The strategy and politics behind campaign to fund Music Hall, Union Terminal repairs

Offense built on heart, defense rooted in numbers

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:

  •   That the city of Cincinnati contribute roughly $10 million more to the plan to help cover repairs to Dalton Street near Union Terminal and the fountain outside.
  •   That private donors kick in another $10 million to $25 million to help fund the repairs to both buildings.
  •   That user fees be added to tickets for Cincinnati Museum Center and Music Hall performances to help pay for repairs, too. Once that work is finished, the fees could help fund ongoing maintenance of the buildings.

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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