Tag Archives: Mario San Marco

The Lytle Park Mystery Hole

Last week I was running to an appointment when I bumped into Mario San Marco coming out of the University Club.  He’s the President of Eagle Realty, a subsidiary of Western & Southern, the developer of Queen City Square/Great American Tower, the hotel-conversion of the Anna Louise Inn, and the new hotel proposed for the Banks, to name but a handful of their current mega-deals. (He’s big.  Really big.)

“I was just talking to one of the guys on the crew on the Lytle Park construction site,” I told him, “and he said the only reason for that hole IS to replace the utilities.”

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This picture was taken on August 16, but all the dirt is out of the hole now. This is what a 2-year project to replace ventilation fans and upgrade the lighting system looks like. Come see for yourself. It’s a damn, big hole.

The “hole” I was referring to is the giant mystery hole that looks suspiciously like the same type of construction used for the underground garage in Washington Park and I knew Mario would be interested since he’d sent me an email on July 27th regarding my post, “Calling all Engineers and Construction Professionals.”

washingtonparkgarage

This is what the underground garage looked like during construction in Washington Park. You can see why a neighbor might get confused.

“Your posting of rumors that you have not taken the time to validate does nothing to further the efforts  of attempting to restore 311 Pike Street and the former Anna Louise Inn Building for adaptive reuse, with positive impact for our neighborhood and City. Had you called me or emailed me and waited for a response to your inquiry of the State of Ohio, you could have used your forum to make a positive statement that would have reassured stakeholders that the work being done by the State was federally/state mandated and will serve to maintain the park for many years to come. You can be assured that none of the work on the tunnel is to accommodate any plans we have for the Lytle Park neighborhood.”

While Mario’s offer to answer my questions regarding the Ohio Department of Transportation project in a public park is generous, I’m stymied. Why would I contact an executive of a private corporation about a public project on publicly owned land?   I thought the logical source for information would be officials who have a fiduciary responsibility for taxpayer interests.  And yet this is the second time that Mario has called me to task for not coming to him on such a matter. After 6 months of calls to the Cincinnati Public Schools, the Port Authority, the Hamilton County Auditor, city administrators and elected representatives, finally Western & Southern summoned me to their office and told me where to look for the semi-annual property tax payments they’ve been making to our public schools for Queen City Square.  (Indeed, it was a lot faster when the pros gave me the clues – but, come on, somebody in the public sector should have known where to look for the tax payments on one of our biggest public-private partnerships ever-completed.)

“Were you telling them how to do the job?” Mario chided when he heard I was talking to the construction guys.

Which is pretty much the same attitude I always get from the professionals who have made all the decisions about our “public-private” partnerships behind closed-doors for decades.

This is none of my business.  I don’t know enough.  About public financing.  About real estate development.  About journalism.  I should go back to school before I write about these complicated matters.  I should trust the professionals.

Except I don’t.

Because all the professional-experts earn their livings from building these big projects, even the ones who work for public agencies – and the professional journalists clearly can’t afford to alienate the business community if they don’t want advertising pulled. Our experts are not capable of being objective.  Objective sources I can identify – long-term trends in property tax income, infant mortality rates, the poverty rate, and population figures – all of these sources are flashing the exact same great big giant red neon warning signs:  Whatever we’ve been doing based on the advice of our experts hasn’t been working.  If the point is not just to build buildings but to improve the standard of living for all the residents of Cincinnati, the results have been a disaster.

This country was founded on democratic principles of citizen participation in the decision-making process.  We not only have the  right to ask questions about public projects.  It is our responsibility to ask them. The reason for Ohio Sunshine Laws, for open records and meetings is so that we can verify the integrity of the democratic process as well as fair and even application of our laws.  Access to information is not enough in and of itself.  We have to use that information to demand accountability so that we can make better decisions about our collective future.

Whether or not the Lytle Park Mystery Hole turns out to be a garage or just a hole is irrelevant to my responsibility to raise awareness about decisions from which the public has always been intentionally excluded.  The public needs to ask more questions. Lots of them  And hard ones.  If developers and public administrators find the questions annoying, these projects should be undertaken with private money, not the public’s.

BTW, I did call Mario in response to his email and even offered to let him write his own post for cincyopolis.  He never returned my call or acknowledged my emails.

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?)

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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.

“Guess who this is? . . . It’s Mario.”

SAN_MARCO_MARIO_Eagle_WS_0662

My friend, Mario San Marco

Mario San Marco, President of Eagle Realty Group, and I have a history.  It started in 2011 when I concocted an extravaganza called “Cincinnati Dreams Italy” in conjunction with the Taft Museum. Even though I’d never met him before I wrote Mario a letter asking if we could use a few of his buildings and – the crazy Italian – he said ‘yes.’  It was a ridiculous undertaking that included over a hundred local artists, 3 locations, and the installation of a bocce court in the middle of Lytle Park – all in less than 6 weeks.

A few days before the opening, my phone rang and it was the president of the United States Bocce Federation.  “It’s been brought to our attention that you intend to hold a tournament without official sanction from our governing body,” he said.  I tried to be polite.  I explained that the tournament was about building community, that I didn’t really know anything about bocce or the Federation or sports in general.  The conversation went on for several minutes before Mario finally identified himself.  I’d been punk’d by the best.  He was en route to a family vacation with one of his sons riding shotgun, the whole exchange broadcast on speaker.

So when I answered my cell phone the other day my first reaction was to assume someone was playing a joke on me.  But it was really Mario.  He wanted to get me together with Tom Stapleton, Eagle’s senior vice president, so they could clarify the facts regarding Great American Tower.  We agreed to meet the following afternoon at his office in the Guildford Building.

Am I brave?  Or ridiculously foolish?  Our meeting was on Good Friday and the front door was locked when I arrived.  I had to call upstairs for somebody to come down and let me in, the whole place dark and empty, me, alone, with these two powerful, important men on their home turf.

Mario was very serious.  He communicated that Western & Southern cared deeply about its reputation and readers of my blog were getting the impression of wrong-doing, particularly related to my focus on their Queen City Square development. The real purpose of our emergency pow-wow was to hand-deliver a formal letter of clarification Tom had prepared.  Until Mario handed me my copy of the document, I hadn’t even noticed the blue folder sitting in the middle of the conference table.

Mario and Tom said they seldom grant interviews because the media so often gets the facts wrong. In order to avoid any possibility of mis-interpretation, this is the original text of that letter in its entirety:

W&S page 1

W&S page 2

As we shook hands before I left, Tom smiled and handed me his business card.  “Call me with any questions,” he said – and he sounded sincere.  So let’s call this the start of a new version of public-private partnership in developing Cincinnati, one where citizens and for-profit developers work together in a spirit of trust and cooperation to create a great place to live.  Tomorrow I’ll share a few comments about Tom’s letter and my first steps towards team-building.

"Guess who this is? . . . It's Mario."

SAN_MARCO_MARIO_Eagle_WS_0662

My friend, Mario San Marco

Mario San Marco, President of Eagle Realty Group, and I have a history.  It started in 2011 when I concocted an extravaganza called “Cincinnati Dreams Italy” in conjunction with the Taft Museum. Even though I’d never met him before I wrote Mario a letter asking if we could use a few of his buildings and – the crazy Italian – he said ‘yes.’  It was a ridiculous undertaking that included over a hundred local artists, 3 locations, and the installation of a bocce court in the middle of Lytle Park – all in less than 6 weeks.

A few days before the opening, my phone rang and it was the president of the United States Bocce Federation.  “It’s been brought to our attention that you intend to hold a tournament without official sanction from our governing body,” he said.  I tried to be polite.  I explained that the tournament was about building community, that I didn’t really know anything about bocce or the Federation or sports in general.  The conversation went on for several minutes before Mario finally identified himself.  I’d been punk’d by the best.  He was en route to a family vacation with one of his sons riding shotgun, the whole exchange broadcast on speaker.

So when I answered my cell phone the other day my first reaction was to assume someone was playing a joke on me.  But it was really Mario.  He wanted to get me together with Tom Stapleton, Eagle’s senior vice president, so they could clarify the facts regarding Great American Tower.  We agreed to meet the following afternoon at his office in the Guildford Building.

Am I brave?  Or ridiculously foolish?  Our meeting was on Good Friday and the front door was locked when I arrived.  I had to call upstairs for somebody to come down and let me in, the whole place dark and empty, me, alone, with these two powerful, important men on their home turf.

Mario was very serious.  He communicated that Western & Southern cared deeply about its reputation and readers of my blog were getting the impression of wrong-doing, particularly related to my focus on their Queen City Square development. The real purpose of our emergency pow-wow was to hand-deliver a formal letter of clarification Tom had prepared.  Until Mario handed me my copy of the document, I hadn’t even noticed the blue folder sitting in the middle of the conference table.

Mario and Tom said they seldom grant interviews because the media so often gets the facts wrong. In order to avoid any possibility of mis-interpretation, this is the original text of that letter in its entirety:

W&S page 1

W&S page 2

As we shook hands before I left, Tom smiled and handed me his business card.  “Call me with any questions,” he said – and he sounded sincere.  So let’s call this the start of a new version of public-private partnership in developing Cincinnati, one where citizens and for-profit developers work together in a spirit of trust and cooperation to create a great place to live.  Tomorrow I’ll share a few comments about Tom’s letter and my first steps towards team-building.

You Can Sleep-in Tomorrow, Port Authority Citizens’ Brigade

Luckily I stopped by the Port Authority’s booth at the Cincinnati Neighborhood Summit on Saturday. As soon as I spotted their logo on the banner I burst out laughing, explaining to the two professional-looking representatives behind their table that I had a history with the organization.

“You’re Kathy,” Gail guessed.  (In all fairness, I was wearing a plastic-encased name badge around my neck.  How many ‘Kathy’s could there be?)

“Did anybody tell you we canceled the board meeting for this month?”  she asked after exchanging initial pleasantries. “Susan said she’d let you know.”

Let’s stop here to review the facts:

1.  The Port Authority as an organization is keenly aware of my concerns regarding their interpretation of transparency and my call for citizens to attend board meetings.

2.  An extraordinarily powerful agency with the right to levy taxes and form a police force, issue bonds and own property, they schedule ten meetings a year that are open to the public.

3.  Last month’s meeting – attended by 6 members of the public, an event so rare the Chair acknowledged each one of us by name – was a whopping total of 32 minutes long.

4.  There are 3 new members on the 9 member board:  (1) Mario San Marco of Eagle Realty (Western & Southern) – the developer of the biggest project ever undertaken by the Port, (2) former Mayor Charlie Luken,  – both appointed by Mayor Cranley – and the Hamilton County Commissioner’s appointment, Bobby Fisher, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Washing Systems LLC, a leading provider of specialty chemicals and related products to the industrial uniform and linen rental markets.  I was particularly excited about starting to get to know Mr. Fisher.

5.Last month the Port announced the approval of their application to increase the area of their jurisdiction to include Northern Kentucky, more than doubling the size of the area they cover.  Every elected official in both states – governors, senators, county commissioners – all of them agree enthusiastically with Mayor John Cranley that: “This designation is great news for Cincinnati and our entire region. It should help us boost river commerce and increase our area’s marketing clout. It also will better reflect our region’s true impact as an inland river port.”  Maybe I’m slow-witted, but I still don’t understand why a perception of more freight on our river is such a big deal and I am eager to learn more about the real purpose behind this change.

6.  Last month the Port announced they are starting a strategic planning process that will last through June.  I was hoping to hear more about that, to ask board members after the meeting how that planning will address citizen concerns about transparency.  (Members of the public are not permitted to participate in the board meetings, but the Chair was available to talk afterwards.)

7.  Another interested citizen who stopped by the booth was informed that the reason for the cancellation was because the Port Authority staff had a lot going on and was “too busy.”

In answer to your question, Gail, no, nobody got in touch with me.  There was no public announcement.  The date for the next board meeting was just quietly changed without any fanfare on the bottom left hand corner of the home page of the Port’s website.

Port of Greater Cincinnati, Development Authority, this is not transparency. This is the theater of transparency.  Whatever is being decided by the governing body of this public agency regarding our public dollars, it is happening off-the-record and out-of-sight of the taxpayers.  Citizens, it is more important than ever that you mark your calendars for April 8 at the ungodly hour of 8 am and get yourself down to the Taft Center at Fountain Square, 426 Walnut St. (where free coffee is served).  Democracy is depending on you.

You Can Sleep-in Tomorrow, Port Authority Citizens' Brigade

Luckily I stopped by the Port Authority’s booth at the Cincinnati Neighborhood Summit on Saturday. As soon as I spotted their logo on the banner I burst out laughing, explaining to the two professional-looking representatives behind their table that I had a history with the organization.

“You’re Kathy,” Gail guessed.  (In all fairness, I was wearing a plastic-encased name badge around my neck.  How many ‘Kathy’s could there be?)

“Did anybody tell you we canceled the board meeting for this month?”  she asked after exchanging initial pleasantries. “Susan said she’d let you know.”

Let’s stop here to review the facts:

1.  The Port Authority as an organization is keenly aware of my concerns regarding their interpretation of transparency and my call for citizens to attend board meetings.

2.  An extraordinarily powerful agency with the right to levy taxes and form a police force, issue bonds and own property, they schedule ten meetings a year that are open to the public.

3.  Last month’s meeting – attended by 6 members of the public, an event so rare the Chair acknowledged each one of us by name – was a whopping total of 32 minutes long.

4.  There are 3 new members on the 9 member board:  (1) Mario San Marco of Eagle Realty (Western & Southern) – the developer of the biggest project ever undertaken by the Port, (2) former Mayor Charlie Luken,  – both appointed by Mayor Cranley – and the Hamilton County Commissioner’s appointment, Bobby Fisher, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Washing Systems LLC, a leading provider of specialty chemicals and related products to the industrial uniform and linen rental markets.  I was particularly excited about starting to get to know Mr. Fisher.

5.Last month the Port announced the approval of their application to increase the area of their jurisdiction to include Northern Kentucky, more than doubling the size of the area they cover.  Every elected official in both states – governors, senators, county commissioners – all of them agree enthusiastically with Mayor John Cranley that: “This designation is great news for Cincinnati and our entire region. It should help us boost river commerce and increase our area’s marketing clout. It also will better reflect our region’s true impact as an inland river port.”  Maybe I’m slow-witted, but I still don’t understand why a perception of more freight on our river is such a big deal and I am eager to learn more about the real purpose behind this change.

6.  Last month the Port announced they are starting a strategic planning process that will last through June.  I was hoping to hear more about that, to ask board members after the meeting how that planning will address citizen concerns about transparency.  (Members of the public are not permitted to participate in the board meetings, but the Chair was available to talk afterwards.)

7.  Another interested citizen who stopped by the booth was informed that the reason for the cancellation was because the Port Authority staff had a lot going on and was “too busy.”

In answer to your question, Gail, no, nobody got in touch with me.  There was no public announcement.  The date for the next board meeting was just quietly changed without any fanfare on the bottom left hand corner of the home page of the Port’s website.

Port of Greater Cincinnati, Development Authority, this is not transparency. This is the theater of transparency.  Whatever is being decided by the governing body of this public agency regarding our public dollars, it is happening off-the-record and out-of-sight of the taxpayers.  Citizens, it is more important than ever that you mark your calendars for April 8 at the ungodly hour of 8 am and get yourself down to the Taft Center at Fountain Square, 426 Walnut St. (where free coffee is served).  Democracy is depending on you.

Thoughts from Katherine Durack about this morning’s Port Authority Board Meeting

SAN_MARCO_MARIO_Eagle_WS_0662

“You have to overpay to do something good.” – Mario San Marco, President of Western & Southern’s Eagle Realty, during this morning’s meeting of the Port Authority.

I thought this was a very interesting comment coming from a business professional charged with expending taxpayer dollars for development intended ultimately for public benefit.  Can you imagine the response if Mr. San Marco had made this same statement to John Barrett in discussions, for example, of the purchase of some church-owned land in Northern Kentucky?

But in that case, the Business Courier reported that W&S / Eagle Realty purchased Marydale (valued at +$15.6  million) from the Catholic Diocese of Covington for a mere $3.9 million. I’ll guess nearly $4 million will help the diocese out a great deal…and I hope that Mr. San Marco uses his fine business acumen and public spirit in any deals he promotes or approves as a new member of the Port Authority.

In all fairness, I really don’t know exactly what Mr. San Marco meant by his comment, and the comment was made as part of a discussion about a $5 million markdown on a couple of properties that had been acquired and then improved through activities such as demolition. The goal of those activities was to “revitalize sites that were unable to attract the private sector in order to make them job-ready.”

I will be waiting with bated breath to see how many new jobs Port Authority investments in Techsolve II and Midpointe yield – I’d love to see better-than-minimum-wage jobs with benefits plus truly new employment opportunities for residents (a win-win) rather than just a shift of jobs and existing employees from some other area (win-lose). Would it be reasonable to expect an ROI of at least the value of the markdown?

And speaking of “ROI” — there was lots of jargon flying around at the meeting, my two favorite terms being “return on investment” and “return of investment.” Not really sure how changing that 1 letter really changes meaning, but I’m guessing it has to do with whether an outcome is profitable or break even. No doubt about it, I’ll not simply accept the acronym without first checking a glossary to see if we’re talking “of” or “on.”

I’m also going to be paying attention to how the Port Authority looks at transportation (crucial for access to those jobs that are the payoff it seems the public should expect). From these first observations, it seems they may be pretty car-centric in their thinking. I’d like to see that expanded to roads, rail, and river (they are, after all a PORT Authority).

Thanks, Kathy Holwadel, for letting us know when and where the Port Authority meets, and for encouraging members of the public to come and listen. It’s going to be an interesting time, and I’m hopeful that with public interest and support, they’ll do some amazing things for the region.