For the last month I’ve been trying to fill-in the blanks on my understanding of the Great American Tower, AKA Queen City Square phase 1 and 2, AKA the Tiara Building on east Fourth St. The building represents a huge departure from previous funding practices and since the developer of the project has recently announced their intention to build two more major projects in the Lytle Park area, a similar public/private partnership is a high probability. While we can’t change the past, I want to be prepared to ask critical questions about our city’s future real estate deals and the only way I know how to do that is to study history.
I’m now down to one last question: Does the developer who holds the master lease retain any equity in the building even though the Port Authority is listed on the County Auditor’s site as the owner of record? This is important as the property has been listed for sale two years after completion with an asking price said to be at a substantial profit to publicly financed costs. Who gets those profits if and when the building is sold?
After I couldn’t get an answer, I sent an email to Laura Brunner, the executive director of the Port Authority, explaining my frustration. When we finally caught up with each by phone, halfway through our terse exchange she said, “Just because you don’t understand this, it doesn’t mean it’s illegal.”
I am not a lawyer, but let me make this perfectly clear, as far as I can tell, the Queen City Square agreements all fall within the letter of the law. In fact, let me go one step further and state unequivocally that I believe every single employee of the Port Authority and the City of Cincinnati Development Department who has responded to my requests is a highly-skilled, honest human being trying their best to do what’s right for our city.
What we have here is a fundamental difference of opinion about what is right. I believe that any publicly subsidized project that primarily benefits a single for-profit corporation, transfers the biggest part of the financial risk to an agency of the city and provides extremely limited opportunities to others outside of short-term construction jobs is wrong. I believe that it shouldn’t take five months of full-time investigation by a reasonably intelligent citizen to gather the basic facts about the biggest development project the Port Authority has ever funded.
Luckily the American system of government was designed to take into account a multitude of opinions. It’s called the public process and depends on transparency with open meetings and access to public records. Since every single Tax Increment Financing vote that I can identify has been taken on an emergency basis, without public input, we citizens have never been invited to be a part of that conversation. In fact, these deals are so complicated the public can’t even figure out there’s a conversation to be had and some of the most experienced people in the city have admitted without hesitation they don’t understand how it all works.
Laura Brunner told me that on all future requests the Port Authority was only required to provide specific documents without interpretation and they would treat everybody the same. She was not interested in my offer to work with the agency to present financial details on-line in a way that is easier for the public to access and understand. Her decision, of course, is completely legal, but in my opinion, it certainly is not right.