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News: Greener Pastures

City secretly considered selling East Side golf course for office complex

By Elizabeth Wu · May 2nd, 2002 · News
In a bid to keep Convergys Corp. from leaving Cincinnati, city staff secretly negotiated to sell publicly owned recreational land for a new office complex.

Convergys was interested in building a new corporate headquarters on land now used by the California Golf Course. The sale, which could have had a devastating effect on the California Nature Preserve, is no longer under consideration.

Residents of the community are both relieved and disturbed -- glad the company eliminated the proposal, yet dismayed it was seriously considered in the first place.

Ty Easley, co-chair of the Lower Salem Neighborhood Association, opposed the proposal once she found out about it. Her first complaint is the issue was discussed entirely in secret, with neither Convergys nor the city's Department of Economic Planning informing residents or city council of their intentions.

In fact, the two parties drew up an agreement of non-disclosure in which inquiries would only be answered if directly demanded by a public records request -- something Easley says invites suspicion.

"The whole thing was being run by the Economic Development Department," she says. "Nothing was told to elected officials until they asked. It raises questions of how city government is run and what gets done by who. What's being done behind the public's back?"

Green space for greenbacks
Easley's other objection is that the deal would set a precedent for the sale of public land.

"The issue goes beyond the feeling of 'not in my back yard,' " Easley says. "It concerns the entire city. It could just as easily have been Avon Golf Course or Mt. Airy Forest. Once you let the genie out of the bottle, it's hard to get it back in."

Easley believes the proposed development would have harmed the surrounding areas, including the nearby California Nature Preserve. While Convergys never intended to build on the park proper, the plan would have involved relocating golf holes onto the preserve.

"The nature preserve would have been directly and negatively impacted," Easley says. "The development would change run-off and wind patterns, it would change the geography of what is now a rural area. They would have to widen the roads, and people-wise Convergys employees would outnumber the residents of California by two or three times."

Steven Schuckman, chief planner of parks, sent the Department of Economic Planning an e-mail describing some of the anticipated effects.

"California Woods is one of the community's most prized and unique natural resources," he wrote. "(Building golf holes) on the preserve property would displace a prairie and woodlands which have been reforested over the last 20 years. The park board, the California Woods Advisory Council and the community would be opposed to any changes at California Woods which would diminish its natural resources and status as a preserve."

The company's requirements were 45 dry, flat, "usable" acres close to the highway. This would have called for building over the entire golf course and the relocation of at least four golf holes onto the nature preserve.

The proposal would also have entailed moving water, sewage and gas pipes and restructuring roads. In all, preliminary drafts of expected costs to the city totaled a minimum $3 million.

The plan would have also required a zone change from single-family residential, which would have meant a need for eventually approaching city council.

Convergys' economic value to the city is considerable. The international company's revenue for 2001 was $2.32 billion and it employs about 2,000 people in Greater Cincinnati.

The company plans to relocate from its downtown and Norwood locations to a new, specially designed headquarters by 2005, consolidating its current employees into one building and expanding to employ 3,000.

'Do not get into the details'
The California site was one of four being considered as late as April. E-mails obtained through a public-records request indicate the city hoped to persuade Convergys to build and relocate downtown, but the California site would be considered if all else failed.

A message dated Jan. 30 from Patrick Ewing, senior community development analyst for the city's Economic Planning Department, says, "Peg (Moertl) and Dave (Rager) reiterated the city's priority of keeping Convergys in the city and our commitment to provide the best possible deal on whichever site within the city Convergys chooses."

Moertl is the city's community development director and Rager is its deputy city manager.

Another e-mail from Ewing, dated Feb. 14, lists some of the city's concerns.

"We are not trying to design the facility, but we ARE attempting to mitigate: the loss of revenue-producing golf area, the encroachment over water works infrastructure and most importantly proximity to adjacent residences," Ewing wrote. "We are well aware of the time constraints and we are attempting to come up with a plan that will withstand the public opposition anticipated in the zone change process."

Ewing's letter was in response to a Feb. 13 message from Mike Hartmann, vice president of Colliers, a real-estate firm representing Convergys.

"Please do not try and design the site for us," Hartmann wrote. "The important thing to focus on is that we fit the way we showed you. Just make sure that any ideas your team comes up with has at least the usable acreage that we showed you in roughly the same configuration. Suffice it to say this project will have over 3,000 employees at the site eventually. Assume that number of parking spaces without building a parking deck. I think it is really important, given the time constraints that we are working under, that you do not get too deep into the details of the use of the site. Rather, focus on the amount of usable land that you will sell to Convergys and let's get working on making that happen."

Minutes from a Jan. 29 meeting indicate August was the city's deadline for committing to a site.

Even with such a close deadline, city council was never informed of the possibility of developing the California site.

Confidentiality during such negotiations is standard, according to City Councilman David Crowley.

"I speculate their reason is it was probably never viewed as a realistic possibility," he says. "Had I not asked Peg Moertl, 'Essentially what is going on with the California Golf Course and Nature Preserve?' I don't know if there would ever have been a briefing for council. I don't know when other members (found out) or how. Some of us were more aggressive about finding the information."

Crowley says he's glad the deal is no longer being considered.

"I didn't think it was a good idea to take green space out of use as green space," he says. "Once you do that, it's hard to defend. I hope we can keep Convergys downtown. They're a valuable resource to the city."

It is unclear why Convergys eliminated the California site. When asked if the company informed city council of the proposal and why the company is no longer considering the site, Convergys' spokeswoman, Renea Morris, declined comment.

"I can't go into details," she says. "It's not on the table." ©



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