and proposes policy around a range of social and civic issues. Through a 2009 study, Topos concluded the general public is most receptive to embracing responsibility and public funding for the arts when shown the “ripple effect” of the arts on the economy and quality of life in Cincinnati.
“Our artists are elevating the quality of life all around the region but, five years ago, we weren’t talking about what happens outside the concert hall and what it means to have a world-class orchestra in this community,” said Chris Pinelo, communications director with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
“We know we’re an economic driver. When people are looking at a community, they’re looking for a portfolio of options, whether sports or parks or arts and culture.
All these cultural institutions are part of that fabric.”