CINCINNATI -- In his final State of the City address before he leaves office in December, a reflective Mayor Mark Mallory said Tuesday that he worked hard to change the city’s direction.
Speaking before an audience at Ensemble Theatre in Over-the-Rhine, Mallory cited difficulties in getting the long-planned Banks riverfront district built.
Two days after he took office in late 2005, the developer for The Banks pulled out of the project. Other politicians urged him to declare the project dead, the mayor said, but he refused.
“I said no, that is not leadership, that's not the way we do things,” Mallory told the crowd.
Instead, Mallory worked to reach a deal with another developer. Just before contracts were to be signed, that company also cancelled.
For the first time, Mallory revealed the firm was American International Group (AIG). These days, the company is best known for triggering the financial crisis of 2008.
Despite the initial problems, a deal eventually was struck with Atlanta-based Carter-Dawson to develop The Banks, and now apartments and restaurants fill the once-vacant area between the Reds and Bengals stadium, with more planned in the future.
In a reference to the city’s controversial streetcar project, Mallory said, “Now we take on big projects. We now set our sights higher. We set our goals higher. Now we are not discouraged by obstacles the way we used to be. And we have retrained ourselves so that now we can achieve.”
The $133 million streetcar system, now under construction in downtown and Over-the-Rhine, has been a central issue in the mayoral race.
Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls – Mallory’s ally -- supports the project, while ex-City Councilman John Cranley opposes it.
“Well, I know that a lot of people think I want my legacy to be the streetcar; that is not the case,” Mallory said. “You may think that I want my legacy to be The Banks, or the revitalization of Over-the-Rhine or the progress we made in communities around the city.
“That is not what I want,” he added. “I simply want my legacy to be that I said I was going to change the direction of the city of Cincinnati, and we did that.”
Mallory struck a casual tone in the speech, strolling around a living room set at the theater. During his remarks, he cracked jokes about killing pigeons on Fountain Square and fooled the audience into believing that ABC talk show host Jimmy Kimmel was in attendance.
"Whoa, you all are so gullible tonight," Mallory quipped, as the crowd began to applaud.
Although Mallory showed video clips of business leaders like Reds owner Bob Castellini praising his efforts, some small business owners contacted after the speech remained critical.
Mark Rogers, owner of the 20th Century Theater and Habits Cafe in Oakley, called Mallory's claims exaggerated and said he's taking credit for efforts done by others.
"It's all propaganda," Rogers said. "I look at his time in office as a failure.
"He's been all over the world traveling, wasting money," Rogers added. "Then there's the parking meter deal, which citizens will be stuck with for 30 years. The streetcar is a gimmick that won't have the returns that are promised."
Pete Witte, a lifelong Price Hill resident who owns a printing shop, said Mallory was aloof and disconnected from issues that affect neighborhoods.
"He was a rather quiet mayor when it came to any tough decisions besides the streetcar," Witte said.
"Mayor Mallory's term was marked by significant advances downtown while neighborhoods continued their struggles with little help from him," Witte added.
During his speech, the mayor cited drops in violent crime and efforts to curtail spending at City Hall, along with investing more in neighborhood projects.
Since Mallory took office, major crimes have decreased 20.2 percent, and violent crime has dropped 25.6 percent.
“We have done it by being strategic, by creating partnerships with other agencies, by partnering with the community,” the mayor said. “The success we have seen in the area of public safety is what has allowed the redevelopment efforts to take hold in many of our communities.”
Additionally, although overall city spending has increased 2.7 percent while Mallory has been in office, he noted it is still laudable amid rising costs.
“That's not a big number,” he said. “If you factor in inflation, we are actually spending less today than we did my first year in office.”
Mallory also noted $91 million was spent on new housing projects during his tenure, as well as $16 million for Neighborhood Business District projects.
“We have made some tough choices,” Mallory said. “And have we cobbled together some budgets with bubblegum and shoestring.
“Many cities were not able to do what we did,” he added. “We have continued to provide citizens with high quality city services. There were no layoffs of police officers or firefighters. And we actually increased our reserves from $39 million in 2005 to $50 million this year.”
Mallory said Cincinnati’s collective attitude has changed for the better during the past eight years, and cautioned residents against falling into old habits.
“And the question becomes, where do we go from here?” the mayor asked. “Are we going to stay on this path of positive change? Not everything has been perfect, but are we definitely on the right path.”
“If there is a legacy to be left, it is one that challenges the citizens of this city to never accept that we cannot do what we set out to do,” he added.
A Democrat, Mallory was elected mayor in 2005 after he left the Ohio Senate due to term limits. He defeated another Democrat in that race, then-City Councilman David Pepper.
Mallory was easily reelected to a second term in 2009, beating Republican newcomer Brad Wenstrup.
Before his time at City Hall, Mallory served at the Ohio Statehouse for nearly 11 years. He was elected to the first of two terms in the Ohio House in 1994, replacing his father, William Mallory Sr., who retired after three decades in the legislature.
In 1998 the younger Mallory was elected to the Ohio Senate.
Mallory, 51, hasn’t revealed what his career plans are once he steps down as mayor on Dec. 1.