One Small Step for Cincyopolis – one giant leap for transparency

Yesterday’s letter from Tom Stapleton, Senior Vice President of Eagle Realty Group, marks the beginning of a new era in Cincinnati.  The tone was co-operative, the information, a helpful and specific record of the logic behind public subsidy on one of the biggest for-profit projects Cincinnati has ever under-taken.  My only frustration is that it took 9 months of relentless arm-twisting to get to these numbers in a format that is easy to understand and can be shared.

Yet Tom and his boss, Mario San Marco, would tell you that those 9 months were completely unnecessary.  “Why didn’t you just ask us?” Mario said during our conversation last week. And maybe he’s right.  Maybe I should have just picked-up the phone and asked.

Except for two things:

(1) There’s a steep learning curve involved in commercial real estate development, especially the financing part of it – and in the beginning I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, much less what questions I needed to ask.

(2) You don’t really want to ask the people who are making the money off the project for independent and complete analysis of their building.  I thought the government entities that facilitated this mega-Tax-Increment-Financing Project should – in a perfect world – be the keepers of record and my best source of verifiable data.

But the world is not perfect, Citizens. The only page on the internet dedicated to public involvement on Great American Tower is on the Port Authority web site, a couple of paragraphs that are more public relations material than accurate and complete financial data with measurable benefit-expectations clearly spelled-out.  When I pushed for more information about the “whys” of city involvement early on, one of the most knowledgeable public employees associated with Queen City  Square admitted, “We did it because City Hall told us to do it and you’ll have a hard time finding anybody there to talk to since those people are all gone.”  This is a building that opened 4 years ago – not 30 – and we should have a written, on-line record accessible to the public in a format that is easy to understand – not 50,000 pages of documents in boxes in storage.

Let us rejoice, Cincinnati.  In the scope of world problems, this one is relatively easy to solve.  It’s not poverty.  It’s not the Middle East or global warming.  This is numbers on a page and all it takes to fix it is commitment and some focus.  We’ve even got a model to use – not a perfect model – but a darn good start:  3CDC dedicates a page to every single one of their projects complete with financing details and links to informational videos for people who want to learn more.  (Wouldn’t it be nice if they could add information about how these deals impact property taxes?)

Screenshot 2015-04-09 at 8.55.38 AM

Tom and Mario, I have a lot to learn about how a city gets built – but here’s one thing I know for absolute sure:  If we discipline ourselves to do our homework and ask the important questions before we make investments that will be with us for generations, and if we put our assumptions out in public where everybody can see what we are doing and why we are doing it – we will make better decisions.  I learned that as a financial consultant and the principles of good investment are the same for families as they are for cities.  Public scrutiny is not a cumbersome evil to be avoided.  It’s a crucial step in the decision making process that will help politicians, public administrators and – yes!  – even private, for-profit developers build a really, really great city where everybody wants to live.

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