During the last ten years more and more decisions about real estate development have moved from City Hall to outside development agencies run by independent boards.
City Council still votes on property tax abatement and the other government hand-outs that have come to be taken for granted by today’s corporate developers, but members of Council get their advice about what needs to be built from 3CDC, the Port Authority and in the not too distant future, REDI.. These agencies are not compelled to meet the same standards for transparency as full-fledged government entities, there’s a lot of room for interpretation and my experiences trying to get information have been far from uniformly positive. If voters don’t agree with direction, there’s no chance to vote the bums out every four years like we can with stinky elected officials. Boards are political appointments, made the way political appointments are, too often based on campaign contributions and personal relationships.
So get out your magnifying glass and study these names. They are very important. Especially Tom Williams, CEO of North American Properties, who quite literally seems to be at the center of EVERYTHING: not only is he head honcho of the Cincinnati Business Committee, the man clearly is a glutton for meetings and serves on all three real estate development boards. A member of the Williams family that founded Western & Southern, his company develops real estate all over the country, including the big, luxury condo project in Mariemont he built with fellow Port Authority board member, Rick Greiwe. North American was also recently awarded the apartment project above the planned city-owned garage at the corner of Eighth and Sycamore, a cause for some grumbling in the real estate community about what appeared to be a departure from the normally required competitive bidding process. Lucky for us, Cincinnati, everybody I ask consistently says Tom Williams is a very nice guy.
As you study the Venn diagram below, please note how small the Port Authority board is relative to 3CDC and REDI. These organizations are making themselves up as they go along and a recent presentation to Chris Smitherman’s very important Economic Development & Infrastructure Committee – (also very small, now that I think of it: Smitherman, Murray and Winburn) – indicates ambitious plans. The city has granted the Port Authority the right to issue bonds and own land. Earlier this year, their executive director ruffled a few feathers on both sides of the river when she started to make noises about the Port taking over the Brent Spence Bridge project – which was the same month the Business Courier reported their new vision for redeveloping all of Queensgate. This group might be relatively small, but it certainly doesn’t think that way. Our city appears to be going in the direction of more and more speculative real estate investments – which is great – unless – uh,oh – something unexpected goes wrong. (But how often does that happen? wink, wink)
The other two boards are bigger – which translates into broader perspectives, more checks and balances. But there sure is a lot of cross-over between REDI and 3CDC, with John Barrett, Kay Geiger, and Andy Hodgett serving on both. Shane Wright, Ed Jackson, and Scott Robertson double-up on Port Authority and 3CDC board-duty.
These are groups that clearly feel very comfortable with each other and are dominated by powerful members with for-profit interests in the real estate industry. It behooves us to pay very close attention to what the heck they’re doing. These are decisions that last lifetimes where mistakes are always very expensive.