CINCINNATI -- Former Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken believes the small but powerful group that oversees development of Cincinnati’s riverfront needs to meet – or disband entirely.
His comments come just days after a WCPO report revealed the Joint Banks Steering Committee, of which Luken has been a member for three years, has not met publicly for nearly two years.
“As a member, I feel that we should start meeting, or we should quit,” Luken said. “It doesn’t make me feel comfortable at all to be a member of a board with such a heavy responsibility that doesn’t seem to meet.”
The committee is tasked with overseeing what will eventually be Cincinnati’s largest single, mixed-use development. It is on taxpayer-owned land along the Ohio River.
Luken, who has sat on at least a dozen local or state boards since he first took office 34 years ago, describes the Joint Banks Steering Committee as the “strangest board” he’s ever been on.
He is unsure if he’s still a member of the steering committee or if he’s been replaced, because the group has done such little work since Mayor John Cranley appointed Luken to the board.
“I don’t have a clue as to what progress or lack of progress is being made,” Luken said.
And neither do taxpayers, who have funded $100 million worth of infrastructure for the project, but have had little chance to weigh in on its future.
“It’s the most heavily subsidized piece of ground in Cincinnati history,” Luken said. “The public not only should know, they have a right to know what’s going on.”
But the group hasn’t met for two years simply because county and city staffers have been busy hammering out deals to present soon, said Tom Gabelman, the attorney who represents the county on The Banks project and sits on the committee.
“The city and county are diligently working with the developer to advance the next phase of the project,” Gabelman said.
Gabelman said he is optimistic a development structure for the next phase will be in place in the coming months. He expects to have enough to present the board within the next two months.
WCPO attempted to contact all eight members of the Banks Steering Committee. Other members were not available for comment, did not respond to the request, or declined comment.
Who sits on The Joint Banks Steering Committee?
- Bob Castellini, President of the Cincinnati Reds
- Katie Blackburn, Executive Vice President of the Cincinnati Bengals
- Tom Gabelman, Hamilton County’s counsel for The Banks project
- Charlie Luken, former Cincinnati Mayor
- Robert Richardson, Sr., president of the Cincinnati NAACP
- Robert Rhein, CEO of Rhein Interests, a land development company
- Stephen Leeper, President of Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC)
- Steven Love, President of SRL Consulting Inc., an economic inclusion services company
But Luken said now is the time for the board to be making headway on the project and discussing its future.
Cincinnati’s riverfront has been completely transformed over the last two decades, thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars local taxpayers have spent building two new stadiums and upgrading infrastructure there. Smale Riverfront Park, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, General Electric’s headquarters, new restaurants and shops have also added to the district’s newfound liveliness.
But a revolving door of restaurants and a lackluster residential base have left some wondering about The Bank’s chances for long-term success.
“The Banks is at a critical juncture, in the sense that there’s a lot of stuff down there and, thematically, I’ve never felt it works real well,” Luken said. “The next few phases are going to be key to giving character to The Banks.”
Gabelman said forthcoming plans for future development are just a matter of time.
Two phases of The Banks are complete, but more phases of the project still need to be developed before the initial plans, drafted nearly 20 years ago, are finished.
City and county leaders have always approved the committee’s recommendations for new developments at The Banks unanimously since the group was formed, Gabelman pointed out. He believes that’s proof the process – having the developer work with city and county staff work to fetch deals for The Banks, and then presenting them to the committee for consideration or feedback – works well.
“No one is sitting on their laurels,” Gabelman said. “We have a record achievement. The process is a good one, and sometimes it does take time.”
Luken said the last time the committee met, they discussed the possibility of University of Cincinnati relocating its law school to The Banks. He could not locate records indicating the date of that meeting.
Yet county and The Banks leaders say the last time the committee formally met was in May of 2015. Records from that meeting do not mention the UC Law Center.
An additional WCPO request of records from the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County leaders produced an email that identifies a Joint Banks Steering Committee meeting in January 2016 – days before UC officials announced they would further explore a law center on Cincinnati’s riverfront.
Luken ended up being the lone dissenter of the idea to relocate the law center to The Banks at that last meeting, he said. UC’s Board of Trustees voted in August to keep the law school on campus.
He said there would be two big negatives if the law school relocated: First, it would be too far off campus and, second, the law school is exempt from paying the property taxes used to further development at The Banks.
Luken said he hasn't heard from the Joint Banks Steering Committee since that meeting, save for routine updates via email that he describes as “meaningless.”
“It seemed like I was the only one who had reservations,” Luken said. “That was the last time we ever got together."