CINCINNATI - He was a can’t-miss prospect, this kid from Atlanta. Best player on the board, great measurables, we all agreed.
So we gave Carter Dawson the dream deal he desired. After a stellar rookie season, he changed his name to just Carter. Kind of like Deion, Tiger, LeBron. Is that where the luster started to fade? Because it’s going on seven years now since we signed that blockbuster contract and I’m starting to pine for Carter’s earlier glory.
Is it wrong to treat a development company like a draft pick?
After Carson Palmer signed his six-year, $118 million contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2005, we noticed every errant throw and measured his attitude with almost weekly diagnostics.
Why shouldn’t it be the same for the company formerly known as Carter Dawson? After all, it’s a $2 billion riverfront that taxpayers mostly funded. That means more of our money is at stake with the preferred developer of the Banks project than it was when Mike Brown delivered that six-figure treasure to our once-beloved quarterback.
So, I offer you a pair of scouting reports on Carter’s performance at the Banks. The first comes from Carter itself, in the form of detailed responses to the questions I sent them while researching this column . The second is my summation and it ends like this: Carter is just like every Bengals quarterback since Boomer Esiason, mostly competent but hardly inspirational.
After seven years, Carter’s biggest accomplishment remains its first accomplishment: It got the project unstuck. After a decade in limbo, Carter actually built something at the Banks. Anything would have been good. But Carter did much better than that. Its 300-unit apartment building, Current@TheBanks, changed the dynamics of the Cincinnati riverfront by filling up fast and drawing higher-than-expected rents. It proved the market.
On the retail side, Carter brought a lively tenant mix that combined local and national bars and restaurants. It’s not the kind of roster that makes you want to drive from Louisville, but it’s capable of drawing a local crowd. Or at least keep a crowd from quickly departing after sporting events.
But it could be much more.
In May, 2012, Carter’s top leasing specialist told me that he wanted to broaden the tenant mix at the Banks.
“We’re trying to talk to grocery, bookstores, general retail as well as restaurants and entertainment,” said Mark Fallon, vice president at Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate Inc. “We’re in a position now where we only are doing deals that are beneficial to the residents and the city downtown. We’re not just filling space. We are leasing with a purpose.”
Sounded great at the time, but it never happened. Fallon later told me that the Banks was sticking with what works, meaning bars and restaurants. Except maybe it isn’t working so well these days. Mahogany’s at the Banks is threatened with eviction. Cincinnati’s Mayor John Cranley says Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill is in a similar fix. News tipsters have been telling us similar sad stories about other tenants. Maybe it’s just a bad winter. Maybe it’s more than that.
Bars and restaurants are not enough to sustain an entertainment district long term. Just ask the folks at Main Street in Over-the-Rhine or Newport on the Levee.
An entertainment district needs traffic generators. The Banks has the Reds, Bengals, U.S. Bank Arena, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and 300 apartment units. And yet it needs more.
Carter’s original 2007 development agreement called for an office building and 100 residential condominiums to be under construction by now. Neither are done and they don’t appear close to being announced. Carter paid $250,000 to extend its deadline for this part of the Banks. And it modified its original plans to include a hotel, also unfinished.
“I think the critical piece is the hotel,” said Jim Moehring, co-owner of the Holy Grail Tavern & Grille at The Banks. Moehring said the Banks is a great location and restaurants should be able to adjust their business plans to thrive there. But more traffic generators would be welcome, he said, especially a hotel.
“That’s where you’re going to get the disposable income into the city,” he said. “Those folks have to go out to eat. It definitely would increase the amount of traffic in all the restaurants down there.”
Carter can’t blame market forces for its lack of a hotel deal. It’s been courting hotel prospects since at least 2012. Since then, seven hotels have been announced or completed in or near Downtown. Three are under construction right now.
Office development is obviously a tougher nut to crack, but deals are being done. Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate has a new office building under construction in Norwood. The
former Kenwood Collection is landing new tenants to what was once the region’s most prominent real estate failure, Kenwood Towne Place. Just a few blocks north of the Banks, Western-Southern Financial Group filled a million square feet at Great American Tower at Queen City Square.
While all this was happening, the developer formerly known as Carter Dawson cashed in its chips at the Banks first phase, fetching $79.5 million for the apartment and retail complex that made us fall in love with Carter all those years ago.
Now, Carter is working on Phase II at the Banks, building another 291 apartment units and 20,000 square feet of retail space in the block east of Freedom Center. More residents at the Banks, that’s a good thing. But more apartments may not be, according to Realtor Lee Robinson.
“I think the area would be more enriched to have an ownership component. You’d wind up having an even bigger economic engine in the area,” said Robinson, who specializes in luxury city-view properties for Robinson Sotheby International Realty.
“There’s a ton of people who’d like to live and own in the river valley. There’s a lot of people who go downtown right now, they don’t even have a view.”
Robinson said apartments are much easier to finance right now, and cheaper to build. But we didn’t hire Carter to pick low-hanging fruit.
Why not insist on something bigger, better, bolder?
“When you do an ownership product, not only do you get a more substantive building, it’s going to be stronger in all ways,” Robinson said. “They create a significantly stronger foundation.”
Come to think it, that’s the kind of language used to describe Carson Palmer’s big contract in 2005. An NFL quarterback is the foundation on which a Super Bowl contender can be built.
We all thought Carter Dawson was such a player seven years ago. How do we bring that player back?