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Cover Story: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Newport looks to create a flashy new civic identity and ditch its working-class past, but are its residents ready and willing?

By Jon Hughes/photopresse.com · January 6th, 2000 · Cover Story
  Newport officials ready the World Peace Bell for its auspicious debut on Dec. 31, 1999.
Newport officials ready the World Peace Bell for its auspicious debut on Dec. 31, 1999.

The front door jingle-jingles with every open and close. The customers line up at the edge of a long metal counter. Their orders are hefty: roasts and ham salad, sliced lunchmeat and barbecue, chops and party trays.

It's a typically busy weekday at Ebert's Meats in Newport. For proof, just watch the crew of meat cutters behind the counter. Their red aprons dissolve into a colorful blur as they slice, chop and saw the various orders.

Ebert's Meats is a burst of liveliness on a December afternoon. Here's a long-time Newport retailer that continues to thrive on the loyalty of its devoted customers.

But a walk outside the shop and along Monmouth Street's dirty sidewalks tells a different story. Vacant storefronts verify that downtown Newport has seen better days.

Further north, a well-known family name graces the sign above a familiar storefront. It's Peluso's Market, and Jerry Peluso is busy bagging Christmas trees for his customers.

It's honest work for Peluso, Newport's Vice Mayor. He knows just about everyone by name. He yells out to friends as they drive down the street. He's flesh-and-blood proof of Newport's small-town status. Really, can you imagine a member of Cincinnati City Council spending his or her days selling Christmas trees?

Buying your Christmas tree at Peluso's Market is a holiday tradition, but drastic change sits just two blocks further north: The 33-ton World Peace Bell rests in its newly built Bell Pavilion, ready for its inaugural ringing. The bell is part of an elaborate New Year's Eve celebration that will include private parties, fireworks and a televised greeting from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The event, which officials say brought in more than 30,000 people throughout the day and evening of Dec. 31, was about more than just ushering in the year 2000. It was a chance for Newport to ditch its working-class past and remake itself as a popular destination for tourists, new residents and upscale businesses.

But the questions linger: What will Newport lose in its effort to create a new civic identity? More importantly, are the majority of Newport's residents ready and willing to go along for the ride?

"There are three factions of people in Newport," Peluso says, standing in front of his family's store. "There are those who don't want anything to stand in the way of new development. Then there are those who want to save our historic buildings, but only as long as we have a planned use for them. Finally, there are people who want to preserve our historic buildings at all costs.

"Personally, I think Newport is all about its historic buildings, and I think the city loses something whenever one comes down."

The block surrounding the World Peace Bell is surprisingly desolate on a pre-Christmas weekday. There are no onlookers. No gawkers. Just a handful of workers standing behind a chainlink fence, finishing last-minute details.

The view from inside the White Castle across York Street is fairly banal. A construction crew installs windows in the brick visitor's center adjoining the bell on the city block bounded by York, Monmouth, Fourth and Fifth streets.

Any thoughts of global peace are disrupted by the colorful sign across the street outside the Famous Liquor and Cigarette Shoppe. The sign blasts the popular retailer's motto: "The Lowest Prices in Town." It's hard to imagine if this was the type of tourist attraction Millennium Monument Co. and Southbank Partners -- the economic development group for Newport, Covington and Bellevue -- had in mind for the area.

A push toward tourism is tough for a city so closely connected to its blue-collar heritage. You can't help but wonder if Newport was meant to remain a working-class community.

But walk through the city's neighborhoods and you'll see countless signs emblazoned with a swimming shark, pointing your way to the 8-month-old Newport Aquarium. Stop inside downtown businesses. Stroll along West End streets. Visit Pic's Cafe in Spaghetti Nob. Watch development along the riverfront and rehab work taking place in the East End.

Newport is a city preparing itself for a dramatic make-over, and the World Peace Bell is its shining symbol.''Tourists don't buy meat.''

For its many long-time customers, a trip to Ebert's Meats is a weekly necessity. The meat market itself is a temple of consistency, operating for 102 years as a slaughterhouse for cattle and then as a meat retailer on Patterson Street before moving to Monmouth Street in 1908.

Ebert's hometown feel is evident on the hand-drawn posters covering its walls: "Party trays available for any occasion," "Now available Homemade German Potato Salad," "Back by Popular Demand P&B Loaf."

Steam rises from the roasters cooking beef barbecue. Jars of pickles sit on the meat counter. Coolers hold cans of soda pop as well as packages of meat ravioli, meatloaf and chicken cordon bleu.

The shop is spotless. While customers place their orders, ground chuck is fed through an electric meat grinder, ready for its shipment to the Green Derby restaurant.

Earl Ebert had taken over the business from his father, Andrew F. Ebert, when 14-year-old Ed Rayburn started working in the shop. Rayburn would package bacon, put eggs in cartons and perform other odd jobs. Over the years, he slowly worked his way into becoming a meat cutter until he bought the place in 1964.

An old black-and-white photo of the butcher shop crew reveals some of the changes that have occurred over the years. There are no more live chickens kept on the sidewalk. No wild rabbits are nailed to a storefront pole. Pickled pigs feet are no longer sold.

But a staff of six meat cutters still help carve the shipment of whole cattle that arrives around 8 a.m. every Friday. The recipes for homemade barbecue, ham salad, chicken salad and beer cheese have remained unchanged for 20 years. These traditions, says Rayburn, are what have allowed the market to survive.

"We haven't changed our operation," he says, cutting pork chops on a large power saw. "We know our customers and we take care of them. We try to do things right."

Rayburn has watched the changes along Monmouth Street over the years. There used to be a butcher shop on every corner. Now, only Ebert's survives.

There are also dramatic changes inside the shop. Rayburn sold the store to Greg Steffan in May. Turning 69, Rayburn says he felt it was time to retire. He'd had some health problems. He wanted to relax.

But he still works three days a week. He's also teaching the new owner how to be a cutter. Giving up work entirely would have been too drastic of a change.

"How are you enjoying your semi-retirement?," one customer asks Rayburn.

"It takes a little getting used to," he says, pushing his large glasses against his nose. "It's different being off."

Christmas decorations cover the store. Ebert's is a sea of poinsettias, stockings and garland. A sign attached to a back bulletin board acknowledges the holiday rush: "Order Your Christmas Ham, Now."

Rayburn is thin and gangly. He reminisces easily about the days when Monmouth Street was home to upscale gambling casinos, when Newport first earned its reputation as "Sin City."

The label persists. But racketeering investigations pushed gambling aside, allowing adult strip clubs and peep shows to take hold. Rayburn remembers those long-ago days fondly.

"In those days, we would open at 3 a.m. for business on Fridays," he says. "The gamblers would stop and buy meat on their way home. We would do as much business in those early hours as we would do the rest of the day."

Rayburn remembers a Monmouth Street filled with men's shops and nice restaurants. But parking became an issue as people took the bus less and relied on their cars more. Retail traffic shifted to the hillside shopping plazas in South Newport. Downtown's struggles would increase.

"If you want to buy a stalk of celery, you have to go to the IGA or Thriftway," Rayburn says. "And there's no place to buy a pair of men's shoes on Monmouth Street anymore."

He sees the vacant storefronts and wonders why Newport was never able to duplicate the quaint downtowns of Lebanon or Montgomery. He sees the potential. Actually, the proof lies in the past.

"Do you remember Monmouth Street when it was beautiful?," Rayburn asks a customer. "Did the gamblers ever bother you? Of course not. There were three ice cream parlors on Monmouth. It was beautiful. The city was safe. You could walk the streets at night.

"Now, all you got are bars and strip joints. You can shoot a cannon off the street. But I was glad to have lived in Newport back then."

Rayburn follows the city's riverfront development plans closely. He's proud of the aquarium. He thinks the bell is a good thing. At least, he says, none of the projects can hurt.

"I don't know if the World Peace Bell will help our business," he says. "Tourists don't buy meat. Still, it will help just to get more people into town, and more people means more business. Any time you have extra people around, it helps business."'I'm not looking to take advantage of welfare. I just want it when I need it.''

The second floor of the Brighton Center's West End Family Services Center is covered in food baskets. Each offers an identical assortment, from Stovetop stuffing to canned goods, instant mashed potatoes to peppermint candies.

Individual families' names are written on each tag. It's all part of the Brighton Center's "Holiday Drive," with a holiday meal and toys for children provided to needy families.

It's Dec. 23, the day for the Used Toy Drive, and a line of children hoping to buy some Christmas presents spills onto the street.

Melissa Hall, family services director, maintains a sense of order through the chaos. The center still has its regular workload of mortgage counseling, credit counseling and first-time mothers seeking emergency assistance. Theirs is an ongoing battle to make their families self-sufficient.

But the holidays tax the center's resources even more than usual. Parents wait quietly outside while their children search through tables piled with toys. There's little conversation, just some quick exits for a cigarette outside.

"This is Newport," one woman tells her friend. "Everyone is on welfare."

No one pays much attention to the job postings on a hallway bulletin board. They just want to finish their application and be on their way. The staff, dressed in holiday sweatshirts and sweaters, struggles to maintain the pace.

"We're here to get Christmas presents," a mother tells her young son. "Look at all those Santa's elves," she says, pointing at the center staff members.

Throughout the Christmas week, families selected toys and picked up food baskets. A sign is taped to a nearby door: "Number of gifts allowed. 1 Large Gift. 2 Small Gifts (For all ages 0-17 yrs). If our gift supply starts to get low, we will limit the amount of gifts allowed."

Newport's West End is a hard-knock neighborhood of corner grocery stores, working-class taverns and public housing. It was here that the city's initial Appalachian migration came in the mid-1960s. These newfound city dwellers from Eastern Kentucky found cheap housing in the West End and factory jobs at Duro Paper Bag, Newport Steel and nearby foundries. Numerous bus stops helped meet their transportation needs.

Of all of Newport's neighborhoods, the West End seems the most connected to Cincinnati. Peer down any street here and you can see Cinergy Field, Cincinnati's downtown office buildings or the Firstar Center.

Newport's underclass remains silent on political issues. No member of the city's Appalachian community has ever run for public office. In the opinion of Bob Brewster, Brighton Center executive director, it centers on a lack of trust for the city administration.

"They don't like people getting into their business," Brewster says of West End residents. "The government wants documentation for food stamps. It's a different culture. It's about trust. They know we're not going to take away their kids. They know we're not going to poke our noses into their business any more then we have to."

Controversy has emerged over the city's plan to demolish more than 200 units of public housing in this area. The riverfront land is valuable, and there are proposals floating about for an office building and upscale housing. But these second- and third-generation Appalachian families are wondering where they'll live once their homes are gone.

After losing out on its application for federal funding, the city plans to reapply for Hope VI grants in the spring. Such grants are helping Cincinnati rebuild public housing in its own West End.

Still, people here remain skeptical.

"The real opportunity for Hope VI is for people to have a better place to live, but they don't trust the city to build it," Brewster says. "These families want a better life for their children."

That's definitely the case for Rhoda Kellar, 22, and her 4-year-old son Joseph, nicknamed "Little Joe." Kellar is working to take herself off welfare. She graduated in August from the Automated Office division of the Brighton Center's job training program.

She recently became shift supervisor at the CVS drugstore on Monmouth Street in early November. She runs the cash register, helps close the store and stocks merchandise. She does just about anything that needs done.

Earning her own keep is what Kellar has wanted to do for a long time. Life has seldom been easy for her.

Kellar was born in Ludlow and moved in with relatives in Erlanger after her parents divorced. She joined her father in Newport six years ago. They lived in an apartment on Washington Street, only to be forced to move in order to make way for aquarium-related construction.

Her day starts busy and stays that way. A friend picks her up, and she and Little Joe head to the Head Start Center in the West End. She drops off her son at 8:30 a.m. and heads to work at CVS. Later that day, Little Joe is bussed to the Brighton Center's daycare on Park Avenue in the East End.

Kellar frequently works nights, so her father picks up Little Joe at daycare and they walk home. A car is not doable on their budget.

She works hard at keeping goals reasonable.

"I want a job that pays $9 an hour," Kellar says, wearing her red CVS vest. "I have the skills for that. But I also want to go somewhere out of the city. I don't want Joseph to stay in the Newport school system."

A separation from her fiancé last spring put Kellar in financial straits. Her bills piled up. She needed help paying rent. Her goal, though, is to make the support as temporary as possible.

"Some people just use the welfare system," Kellar says. "When I was at CET (Brighton Center's Center for Employment Training program) some of the girls would say, 'Welfare made me come.' And I would say, 'Don't you want to get off welfare?'

"I'm not looking to take advantage of welfare. But I want to have it when I need it. I'm goal-oriented about me, Big Joe and the baby."

Kellar took to court her fiancé, "Big Joe," her boyfriend since she was 16, for child support. She won, receiving $65 per week. They've since reconciled. It's important, she says, that they remain a family.

There are rare treats, like a dinner out at the local Taco Bell. Kellar spends little on herself. She wears inexpensive jewelry and a simple white shirt. She's set money aside to buy Little Joe a motorized go-cart for Christmas.

It costs $250. It's the most money she's ever spent on a single item. Still, she says, she wants to save what she can for the future.

There have trips to the park in Big Joe's car. They've treated Little Joe to the zoo. They've yet to gone to the Newport Aquarium -- the ticket prices still are out of her reach.

"I think it's great that they've taken the money and done things for the community like the aquarium," Kellar says. "I'm just hoping that the prices drop. Little Joey wants to go, but the aquarium is expensive. We'll get there."

''A lot of people think all this development is not for them. It's about politics and it's about rich people.''

The Newport Aquarium, the city's $40-million crown jewel, is fulfilling its part of the development bargain. More than 900,000 people have patronized the facility since its opening in May, and expectations are that the aquarium will easily exceed its 12-month attendance target of 1.2 million.

Owned by private investors, the aquarium is the first of several tourist magnets planned for the 10-acre Newport on the Levee development, located on the banks of the Ohio near the Taylor Southgate Bridge.

It's another banner day for the attraction on a December afternoon. The parking lot is 90 percent full, even at $3 a space. A few Girl Scout Brownie troops are converging at the entrance, preparing to invade.

The crowd is mostly children and parents -- the demographic that city leaders are hoping will bolster the city's economy in the new millennium. The one question is just how many Newport residents are able to enjoy this backyard attraction.

"A lot of people think all this development is not for them," says the Brighton Center's Hall. "They think it's about politics and it's about rich people."

To enter, patrons climb a temporary set of stairs to the plaza level, which now overlooks a massive pit being transformed into a 2,000-space parking garage. Site of the historic Posey Flats apartments, those buildings were leveled to make way for the entire Levee project -- restaurants, a 3-D Imax theater, a 21-screen movie theater and other attractions.

Just inside the front door, there's a huge model whale bursting from a foggy pool. The second surprise is at the ticket counter: $13.75 for adult admission, a point not detailed in the blue aquarium brochures available all over the city. Ouch.

Well, it probably isn't cheap to lug sharks up to Kentucky, not to mention the aquarium's 11,000 other examples of marine life. The project's developers do get back 25 percent of the aquarium's cost through a state tax break on tourist-related development.

The aquarium experience begins at the bottom of an escalator with the Moon Jelly, a small jellyfish. This exhibit, as are all the others, is explained by a 2-foot-square back-lit display box that provides a photo of the animal and points out its native habitat along with other details.

Moving into the World Rivers exhibit, sponsored by Pepsi, one hears the sound of running water, both real and simulated. A wet, rocky island surrounded by plexiglas contains Graptemys geographia, the Common Map Turtle that can reach 11 inches in length, plus other turtles.

The aquarium is really a collection of various sized tanks located in themed scenes. For example, the Riverbank recreates a wooded stream with a plexiglas view of the shoreline, both under and above water.

Interactivity and flexibility are keys. Even though the aquarium opened just several months ago, a couple of its exhibits already are being changed to offer something extra for repeat customers. And visitors, supervised by employees, can touch small starfish housed in one moatlike semicircle at the Shore Gallery, where children squeal with delight.

Visitors see the animals a few ways -- a standard side view of a tank (the most common at the aquarium), a bubble fish-eye view at the shark tank and an under-foot view by way of several plexiglas walkways.

But the most innovative display by far is the vertigo-inducing tunnels that allow visitors to walk under aquariums. Sharks and other fish look as if they're flying overhead.

Every 15 minutes, the Pirate Theatre shows Savage and Serene, a 10-minute film about the ocean narrated briefly by an animitronic pirate on a balcony next to the screen. The film quickly moves from a pirate ship wrecked in a storm to the ocean's floor to a few details about ocean life. Then it recycles a Jaws scene where Roy Scheider spots the big shark for the first time, setting up the film's grand finale. "You're gonna need a bigger boat," he says.

Then -- surprise! -- the screen is raised to reveal a window into the shark tank, while menacing music fills the theater.

For several seconds there are no sharks, only colorful fish. Then, after a few moments, a couple of small- to medium-sized sharks cruise by, oblivious to the spectacle they've joined, while the music hits its Dum-dum Dum-dum DUM-DUM-DUM-DUM here-comes-the-shark peak.

Other exhibits hype the ocean's more dangerous species, including Moray eels, poisonous puffer fish, poison frogs and, of course, piranha. There are also a few fish you've probably never heard of, much less seen, such as the flashlight fish. These small, alienlike fish, kept in a darkened tank in a room filled with the sounds of wind chimes, emit regular flashes of light with the help of bacteria. Plankton are attracted by the light, and the fish eat them.

Sharks get the most attention and space at the Newport Aquarium, but the penguin exhibit is the finale. Several dozen penguins, who live only at the South Pole, elicit "awws" from visitors, who act as if they're looking at a hospital maternity ward.

Up the escalator and across a walkway over the shark tank, there's the gift shop, about as large as the 380,000-gallon shark tank. The shop offers almost every type of trinket an aquarium visitor might want.

For penguin fans, there are toy stuffed penguins, penguin ties, solid plastic penguins, penguin postcards, penguin backpacks, penguin videos, penguin address books, penguin glitter cubes, penguin key chains, penguin mouse pads, penguin baby bibs and bottles, penguin business card holders, porcelain penguins and penguin Christmas ornaments, among other items.

The aquarium has emerged as the No. 1 calling card in Newport's attempt to make tourism its economic priority. Yet its success appears to be tightly contained. Visitors park in adjacent lots. They shop at museum gift stands.

Walk two blocks away, past the World Peace Bell, and it's as if the aquarium crowds are far off in another city.

"I'd like to see more development come this way," Peluso says, tying a Christmas tree to a customer's trunk in his store a few blocks from the aquarium. "But I'd hate to see Newport become some Gatlinburg-like district."

''We need people to live in downtown Newport and shop its stores.''

You can see the history of modern Newport in Jerry Peluso's eyes. He's Newport born and raised. The top vote-getter of all the Newport City Commissioners, he holds the office of Vice Mayor.

Politics run in his family. His uncle, Frank Peluso, was a long-time city clerk. Another uncle, John J. "Johnny TV" Peluso, was mayor in 1964-68 and again in 1976-80.

Yet, despite all the politics and civic clout, Peluso maintains a fairly simple life that centers on family. He still lives above Peluso's Market with his elderly mother, Frances.

Jerry makes ends meet with a series of jobs. Income from the store is limited. On most days, Peluso's Market appears to be more like his mother's diversion than a vibrant retailer.

Frances Peluso sweeps constantly, so it's no surprise the shop is sparkling clean.

A large mirror rests on a back wall. There are posters for the Newport Italian Festival. Old shelves hold cans of soup, green beans and candy bars. There's a small assortment of fruit, some apples and oranges. WEBN beer sits unopened on a lower shelf waiting for the right collector. There's everything but customers.

Outside, Jerry keeps busy, roaring his chainsaw to life, shaving the trunk of another Christmas tree, spraying sawdust into the street.

"We need to do a better job with the small business owners," Peluso says. "There needs to be a balance between service stores like printing shops and mom-and-pop coffee shops and ice cream parlors. I think a Jazz club or a Blues club would be a good business for Monmouth Street."

Inside the store, Frances sits at a front table, watching a portable black-and-white television. An old bronze cash register sits on the counter-top.

She also owns the two adjoining storefronts. Jerry says he has some ideas for them such as a coffee shop or a gourmet Italian food store. Years ago, the store had longer hours. They sold bulk olives and displayed rabbits in the window. They sold more Italian food items.

You never know -- the time might be right for a new specialty food shop in Newport.

Peluso says he's heard the new World Peace Bell being tested. He's felt its vibrations. As Vice Mayor, he was on hand at the bell's numerous New Year's Eve functions. He knows that much of the original plans for the Millennium Tower -- the 1,000-foot-tall structure that originally included a thrill ride at the top, among other items -- has been scrapped.

He's still optimistic that the bell will make a positive impact on future local development. The key, he says, is to attract new residents.

"We need people to live downtown and shop its stores," Peluso says as he empties change from the Pepsi machine and drops it into a paper sack. "I think downtown Newport is convenient for young people who work in downtown Cincinnati or even Blue Ash."

Peluso appreciates the impact tourism is having on his city. But he also believes the city must continue to build its industrial base and its residential base and support local shopkeepers to grow successfully.

To look at the tidy facade of Peluso's Market is to appreciate Newport's old buildings. The Campbell County Courthouse resembles a stately brick mansion. The stone steeple of St. Paul's Episcopal Church serves as a familiar landmark.

"I'm opposed to tearing down any building that has a historical value," Peluso says. "Newport loses something whenever you tear down an old building."

''This is a nice neighborhood. It has a hometown feel with nice architecture.'

'Newport has always had tourists. Now, though, people are coming to see exotic fish rather than exotic dancers.

During the last 15 years, the city has focused efforts on changing its tarnished image by forging a plan for its riverfront and core -- the block-wide, north/south stretch between Monmouth and York streets. Tourism, family-friendly tourism, is the new target.

"Our goals are pretty simple," said Wally Pagan, president of the non-profit Southbank group. "We want to get people out of their cars."

Newport on the Levee is expected to open in the spring, bringing with it the Imax theater, the movie theater multiplex, a Cincinnati Seafood Company restaurant and other restaurants next to the aquarium.

In the spring, Monmouth Street will receive a long-planned $2.7 million facelift, including new street lights, underground utilities, sidewalks and other cosmetic improvements. Meanwhile, residents have been renovating dozens of homes in the East Row Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The reason that the east side was so successful was the city didn't start it," said former Newport City Manager Jim Parsons, who left the city after 16 years to become Boone County's administrator in early 1999.

The city did help coordinate regular tours of East End homes, though. It's in this neighborhood that you'll find the current wave of "new" Newport residents. Young professionals. Emerging artists. Urban pioneers.

People like Andrea Hill are changing the face of Newport.

Hill, a 24-year-old African-American artist, lives on the second floor of a Mansion Hill apartment. A 1998 graduate of Cincinnati's Art Academy, she wanted an apartment near her job at Newport's York Street Cafe. She wanted something quieter than Cincinnati. She wanted something friendly. She wanted a place where people still say, "Hello."

Hill has settled into a comfortable Newport routine. She walks to work and frequents the city's thrift shops. She sleeps late, reads and feeds her cats. She works mostly evenings.

Her living room, in the space now occupied this day by a funky white Christmas tree, is where she does her artwork. A tarp covered in wax comes out of the closet. There's a skillet for heating wax. She sews. Days when she doesn't get back from work until late, she often works through the night, sometimes to 5 a.m.

Hill doesn't know how long she'll stay in Greater Cincinnati. All she knows is she'll remain in Newport.

"There are misconceptions about Cincinnati and Newport," she says, speaking at her apartment. "People who live in Kentucky don't go across the bridge, and people in Cincinnati don't go to Kentucky. But this is a nice neighborhood. It has a hometown feel with nice architecture."

There's evidence of urban renewal throughout Newport. Vacant West End buildings are targeted to become Liberty Row townhouses. The new Grandview Place condominiums hug the crest of Spaghetti Nob.

A leaflet in an apartment building lobby talks about East End residents preserving the past and working together for the future. As her neighborhood's popularity increases, Hill expects the rents to increase. Her hope is that she doesn't get priced out.

"I think one of the good things is that more people are going to move to Northern Kentucky," she says. "So they're probably going to start raising the rent. Look around this neighborhood. There are ladders and stuff everywhere."

Newport also has been able to turn itself around because of the city's small size, which allows for quicker responses to developers' questions, and because elected leaders have allowed the city's staff to "do their jobs" for years, Parsons says.

"There's a tendency of (elected) officials to focus on their term," he says.

Parsons traces the start of the "new" Newport to the Riverfront Place office building, which until June will house Heinz Pet Food's and Starkist's headquarters, and a change in policy regarding barge restaurants in the 1980s. Back then, the city received only $1,500 in rent from its three barge restaurants each year. Then the city began requiring a percentage of the restaurants' gross, which increased Newport's annual income to $150,000 per barge permit.

And Riverfront Place's developers, Dwight Bromenan and Burgess Doan, began building the offices before they'd secured any tenants -- a risky proposition, according to Parsons, although the building was leased in time to meet debt obligations.

That success led the city a decade ago to consider building more riverfront office buildings.

"But we were concerned about building a wall of office space along the riverfront," Parsons said, adding that competition from suburban offices was also a concern.

And although not everything has worked out as planned, many Newport business owners agree the city is taking the right steps.

"Twenty years or so ago, the city of Newport was run with a lot of backroom deals," says David Trauth, President of Louis Trauth Dairy Inc. "I think that's pretty much gone now."

Also, City Hall finally has recognized the value of having businesses inside the city limits. Five years ago that wasn't the case, he says.

"They just thought that everything revolved around the riverfront," Trauth says.

''Families came here and kids grew up watching their dads play in the horseshoe league.'

'John Picarillo is home. He sits at the bar of Pic's Cafe as white Christmas lights snake overhead. Cans of Budweiser and Bud Light litter every table.

Picarillo, 76, stays busy, passing out bowls of chili, potato chips and pretzels. It's the annual Christmas party at Pic's Cafe, and he's the guest of honor.

It's been a long time since Picarillo first opened the bar in the early 1960s on "Spaghetti Nob." Germans used to live in the basin of Newport, and the hill was where Italians gathered.

Picarillo was a deputy sheriff for Campbell County and a dancer on TV's Midwest Hayride. Owning a South Newport tavern provided some entrepreneurial income. He also owned the Hilltop Tavern, around the corner from Pic's Cafe, and a corner market.

Picarillo sold Pic's Cafe in 1973, and now he spends his winters in Florida, though the bar still bears his name. For local residents of Spaghetti Nob, Christmas wouldn't be the same without the party at Pic's and seasonal greetings from Picarillo himself.

Steve Sampson, 29, says he used to buy bubblegum at Pic's as a young boy. One of the bar's old-time bartenders, Elmer "Mushy" Nelson, would stand on the porch, a cigar dangling from his mouth, and sing "School Days" in his trademark lisp.

"This is my 20th Christmas party at Pic's," says Carol Michael, 43. "It's a tradition for anyone who's ever lived on the hill."

There is plenty of storytelling and good cheer. Cutout Christmas ornaments are taped above the bar to help raise money for a sponsored family. There are chili cook-offs and golf outings at least twice a year. An investment club meets regularly there.

"Families came here and kids grew up watching their dads in the horseshoe league," says Julie Thompson, helping out behind the bar. "Pic's served fried chicken dinners on Sundays, and people would wait hours for the chance at playing horsehoes."

Pic's Cafe still gets a rush after the 11:30 p.m. shift lets out at Newport Steel. On your birthday, you and your spouse or date get to drink for free. Fighting will get you barred for life.

Times have changed drastically on the hill, although much of Pic's Cafe has stayed the same. Picarillo remembers when few Spaghetti Nob families owned a car. They walked down the hill to Newport. There were more grocery stores in the neighborhood back then. While many of the Italian-Americans have moved out, the neighborhood's name has stuck.

Picarillo watches the development around the riverfront with interest. From the hill, it's impossible not to see the activity down there, although it's safe to say that any tourism impact won't make its way to Pic's neighborhood. Well, he says, at least not initially.

"I think it's going to happen here, what you're seeing in Mansion Hill," Picarillo says. "Maybe not in my time, but it's going to happen."

''It's hideous and an eyesore, and I can't believe they tore down these beautiful buildings for it.''

Stand on the Taylor Southgate Bridge, near the center where Ohio ends and Kentucky begins, and look into Newport. There are people standing on the paved walkways along the levee wall. The looming structure of the Newport Aquarium stands prominently, adjoining the mud sinkhole that's awaiting the movie theaters and restaurants.

Finally, you see a sliver of the steel and glass Bell Pavilion and the World Peace Bell itself. Here is Newport's symbol of metamorphosis.

Although there was a lot of talk about the Millennium Tower, Newport developers Wayne Carlisle and David Hosea haven't been able to back up their mid-1990s idea with financing.

The bell is in place, hanging in a two-story glass and steel structure where it rang in the new millennium. Originally it was supposed to sit atop of the tower and, later, when financial problems delayed the tower itself, was to stand alone in a shorter tower. Then bell backers discovered something on its journey from France, where it was cast, up the Mississippi River.

"People didn't just want to see it," Southbank's Pagan says. "They wanted to touch it."

So now there's a walkway to the bell from the Millennium Experience, a museum covering the last and next 1,000 years of history.

Not that the tower project is dead, according to Pagan. Carlisle and others still are looking for financing. In the meantime, the majority of the block around the bell is a parking lot for local restaurants.

"That's still a viable project, although a lot of folks don't think so," Pagan says.

Parsons agrees, calling the bell a problem and an opportunity at the same time. In any case, the tower will need a new name, he says.

But some residents deride the World Peace Bell as a tower for fools.

"I was aware of the bell and disappointed in what the tower became," Mansion Hill resident Hill says. "It's hideous and an eyesore, and I can't believe they tore down these beautiful buildings for it. Whenever I ride the bus past it, someone on the bus makes a negative comment. I remember one woman telling her son that the tallest building in the world was going to be built right here in Newport, and now look at it. The only people excited are the people who built it and the people who are going to make money off it."

The World Bell Pavilion was intended to be a monumental tower, a 1,083-ft. brainchild of Carlisle and Hosea. Much was sacrificed to make it happen. Newport's old main fire house is gone. The seven-floor Campbell Tower, a 71-year-old landmark building, also was razed.

Hosea first talked about his tower at a March 1996 meeting to discuss future Northern Kentucky development. More extensive plans were unveiled at a April 18, 1997 press conference. The tower was to have been something akin to St. Louis' Arch or New York City's Statue of Liberty.

The Millennium Tower was to be the 11th tallest structure in the world, surpassing Paris' Eiffel Tower. A carillon, including a 66,000-lb. bell, was supposed to line the tower's first 200 feet. A four-floor pod containing restaurants, a banquet hall and offices was planned for its 800-ft. level. Its base, spanning an entire city block, would include a Northern Kentucky History museum, gardens, a Rockefeller Plaza-inspired skating rink and exclusive retail shops.

Its targeted completion start date was to have been Nov. 1, 1997.

The Millennium Tower had everything going for it when it came to creating a new future for Newport. But it was evident it also had nothing to do with the city's past.

Now the vacant lot serves as valet parking for The Syndicate. It was Carlisle and Hosea who purchased the Glenn Schmidt Bowling Alley in 1995 and converted it into The Syndicate supper club and banquet hall. It was also Hosea who bought out the various strip clubs along Monmouth Street, single-handedly obliterating Newport's "Sin City" past.

Hosea failed to return repeated telephone calls from CityBeat, but Carlisle says his vision is for the the World Peace Bell to become more of a regional attraction than just a Newport draw.

City fathers were hoping to draw crowds from the Tristate region for the millennium celebration on Dec. 31. The bigger question now is just how many tourists the World Peace Bell will attract on a regular basis.

Plans are in the beginning stages to raze more buildings for a Peace Park that would connect the World Peace Bell with the Newport Aquarium and the Newport on the Levee entertainment district. Stand on the porch of the historic Southgate House and stare into the mud pit that awaits the Levee development. If Newport has its way, construction cranes will become a permanent fixture.

"I don't think they should tear down old buildings," Hill says. "Lose its old buildings, and Newport will look like Covington's riverfront, just a series of non-descript glass towers. I don't know, maybe that's what they want."

There always was envy over the planned Millennium Tower from the Cincinnati perspective. Newport's was a project based on private funding. It looked like the opposite of the stadium projects' endless bickering and public taxpayer support.

Newport's riverfront projects are meant to attract tourists. Yet, at the same time, they're also refashioning a city's image.

"Newport is in constant change, and our job is make sure the change is for the better," Brewster says. "Newport was dead in the 1970s, and we can't have that anymore."

"We do have more tourists now," says Carl Ward, owner of Executive Transportation Services, which owns eight buses, two limousines, 30 vans and 75 yellow cabs. "At one time, we hardly ever had an out-of-towner, because there was no reason for them to be here."

"I had to buy a high chair and a couple of booster seats, which I never had to do before," says Tom Chambers, who has run the Captain's Cove Bar and Grill with his wife for six years.

Despite the development, Newport still has a lingering image problem, says Eric Avner, the city's Main Street Coordinator.

"It's going away," he says. "But it's one of these things we're dealing with."

So, with tourism and redevelopment spreading south from the river, where does the city draw the line between the new Newport and the old Newport?

"(Monmouth Street) never has been a Hyde Park Square," Avner says. "It shouldn't be in the future. It's always been a little bit of a crazy place."

The city isn't abandoning all of its past, says Avner, who applied for a $2,500 state historic preservation grant to start a walking tour detailing the city's sleazier days from the 1920s to the 1950s.

"In this case, truth is stranger than fiction," he says.

And don't fear for Newport landmarks such as Dixie Chili, the Green Derby and York Street Cafe, Avner says. The city recognizes their value.

"But it would be silly to turn our backs on the ... people who come to the riverfront," he says.

The trick, he emphasizes, is to find the right mix of old and new businesses. The city could use a bookstore, for example.

"I think there's room for everybody," Avner says.

''They just rang it once and it broke glass for blocks around. What do you think about that?'

'It's 5:55 a.m. on Dec. 31, and the Millennium Countdown Clock flashes its message into the morning darkness: "Ring in 2000 Begins in 0 Days."

Large canvas signs stand guard at the entryways to the asphalt lot surrounding the World Peace Bell: "Thanks to Our Sponsors for Ring in 2000." There are familiar names: Carl Lindner, Delta Air Lines and Corporex.

Not that the sparse crowd of 150 pays them any attention. Four gyrating spotlights pull everyone's attention to the Bell Pavilion itself. Disco music blasts from nearby loudspeakers. A smoke machine covers the base of the pavilion with white exhaust. Perched on an above-ground walkway leading to the bell, an emcee begins his countdown: "15, 14, 13...."

It's 6 a.m., and a striker dings the World Peace Bell for the first time. The new millennium has officially arrived in Tonga. There are a brief smattering of fireworks, and then the wait begins anew for the next dinging at 7 a.m.

It's not long before the spectators scatter off into the morning twilight. At this early morning hour, the ringing of the World Peace Bell becomes a non-event. A family takes a snapshot of their children standing in front of the pavilion. A large video monitor plays footage of a male dancer from Tonga. Two musicians, a flutist and a violinist, play to a mostly empty parking lot. The busiest spot is across the street at White Castle.

While New Year's greetings continue their trek across the globe -- Fiji, Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Russia -- Newport city workers stay busy blocking off streets and nailing down electrical cables. As the sun rises overhead, Tonga's tribal dancer continues his New Year's dance. The daily routine of Newport continues.

Down toward the aquarium, Atlas Cleaners is open for business. Bulldozers hum around the Newport on the Levee construction site.

And the Millennium Monument? Carlisle hasn't given up. Current plans call for a 1,000-foot tower, with a banquet room and restaurant at the 800-foot level and an observation platform near the top.

The missing link, Carlisle says, is Peace Park, which would be located on the city block between the Levee and the bell. With an 83-bell carillon as its focal point, the park would be a gathering spot for the large crowds attracted to the World Peace Bell, much as the Eiffel Tower, the St. Louis Arch and Seattle's Space Needle attract visitors.

With or without the park or the tower, Carlisle sees the bell as a gathering spot for Newport visitors and residents. Plans are for the World Peace Bell to ring at full volume four to six times each year, including New Year's Eve, July 4 and special events.

"I see a lot of things happening with it," Carlisle says.

Over on Monmouth Street, Peluso's Market is closed for business. But Jerry Peluso opens the store to collect the mail and heads out the door to pick up his tux for one of the gala parties later at The Syndicate.

He says work has kept him busy, and he's hopeful he can stay awake until midnight. He's also hopeful a good crowd will gather around the bell.

"I really don't know how many people will be there tonight," Peluso says, watching people head toward the pavilion. "There are all kinds of estimates up to 50,000. Take Riverfront Stadium, open it up and dump all the people out. Now that's a lot of people."

For now, in the late morning hours, Monmouth Street is quiet. Only Ebert's Meats is busy. Inside the shop, Rayburn prepares liver for a shipment to the Green Derby restaurant.

Ebert's is busy every Friday, though New Year's Eve brings even more customers through the door.

"We sell a lot of sauerkraut," Rayburn says. "We do business even with the way Monmouth Street looks. It proves that you can do business here if you give people what they want."

Ebert's will be open its regular hours on Dec. 31, and then Rayburn plans on heading down with his wife to see the World Peace Bell.

"Do you know about that big bell that they rang over in Cincinnati?," Rayburn asks a customer. "It was that church in Walnut Hills. They just rang it once and it broke glass for blocks around. What do you think about that?"

As morning turns into an unseasonably warm December afternoon, larger crowds begin to gather around the World Peace Bell. Children and volunteers build the floats for a Parade of Nations. All they need are some chicken wire and pieces of cloth. The instructions are direct: "Add your own effect to the ice plains of Antarctica using materials supplied."

Women in brightly colored Japanese kimonos stand near a Ford Mustang Convertible, the first prize of the Peace Bell raffle.

A sign taped to a nearby telephone pole reveals that much of Newport is getting into the bell's entrepreneurial spirit: "Bell Parking all day and all night -- $10."

The festival will continue as the millennium fades. More crowds will arrive, although far below original estimates by the midnight hour. On the way out, signs start promoting next year's event: "Thank You for Attending Ring in 2000. Make Plans to Attend Ring in 2001 December 31, 2000."

''There are hundreds of cities like Newport across America.'

'Things look the same along Monmouth Street on the first days of the new millennium. Like the World Peace Bell itself, the lot surrounding the Bell Pavilion is quiet.

Of course, nobody ever thought Newport's image would change with one peal of a three-ton bell. An ongoing question remains: What exactly does Newport need to revamp?

"I don't perceive Newport's past as something bad or negative," Peluso says. "But then I didn't grow up anywhere else. So I always saw Newport in a positive manner."

Time changes everything eventually. Newport can attest to that. Over time, casinos left Monmouth Street, making way for strip clubs. Years later, the strip clubs closed up too. Now, an aquarium and a huge bell stand ready to become the new symbols of a rejuvenated Newport. At least that's the plan.

"Sooner or later, a city has to reinvent itself," says Jim Claypool, a history professor at Northern Kentucky University. "The key for Newport is that the aquarium and World Peace Bell must be things for these same common citizens and not some new, glitzy population.

"Small towns are changing. They don't revolve around their downtowns or courthouse squares anymore. There are hundreds of cities like Newport across America."

But is Newport like Newport anymore? ©



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