Investor: City, county will lose $1.1M yearly if Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra runs concert venue

CINCINNATI -- City and county taxpayers will miss out on $1.1 million every year if the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is selected to run a concert venue at The Banks, according to the riverfront project’s biggest private investor.

Investor Mark Nicol urged Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County Commissioners to instead select Columbus-based PromoWest as the developer for the project, according to a letter Nicol sent Thursday. WCPO obtained a copy of the letter through a public records request.

Nicol’s letter picked apart the CSO bid, questioning whether it could attract top artists, and suggesting that their idea to build a “temporary” outdoor stage for concerts would be underutilized.

But Nicol’s biggest concern was the potential loss of taxpayer dollars if CSO got the bid.

“Over 30 years, the potential cost to the city and county is upwards of $50,000,000,” Nicol wrote in the letter sent May 10. “In simple present value terms, the value of these lost public revenues over 30 years is approximately $17,500,000. These are very meaningful figures.”

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Last week the Joint Banks Steering Committee – a powerful group of the city’s most prominent business leaders — voted to award the CSO with the bid to build a new concert venue on The Banks, which is taxpayer-owned land. The committee is a public body that guides decision-making at The Banks.

“With that recommendation, we look forward to working with the Joint Banks Steering Committee, the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County to create a music venue that will establish Cincinnati as the premiere destination for concerts,” Chris Pinelo, the vice president of communications for the CSO, said in a statement.

Two other competitors — the nation’s largest concert promoter, Live Nation, and PromoWest, lost the bid in part because CSO had a hometown advantage.

Committee Chairman Bob Castellini acknowledged the city and county would lose tax revenue if the nonprofit was selected to construct the venue but supported the CSO because it “is Cincinnati,” and everyone involved “are Cincinnatians.”

Now the Cincinnati City Council and the Hamilton County Commission will have the final say on who gets to build.

Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune has thrown his support behind the CSO, while Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley supports PromoWest.

Ahead of those votes, Nicol aired his concerns in a three-page letter to both elected bodies.

“We understand there is enormous pressure to select the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as the operator,” Nicol wrote in the letter sent May 10. “The reality of selecting CSO … results in a very significant economic trade-off from lost tax and parking revenues.”

Nicol calculates that the city and county will collectively lose $860,000 worth of property, sales and admission taxes every year if the CSO, a nonprofit that runs Riverbend Music Center and Taft Theatre, is chosen to build and operate the riverfront concert venue.

The CSO also plans to host roughly 30 fewer concerts every year, which will impact parking revenues. Nicol estimates that could cost the county, which owns the parking garages at The Banks, close to $290,000 every year.

Nicol also worries the CSO may not be able to bring the same top artists to The Banks that PromoWest could.

“As the operator of similar venues in Columbus and Pittsburgh, they have a strategic edge in booking artists by creating a circuit between these three locations,” Nichol wrote. “PromoWest also has no other facilities in Cincinnati that will take their attention or focus away from programming only the best acts.”

But earlier this week, leaders working on the CSO’s bid directly challenged suggestions that the nonprofit will not attract big talent to the Riverfront.

“We’re in business – there’s no motivation for us to book just older acts,” Mike Smith, the president of Music and Event Management Inc., the CSO’s concert promoter, told Hamilton County Commissioners Monday.

Tom Gabelman, the private attorney representing the county at The Banks, also argued earlier this week that PromoWest’s bid would be more expensive for taxpayers.

PromoWest proposed using more than 2 acres of riverfront land for the concert venue. That land is valued at roughly $8.8 million.

The CSO, meanwhile, would use under an acre for its proposed indoor-only facility.

“That’s about a $6 million difference just in the cost of the land,” Gabelman told county commissioners Monday.

Nicol wants the CSO and PromoWest to present their proposals directly to city council and be given the chance to amend their proposals.

After the Steering Committee’s vote last week, both PromoWest and Live Nation leaders questioned whether the selection process was fair.

Michael Belkin, the head of Live Nation’s Cleveland office, said the company was open to changing the bid, to make it smaller, and to fund the project rather than ask for public help.

“I’m not sure how much of an opportunity we had to revise, versus maybe some of the other entities that were part of the process,” Belkin said.

PromoWest CEO Scott Steinecker, who originally proposed building the concert venue at The Banks more than four years ago, said the committee was pressured to “go local.”

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