Two of Cincinnati’s most famous buildings make appearances on postcards, in logos and anywhere else symbols representing the city are needed. But in real life, they’re slowly crumbling as the region tries to figure out who will pay for their renovations.
The136-year-old Music Hall looms over Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine, a mountain of intricate brickwork. Eighty-one-year-old Union Terminal holds court a mile west down Ezzard Charles Drive, sporting the graceful curves of the old Crosley radios that used to be manufactured in Cincinnati.
A proposal to help save the landmarks will get a public hearing next month, when Hamilton County Commissioners hold a hearing on a possible .25 or .5 percent sales tax increase. The Cultural Facilities Task Force, a group made up of 22 area business leaders, has recommended the increase. The tax would help pay for the more than $275 million needed to shore up the buildings’ structures and interiors.
Raising the sales tax isn’t a thrilling proposition for everyone. The idea recalls the ghost of Cincinnati’s 1996 stadium-funding debacle. And however worthy the project, raising the tax would add more burden proportionally on people with low and moderate incomes.
Zach Schiller, research director at economic think tank Ohio Policy Matters, says that sales tax is an important revenue source for counties and the state. But he also says those in low- and moderate-income brackets pay a higher proportion of their income in sales taxes because they use more of their income to buy necessary items and services.
“It’s not going to be a huge increase,” he said of typical local sales tax hikes, “but it will further tilt the tax system, which is already regressive,” or proportionally more burdensome on those with lower incomes.
The bottom fifth of workers in Ohio make less than $17,000 and pay nearly 7 percent of their income to sales tax, according to a 2013 report by the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy. The next bracket up, those making $31,000 or less, pay 5.5 percent. Meanwhile, those making $138,000 and up pay from 1 to 1.8 percent.
And the balance at the state level is shifting further, putting more burden on those making less money.
Last year, Ohio cut its income tax rate and raised its sales tax to 5.75 percent.
Hamilton County sales tax adds another one percent, bringing the county’s rate up to 6.75 percent, about average for the state. The proposed increase would bump that number up over Ohio’s average to as high as 7.25 percent.
The extra amount is small — just five cents for every $10 spent. But using sales tax to fund the renovations begs a question — will those paying the highest proportion of their income for the project reap any rewards? Most programing at both Music Hall and the Museum Center runs $20 or more a ticket, a price that is hard for the low-income to afford.
The funding dilemma demonstrates the challenge posed by the two icons. The structures cost increasing amounts to maintain and repair. But renovations are urgent, especially for Union Terminal. Engineers estimate the building needs $180 million in repairs due to its age and unique construction.
The building, one of the premier Art Deco structures in the country, was completed in 1933. At the time, the terminal was the main gateway to the city for travelers. At its height during World War II, it saw 34,000 people a day. It became the Cincinnati Museum Center in 1990 and continues in that function today.
There are a number of structural issues with the building, including a leaky roof that is causing metal framework to rust. Some have floated the idea of demolishing the former train station.
“It’s time to step up and save this building in a cost-effective way that takes advantage of this unique moment in time,” the Cincinnati Enquirer’s editorial board said in December, “or to tear it down and stop spending money inefficiently.”
But historic preservationists in the city shudder at that idea, and the museums housed in the building have few other viable options for places to call home.
Not saving the strucure “would be the loss of a building that evokes old memories and creates new ones and shares inspiration and insights” for the more than one million tourists and residents who visit it each year, said Museum Center Vice President Elizabeth Pierce.
Music Hall is in better shape, both structurally and financially. Most of the needed renewal there is interior work, and the city, a private nonprofit called the Music Hall Revitalization Company and development group 3CDC have partnered on renovations. The city is chipping in $10 million over the next few years to help with repairs, but there are still millions of dollars left unaccounted for.
The task force says that every year renovations aren’t done, the price of eventually fixing the buildings will go up $10 million. Meanwhile, the search for funds continues.
Past ideas for raising the money to shore up the buildings, including a property tax increase that would have worked out to about $15 extra on a $100,000 property, have failed.
There’s another concern. Sales taxes for huge public construction projects remind some of the deals the city struck in 1996 to pay for Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park. In that case, voters approved a .5 percent increase to help fund construction of the facilities. The deal became a hugely unpopular liability, plunging the county into debt as stadium costs ballooned. The city at times has had to reduce the property tax rollback it promised as part of the deal in order to cover budget shortfalls.
Last year, County Commissioner Democrat Todd Portune called the deal “an albatross.”
Commissioner Chris Monzel voted against considering the Music Hall/Union Terminal proposal further. A spokesman for Monzel said he would like to see the buildings renovated but is concerned with the lack of concrete information about the plan. Commissioners Portune and Republican Greg Hartmann voted to move forward with a hearing on the sale tax increase, which will take place sometime next month. ©