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by Nick Swartsell 03.24.2015
Posted In: News at 10:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

Historic Covington buildings get renovation; Kasich courts New Hampshire; Gannett and Starbucks mocked on Twitter for race initiative

Hey all. News has happened. Here it is.

First, let’s get this out of the way. I don’t watch football. Ever. But that doesn’t mean YOU don’t watch football. Or maybe someone you know? And heck, maybe you want to watch games that take place in the stadium you are paying for as a Hamilton County resident from the comfort of your own couch or favorite bar without having to pay the high ticket prices to see the game in person. That’s a perfectly understandable ambition, given that so many millions of our tax dollars are paying for the Bengals’ home. The good news is that almost every NFL team owner voted recently to end, at least for the coming season, the league’s policy of not televising games that don’t sell out. In fact, the only owner who didn’t vote to end the blackout policy is Bengals owner Mike Brown. Now, Brown says he supports televising every Bengals home game. But he’s concerned about the way revenue is split between home and away teams under the new agreement, which basically stipulates the home team will have to pay the away team if the game doesn’t reach 85 percent capacity. That does sound like a raw deal for small markets like Cincy, but so does voting to keep fans from watching games in the stadium they paid for. Glad I don’t care about football.

• Cincinnati developer Model Group will renovate 13 historic buildings containing affordable housing in Covington’s Mainstrasse district. The group will work in partnership with Welcome House, a social service agency based in the city, and use $700,000 in federal low-income housing tax credits for the project’s first phase. The project could also be eligible for historic preservation tax credits. The renovations will reduce the number of units available in the buildings from 51 to 43 but will result in larger living spaces aimed at single parents who need affordable housing. The project is expected to be complete in 2016. One building, 801 Main St., is a commercial space and will remain so after renovations wrap up.

• Yes, yes, we all complain about how crazy Cincinnati’s weather patterns are. I thought this was a tic common to many areas of the country, with nearly everyone thinking they have the craziest weather around. Turns out, however, that we have some scientific, or at least quasi-scientific, backing for our whining. Nate Silver’s data journalism project Five Thirty Eight ran some climate data on cities across the country and came up with the top places in the country with unpredictable weather. Guess what? Cincinnati is number four on the list. The analysis takes into account temperature, precipitation and a number of other meteorological phenomena. So yeah, next time you want to complain about the fact that it was 70 degrees yesterday and will be snowing tomorrow, go for it. Math is on your side.

• I’m a little late on this one, but in case you missed it, the push to get daily rail between Cincinnati and Chicago has some new supporters. The city of Norwood has signaled it is supporting those efforts, which are led by pro-transit group All Aboard Ohio. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from Indiana, has also pitched in on the cause in a way, telling state and federal agencies they should keep current rail lines open between cities in Indiana and Chicago so service can someday be expanded.

• Ohio Gov. John Kasich is in New Hampshire today in what is his most straightforward presidential campaign trip yet. Kasich hasn’t officially announced he’s running for the GOP nomination for president (only U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has made that commitment) but there is simply no other reason for Kasich’s trip. He’s testing the waters in important primary states now, trying to boost his stature among Republicans who will have to decide who to nominate next summer at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Recent polls show Kasich doing well in Ohio but drawing mostly a blank in other parts of the country. If the gov is able to make news in New Hampshire, or New York and Maine, where he travels next, it could boost his profile and put him in league with figures like Cruz and U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have been in the national spotlight by virtue of their offices and high-profile stances (some would say antics) against Democrats and President Barack Obama. Kasich at times tacks more moderate (at least when it comes to things like Ohio’s Medicaid expansion and Common Core education standards) and has been active mainly in Ohio, so he has some catching up to do. But, heck, saying one crazy thing about how climate change isn’t real or about how we should abolish a couple federal agencies could get him some big attention.

• Hey, did you know that testing giant Pearson, which designs and administers the Common Core tests Ohio students are currently taking, collects student data — name, gender, race, scores — even though the state of Ohio, to which the company reports, doesn’t? And also, did you know that the company has been monitoring students’ social media profiles for leaked test questions? Well, now you know.

• Finally, oof. Reaction to “Race Together,” a new initiative in which two of the nation’s big corporations team up to “tackle the issue of race in America” has been predictably brutal, with many taking to Twitter to mock the idea. Starbucks and Gannett announced March 19 that they were partnering on the project, the first phase of which involved baristas writing #racetogether on customers’ cups and engaging them in conversations about our society’s race issues. Because that’s what baristas want to do first thing in the morning when they’re facing a line of grumpy, caffeine-starved customers.

Starbucks has also been distributing a special edition of USA Today featuring stories about race, which Gannett guarantees is mostly typo-free because race is a very important issue. A few critiques come to mind, one of which is that hashtags don’t work outside the Internet. Also, maybe when your leadership teams look like this and this, it’s better to listen, do some corporate self-reflection and seek feedback instead of trying to “tackle” an issue.

by Nick Swartsell 03.23.2015
Posted In: News at 10:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

Red Bike to expand to NKY; did Mason break open meetings laws?; study: sprawl costs U.S. $1 trillion a year

Hey all. Hope you had a good weekend and are recovering from whatever NCAA tournament festivities you may have attended. Yeah, yeah, Xavier won. UC lost. The Dayton Flyers pulled out an upset over Providence Friday only to lose to the Sooners last night. Depending on who you were rooting for, you’re probably either nursing some slight heartache, the waning throes of a post-celebratory hangover, or both.

Anyway. Here’s what’s up in the news today.

Cincinnati's Red Bike is heading south. The city of Covington announced it has found funding for up to six Red Bike stations and will be working with the nonprofit to bring bike sharing to Northern Kentucky. The city has said it’s looking at locations near the Roebling suspension bridge, in Mainstrasse Village and other key places. The stations cost about $50,000 each. Cincinnati has 30 throughout downtown and uptown, spurred by a $1 million grant approved by Cincinnati City Council last year.

• A one-time 3CDC mover and shaker will now work for another big developer in Cincinnati. Former 3CDC Executive Vice President Chad Munitz, who left the developer in December, will soon start work with Mount Adams-based Towne Properties. Munitz played a big role in a number of 3CDC’s signature projects over his nine-year tenure there, including the redevelopment of OTR’s Washington Park. He’ll work to help Towne Properties identify new development opportunities in Cincinnati and beyond.

• Did Mason’s City Council violate the city’s charter and Ohio law when it held a last-minute special session to approve a tax deal with P&G last week? Some residents there think so. Mason’s council called the last-minute session Tuesday to pass a $34 million dollar deal that put the finishing touches on a $300 million plan by the company to expand a business center there. The trouble is, council gave only a day’s notice and scheduled the meeting mid-day during working hours, which could violate Ohio’s open meetings laws. Those laws require that the public business is done in a public manner with ample notice beforehand. The notice sent out by council about the meeting also didn’t stipulate a reason or agenda. Council immediately went into private executive session when it convened, then came out and approved the P&G deal. Critics, including some Mason residents, say it all seems secretive and not very public. Seems like they have a good point.

• ResponsibleOhio’s effort to make marijuana legal in Ohio took another step forward as the Ohio Ballot Board approved the group’s language for a proposed law it hopes to put on the ballot in November. ResponsibleOhio’s proposal would allow anyone over 21 to purchase and smoke weed, but would limit commercial cultivation of marijuana to 10 state-sanctioned growers. That detail has caused controversy from other marijuana legalization advocates. The group still needs to collect more than 300,000 valid signatures from Ohio voters in 44 of the state’s 88 counties by July to get the amendment on the ballot.

• Ohio is the 47th worst state in terms of its tax structure’s fairness to low-income people, a study by personal finance website Wallethub.com says. The report found that low-income Ohioans making $25,000 a year or less pay nearly 11.5 percent of their income in taxes, compared to 9.5 percent for high-income earners. By the way, Ohio didn’t do so great when it came to those top-tier workers, either. The state ranks the 41st best place for people making $150,000 a year or more.

• Here's a pretty interesting study that says urban sprawl costs America more than $1 trillion a year. Wait, so are they saying building highways on top of highways and more McMansions a 45-minute drive from major urban employment centers was an inefficient use of resources? Say it ain't so. Anyway, ignore my editorializing and check out the study. This seems like such a difficult and huge thing to calculate, and I wonder if any readers see things they've missed or other ways to frame the question of how sprawl impacts our economy.

• Finally, I think we all knew this was coming. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas announced this morning he’s running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. On Twitter. The simple tweet read, “I’m running for President and I hope to earn your support!” It also included a video of Cruz’s first campaign ad, a dramatic 30-second piece that shows people America-ing all over the place, riding motorcycles through the desert, welding things, playing baseball of course and generally holding small American flags in verdant parks the way we Americans are wont to do.

Notably missing: bald eagles dropping apple pies on our confused and cowering enemies. Otherwise, though, very American. Cruz is perhaps the most conservative of the many names that have been bandied about as a Republican nominee. The freshman Senator has been one of the most vocal opponents of President Barack Obama, especially the Affordable Care Act. Cruz played a big role in last October’s government shutdown when he engineered a bizarre faux-filibuster and other obstructive measures designed to block passage of a budget that allowed the ACA to remain funded. So he has that on his resume. He’s also a loud climate change denier, or at least skeptic, and generally opposes things that liberals and moderates are into.

by Nick Swartsell 03.20.2015
Posted In: News at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

NCAA tournament is Ohio against the world; VA head McDonald: speed up services to homeless veterans; NKY Rep. wants to cut fed funding for transit projects

Hey all, it’s news time on this glorious, if rainy, Friday. Let’s go.

It truly is Ohio against the world right now, at least when it comes to March Madness (which, if you’re anything like some of my friends, truly is your entire existence at this moment in time). The University of Cincinnati beat Purdue in a heart-stopper last night, Xavier bested Ole Miss and OSU beat Virginia Commonwealth University. Additionally, the Dayton Flyers pulled one out Wednesday against Boise State to make it into the tournament. They’ll be facing Providence College tonight. That’s great, but big challenges loom ahead: specifically, 8th-seed UC will have to face 1st-seed UK tomorrow. That’s going to be a tough game for the Bearcats. But let’s see what happens, right?

While we’re talking basketball, here’s an interesting look at which local programs are making money for their universities, and which are break-even propositions. UC, for instance, spends as much on its basketball program as its team brings in, while Xavier turns a handy profit — the Musketeers’ hoops squad brings in more than $6 million a year.

• Veterans Affairs Secretary and former P&G CEO Bob McDonald wants Cincinnati, along with other cities, to speed up the process of identifying and helping homeless veterans. McDonald visited local service agencies helping veterans yesterday and said he was impressed with the work those groups are doing, as well as the progress the city has made on veteran homelessness. But he also called for quicker turnaround when it comes to getting homeless veterans into housing, saying that the longer it takes to find them and get them on the right track, the less likely they will be to receive and utilize that aid at all. Mayor John Cranley, who joined McDonald on his tours of service agencies yesterday, is engaged in a national program to help vets, called the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. That initiative looks to end veteran homelessness across the country by the end of this year.

• The Cincinnati Zoo recently made a national list of top places to travel if you want to see cool animals. Family Fun magazine publishes its annual rankings on the best places to travel in a number of specific categories, and Cincinnati’s Zoo ranked number eight in the animal attractions category. It ranked just below Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which is pretty impressive. It’s one more accolade for the zoo, which is widely recognized as one of the best in the nation.

• U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, who represents Northern Kentucky, has a GREAT idea for fixing the nation’s highway funding dilemma: strip funding for all other transit projects from the National Highway Trust Fund. Massie says the federal government’s grants for streetcars and other alternate forms of transit cost billions that could go toward building and repairing highways and bridges. Hm. Right. Except each of those projects keeps cars off the road, lessens America’s dependence on oil, may create economic development in the communities they’re built in and provide ways to work and recreation for the millions of Americans who don’t own cars. Which, as of yesterday, includes me. It’s also worth noting that only a small percentage of the Highway Trust Fund goes to transit projects, so cutting that funding would be a drop in the bucket. An alternative measure would be to increase the nation’s gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since grunge rock was cool the first time (that’s 1993). 

• Former (and perhaps future) Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum was once again in the Greater Cincinnati area Thursday, fueling more speculation about his ambitions for the GOP presidential nomination. The former Pennsylvania senator stopped by a fundraiser in Montgomery hosted by the Northeast Hamilton County Republican Club. He avoided saying crazy stuff about religion (at least on the record) but did have some eyebrow-raising thoughts on the economy. Santorum is known to be a hardcore conservative when it comes to social issues, but there are signs he’s tacking moderate on the economy, a combination last tried by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee when he sought the GOP nomination in 2008. Santorum talked about how Republicans could capture the hearts and minds of America’s workers, backing policies that step away from the hardcore trickle down theories (tax cuts for the wealthy, decreased regulations) most recently advanced by the GOP. He revealed his presidential platform, should he run, would include supporting a small minimum wage increase — something few other Republicans seem willing to touch. He also committed something close to sacrilege for conservatives, saying the party needed to move on from Ronald Regan’s economic legacy and message. Santorum’s continued courting of the buckeye state (he was here visiting folks in Butler County a couple weeks ago for a religious freedom conference) comes ahead of his party’s national convention in Cleveland next year and is further evidence that the presidential race may be tightly focused on Ohio.

• While we’re talking presidential hopefuls, let’s cross the spectrum for a minute and talk about Democrats, specifically their frontrunner for the presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She’s been dominating the field on the Dem side, even though she hasn’t officially announced her candidacy. But that could be changing, according to a new poll from news organization Reuters. That poll shows Clinton’s support among Democrats has dipped by 15 points since mid-February, and that now about 45 percent of those identifying with the party say they’re sure they’ll vote for her. That’s still a bigger margin than any other potential candidate, of which there are very few, but the drop is alarming. Some of the dip may be explained by the recent high-profile flap over Clinton’s e-mail usage while secretary of state. After the New York Times reported earlier this month that Clinton used a personal account to conduct State Department business, she has been on the defensive explaining that move. Clinton has turned over tens of thousands of work related e-mails sent from her personal account, but also had other e-mails she claims were personal deleted. That’s led some to suggest she may be hiding information. Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail account appears to have fallen within State Department rules, which were changed after her tenure to require the Secretary of State to use a government account for accountability purposes.

And I’m out. Tweet me (@nswartsell), e-mail me (nswartsell@citybeat.com) or comment below. What do you think? Do you hold out any hope for UC against UK? Do you think we should raise the gas tax? Should I buy a car or wait for regional transit in Cincinnati to become so stellar I won’t need one?  (I'm not holding my breath on any of these).

by Nick Swartsell 03.19.2015
Posted In: News at 10:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
cincinnati_bike lane_dana ave1

Morning News and Stuff

Council questions Cincinnati State bridge proposal; bike lane hubbub; alternative transportation, southern style

Hey all! Working from home is usually great, unless you're working from home because you're waiting for the tow truck to come for your dear old car, which has finally given up the ghost. A moment of silence, please. Anyone selling a cheap, reliable BMW for someone on a journalist's salary? Thought not. Anyway, on to news.

Some City Council members are asking questions about a huge proposed highway project that could change the way people get to Cincinnati State. The I-74 exit onto Central Parkway near the community college is on the Ohio Department of Transportation’s chopping block. By 2018, the exit will be closed as the highway onramp comes down, part of a much larger revamping of the I-75 corridor through Hamilton County. ODOT has proposed a $42 million bridge over both highways from South Cumminsville to Central Parkway, but critics of that bridge, including some members of City Council, say that route would be just as troublesome to navigate as existing alternatives. Council member Kevin Flynn was skeptical, pointing out that the school is an entryway into college education for many seeking social mobility and that officials should be looking for ways to make it easier to get to, not more difficult. What’s more, it’s unclear how the city would pay for its half of the bridge. City Manager Harry Black, however, says the city supports the deal and will pay to study the project as it works to find funding sources for construction. The city will need to commit the funds by 2017. The bigger plan to revamp I-75 as it passes through Cincinnati has been in the works for years, according to ODOT and city officials.

• As a lover of Cincinnati and a lover of bikes, I’m sometimes befuddled by the controversies we get stuck on when it comes to cycling. The latest hubbub around the Central Parkway bike lane has to do with some plastic markers that separate the lane from the road, as well as the fact that some drivers are apparently not paying enough attention while they’re driving to notice when they’re in a lane where cars park.

The big deal, according to this "investigation" earlier this month? the fact that 300 of the 500 plastic bollards the city put in place when the bike lane was built last year are now broken. That apparently costs taxpayers money. Well, sort of. First, they’re $25 a piece, so it would cost about $7,500 to replace them all if the city hadn’t saved some for reuse. Keep in mind, for perspective, that the city spent $100,000 to reroute the lane after a single business owner complained about a couple street parking spots. What’s more, there’s already money in the grant that built the lane to fix them, so very little if any money will be coming out of taxpayers’ pockets.

That very minor problem aside, a couple business owners have also criticized the lane, complaining that motorists have been rear-ending or almost rear-ending cars that now park in a lane of Central Parkway to the left of the bike lane. How is that any different, from a drivers’ standpoint, than lanes all over the city that have parking during designated hours? Watch where you’re driving, pay attention to road signs and stop worrying about the bike lane. Problem solved, end of story.

• Does one of Cincinnati’s top public schools need to be restructured? That’s what an independent audit suggests. The School for Creative and Performing Arts is one of the city’s most prestigious K-12 schools — it requires auditions as part of a very selective enrollment process and once hosted an MTV reality series about its students striving toward careers in the arts. But the school has also seen some pretty rough turns, including the loss of half-a-million dollars by its private fundraising arm, Friends of SCPA, in a local pyramid scheme.

A report by consultants from the University of Maryland found that the school’s problems go beyond some lost fundraising money and include a need for greater accountability within the school’s administration. The report calls for the school to hire an executive director and a senior financial director to oversee the school’s money and an external affairs director to handle marketing and the school’s relationships with other organizations and the public. The report calls for those administrative changes to take place urgently — within the next six months — to put the school back on a sustainable path. 

• News from the State House: another day, another attempt to fight Common Core in Ohio. The tests are part of new federal standards that look to increase educational readiness among students. Critics say the tests amount to a federal takeover of state education and increase testing loads on students. The bill, authored by Republican State Rep. Andrew Brenner from Powell, is in committee now. Gov. John Kasich supports the standards and would be unlikely to sign legislation repealing them.

• President Barack Obama was in Cleveland yesterday bashing Republicans in the city that will host their national convention next year. Obama said the House GOP’s recently released budget proposal is a gimme for those who are already rich that ignores the middle class and low-income people in America. The GOP’s plan would cut taxes for big businesses and wealthy Americans, which they say will stimulate job growth. The plan will also cut money from Medicare and other social programs in an attempt to erase the federal government’s deficit over the next decade.

Obama called the plan “trickle down economics” that won’t work for the middle class. Obama’s plan is generally the opposite: decrease tax loopholes for large corporations, raise taxes on the wealthy, spend billions on infrastructure and a free community college program he proposed last month. His budget would also reverse cuts to defense and other spending under sequestration. Obama touted the economy’s recovery that has occurred since he took office, including slowly falling unemployment numbers. Republicans, including the office of House Speaker John Boehner, shot back against his criticisms, calling his speech to the Cleveland City Club a “political stunt.”

• Finally, let’s go back to alternative forms of transportation for a minute. Forget bikes or streetcars — they do it a bit differently in the South, apparently. This guy got pulled over on I-75 near downtown Atlanta for riding his horse down the highway. He also had another horse with him, which maybe means he should have been using the rideshare lane? I don’t know. Anyway, the Long Rider, has he calls himself, is heading our way. He says he’s trying to get to Indiana by June for his sister’s birthday. He also says he rides to “feed the children,” though it’s unclear what that means.

And I’m out. Comment, tweet (@nswartsell) or email (nswartsell@citybeat.com) news tips or the best place to buy a used horse with less than 75,000 miles on it.

by Nick Swartsell 03.18.2015
Posted In: News at 10:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

City to forgive nearly $200K on Mahogany's loan; Ohio Board of Education could vote soon on five of eight rule; should you pick UK to take the tournament?

Hey Cincy! It’s news time.

The city of Cincinnati will forgive all but $100,000 of the nearly $300,000 Mahogany’s owner Liz Rogers owes the city for her defunct restaurant, which closed its location at The Banks last September. City Manager Harry Black proposed the plan, which would require Rogers to make $800 monthly payments, in a memo to Mayor John Cranley and Cincinnati City Council yesterday. Meanwhile, Rogers announced today that she is planning two new ventures to help her make those payments: a gourmet ice cream business and a food truck. Rogers was given the loan in 2012 to bring her soul food restaurant to The Banks. She quickly fell behind on her loan payments, however, a fact she attributes to a lack of promised amenities, including a new hotel, at the riverfront development.

• Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld could face a state investigation into his campaign finances after it was revealed he filed a report for his council campaign fund six months late. The report was due last July, but Sittenfeld didn’t file it until January. The Hamilton County Board of Elections is looking into the violation and could send it on to the Ohio Elections Commission. If the state commission finds Sittenfeld did violate campaign finance rules by turning in his report late, it could assess a fine of $100 for every day the report was late — which would mean Sittenfeld could owe as much as $18,000. Depending on the reasons for the delay, the commission could also decline to assess the fine or fine Sittenfeld a lower amount. The potential investigation could complicate the 30-year-old councilman’s bid for the Senate. Sittenfeld is currently in a primary race against 74-year-old former Ohio governor Ted Strickland for the Democratic nomination. The winner will go on to challenge sitting Republican Senator Rob Portman.

• Christopher Cornell, the Hamilton County man suspected of making plans to carry out terrorist acts in Washington D.C., will keep his access to a phone in the Boone County Jail where he is being held. Prosecutors have tried to keep him from having access to the phone, but a federal judge yesterday ruled that restricting Cornell’s access could keep him from planning his legal defense and also compromise his psychological health. Cornell is currently being held in isolation. So far, Cornell has only used the phone to call his lawyers, his family and, in one instance, the media. Cornell called FOX 19 and spoke to Tricia Macke for an hour, during which he claimed that if he hadn’t been arrested in January, he would have gone to Washington to carry out terrorist attacks. Recorded phone records show Cornell hasn’t used his phone access to attempt to reach out to others who might engage in terrorist acts.

• The Ohio Board of Education could vote soon on eliminating the so-called five of eight rule, which currently requires schools to have at least five of eight specialty staff members including art teachers and librarians. A legislative review board yesterday cleared the possible rule change, setting the board of education for a vote on eliminating the staffing requirements at its next meeting April 13 and 14. The proposed rule change has been very controversial; education advocates and other foes say it will disproportionately affect low-income students, whose districts are often strapped for cash, by allowing schools to eliminate art, music and other classes. Advocates for the rule changes say they want to give schools more discretion on how they spend their money.

Taxpayers paid $3,400 for Ohio Gov. John Kasich to fly to Washington earlier this month for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, the Associated Press reports. The funds went toward hotel rooms, airfare and parking for the Republican governor and two staff members. That’s perfectly legal, but it also means taxpayers picked up the bill for Kasich to attend a highly partisan event. The speech, in which Netanyahu harshly criticized President Barack Obama for his policy toward Iran, was controversial, playing on a growing divide in Congress and in American politics in general. The GOP invited Netanyahu to speak but didn't give the White House a heads up beforehand. More than 50 top Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden, did not attend the address, which was given to both House and Senate members.

• So it’s very little surprise that the University of Kentucky is the team to beat this year in the NCAA basketball tournament. This pretty insightful breakdown from the New York Times’ Upshot blog, however, gives you some nice pointers as to whether you should go with the favorites or pick an underdog. While you’re thinking about March Madness, pick up our issue this week, which has a great preview of all the hoops craziness. Because I’m not a statistician, sports fan or gambler, I always vote for our local teams until they inevitably lose, but hey, one of these years…

• Finally, this is unsettling to me, but maybe I just need to get more comfortable with the glories of late-stage capitalism already. A new company that lets you put your own face on action figures and dolls is coming to Cincinnati. AvaStars, which already has stores in Chicago and St. Louis, will soon open at Kenwood Towne Center. The store will allow children or really anyone for whom selfies are no longer gratifying enough to put their own faces on figurines, as well as appear in a customized video. Like I said, in the age of incessant social media self-branding, there’s something weird about this to me, but hey, I’m trying to be more positive this week, so let’s look at the upsides. This could be huge for a kid’s self-esteem and ability to envision their future — picture a lot more female scientist dolls, maybe, or other possibilities that undermine the constant drumbeat of oppressive normative messages most toys send to kids.

by Nick Swartsell 03.17.2015
Posted In: News at 10:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

SORTA approves Oasis bike path; Pete Rose applies for MLB reinstatement; Mount Auburn park could get facelift

Morning y’all! I’ve been out of the morning news loop working on long-term projects but I’m back and ready to nerd out on some news. So let’s do it.

Twitter is all abuzz this morning with the news that the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority has approved plans to build a bike path on the Oasis Line near the Ohio River on the city’s East Side. That’s big news — as our feature on the potential Oasis path last month explored, completion of a bike trail there brings Cincinnati closer to a network of statewide trails and also makes biking from the East Side to downtown a possibility. SORTA controls the right of way on a set of tracks that will need to be paved for the bike path to be built. The Indiana-Ohio Railway company, however, voiced opposition to the plan, citing safety concerns and plans to expand its business in the area. The company owns tracks running just seven feet from the unused line the bike path would occupy.

• Will Pete Rose get reinstated into Major League Baseball, clearing the way for his induction into the Hall of Fame? It could happen, but the road facing Charlie Hustle is still a long one. Rose recently applied for reinstatement with new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who expressed openness to a conversation about letting Rose back in after taking baseball’s top position in January. Manfred has acknowledged he received Rose’s request but hasn’t tipped his hand about whether or when the hit king might be reinstated. Rose, baseball’s all-time hits leader, received a lifetime ban from baseball in 1989 after he was investigated for betting on the game while he was a player and coach. Rose denied the allegations until 2003, when he publicly admitted he did bet on games.

• Two members of Cincinnati City Council would like to spend $9 million to revamp a 20-acre park in Mount Auburn while also improving the area around the park on Auburn Avenue for pedestrians. Inwood Park sits along Vine Street on the western edge of the neighborhood between uptown and downtown. Councilmen Charlie Winburn and Chris Seelbach would like the city to invest $5 million in the park over the next two budgets in a plan they unveiled before council’s Budget and Finance Committee meeting Monday. The hope is that investment would help increase momentum on new development in the neighborhood, which has just begun to pick up. Developers Uptown Rentals and North American Properties plan to invest nearly $100 million in Mount Auburn in the near future, including the construction of 400 units of market-rate housing and tens of thousands of square feet of office space.

“As we’ve seen with Washington Park, these dollars do more than beautify our neighborhoods,” Seelbach said in a news release yesterday. “Inwood Park will become a destination in Uptown, drawing families, students and neighbors to spend time together, enjoying our city.”

I walk through this park all the time and think it’s pretty epic. The motion met with mixed reactions from the rest of the budget and finance committee, who are hesitant about the expenditures without reviewing the plan with the Parks Department and considering other uses for the money.

• Gov. John Kasich met Monday with the Ohio Taskforce on Community-Police Relations to discuss the group’s ongoing work. Kasich convened the task force in December in the wake of controversy over the shooting deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, including Tamir Rice in Cleveland and John Crawford III in Beavercreek. The 18-member group made up of lawmakers, experts, law enforcement professionals and community leaders held four listening sessions across the state, including a marathon five-and-a-half hour session in Cincinnati March 9. Now, the task force must compile the hours of expert testimony and community input into a report with recommendations for policy changes, which is expected to be released April 30. In the meantime, Kasich dropped by the meeting Monday to hear initial thoughts from the task force members.

One member, Oregon, Ohio Police Chief Michael Navarre, said that all of his training has informed him to shoot in dangerous situations, and that "there is a huge gap between what community and police want," according to Gongwer news service. Kasich has said changing training and procedures for officers could be one outcome of the task force’s work.

• Finally, are you following this crazy story about New York millionaire and property magnate Robert Durst? You should be. Durst is suspected in three murders over the span of nearly two decades, including that of his wife, one of his best friends and a neighbor. The thing is, he’s been a suspect for years and was even acquitted on grounds of self-defense for one of the murder charge even after he admitted to dismembering the man he killed. The HBO series Jinx has chronicled Durst and the suspicions against him, and, incredibly, Durst was arrested in New Orleans just before the show’s finale to face charges in L.A. for one of the murders. There are so many things to unpack about this situation — how money changes your relationship to the justice system, the weird looking glass of true-crime TV and real law enforcement colliding, Durst’s own strange background and on and on. Anyway, the whole story is worth reading up on and I’m sure we’ll be searching for answers to the questions Jinx raises for years to come.

That’s it for me. Tweet me (@nswartsell). Email me (nswartsell@citybeat.com). Say hey when you see me at Findlay Market. Whatever you gotta do to give me those news tips or your thoughts on the weird world of true-crime docu-dramas.

by Nick Swartsell 03.13.2015
Posted In: News at 02:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Marijuana Legalization Effort Moves Forward

Ohio attorney general approves ResponsibleOhio's ballot language for marijuana legalization amendment

A controversial effort to legalize the growth and sale of marijuana is one step closer to the November ballot. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine today approved ResponsibleOhio's ballot summary language, or the description of its proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize pot but restrict growth to 10 sites owned by the group’s investors across Ohio.

“We are very happy with today’s news,” said ResponsibleOhio Spokesperson Lydia Bolander in a news release. “Voters deserve a thoughtful conversation on this important issue, and we are eager to continue this conversation in the coming months.”

DeWine initially rejected the group's ballot proposal over quibbles with its summary language. ResponsibleOhio tweaked its proposal, and now the initiative is ready for the ballot.

The group built its ballot initiative in the mold of Ohio’s successful 2009 casino legalization effort. Opponents, including other pro-marijuana groups, say that like the casino amendment ResponsibleOhio’s proposal would create a state-ordained monopoly on marijuana farms that mainly benefits the group’s investors. Other critics, including many conservative statewide officials, say the plan will increase drug use and crime.

In response to criticism from other pro-marijuana activists, ResponsibleOhio last month announced it was changing its proposition to allow private growth of small amounts of marijuana.

The group says its proposal will decrease the black market for weed, alleviate some legal injustices, save law enforcement money and increase tax revenues.

“Marijuana prohibition has failed,” Bolander said. “Black Ohioans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white Ohioans. Patients are denied access to treatments that could ease their suffering. And the state is wasting $120 million each year to enforce these bad laws.

Local ResponsibleOhio investors include basketball hall of famer Oscar Robertson, philanthropist Barbara Gould and venture capitalist Frank Wood. Cincinnati attorney Chris Stock is also involved with the group, helping draw up the language for the ballot initiative. Three of the proposed 10 marijuana farms would be in the Greater Cincinnati area.

Next, ResponsibleOhio will need to finish collecting the more than 300,000 signatures required to put the amendment on this year’s statewide ballot. The group has until this summer to do so.

by Nick Swartsell 03.11.2015
Posted In: News at 10:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

New brewery will take beer to the dark side; Santorum visits, campaigns in Ohio; business groups balk at Kasich tax plan

Morning Cincy! Here’s your news today.

Former senator and potential Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum visited the Greater Cincinnati area yesterday to speak at a conference on religious freedom in West Chester Township. Santorum wasn’t shy about mixing in some campaigning, telling the crowd that big government is threatening their freedom to be Christian and that the path forward is electing strong Christian leaders like Santorum himself. He threw out some recent headlines, including one about public schools in New York celebrating Muslim holidays, as examples of ways in which the religious right are being persecuted by pretty much everyone else. In his god, guns, no government stumping, Santorum appears to be reprising his role as 2012 Republican presidential primary runner-up. He came in second to Mitt Romney, a guy who has no weird religious ideas whatsoever. Santorum told the Cincinnati Enquirer he is considering running again for the GOP nomination and will make a solid decision in June or so.

• The Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation’s largest LGBT advocates, has recognized a local nonprofit for its service to LGBT youth. HRC has awarded Lighthouse Youth Services with its All Children – All Families seal of approval, the organization’s highest recognition of competency with LGBT issues for child welfare agencies. Lighthouse, which does street outreach, residential treatment and other programs with homeless and at risk youth, is the first agency in Ohio to receive the award.

“It’s an honor to receive this recognition from HRC as we work to serve this population of young people who are at such high risk of homelessness and discrimination,” said Lighthouse President and CEO Bob Mecum in a statement.

• As a fan of dark beer, and, really, dark beer exclusively, I’ve sat on the bench watching a number of craft brewers pop up around the city. Those brewers are great and all, but hopped-up IPAs are just not my style and that seems to be the rage these days. However, someone has finally heard my cry and now there’s a brewer coming devoted to my love of the dark, chocolaty richness of stouts and porters. Darkness Brewery is planning to open just across the river in Bellevue in September, focused on the tastiest corner of the beer world. I’ll be camped out at the door come grand opening. Founders Eric Bosier and Ron Sanders are currently funding the enterprise themselves but might set up a Kickstarter campaign in the near future.

• Do courts in Kentucky discriminate against addicts by blocking those on probation from taking anti-addiction drugs like methadone? That’s what a federal lawsuit filed by a Kentucky nurse alleges. Stephanie Watson is an opiate addict who is forbidden from taking medication aimed at easing her off the drugs. Watson’s attorneys say that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit targets the state’s Monitored Conditional Release program, which maintains the rules about the drugs, and seeks to have those rules overturned. Officials from the release program have yet to comment on the suit.

• Business groups across the state are signaling they’re not on board with Gov. John Kasich’s tax cut plan, mostly because it includes an increase in sales taxes. Kasich has proposed a $500 million tax cut for the state, mostly achieved by lowering income taxes while raising sales taxes and taxes on specific items such as cigarettes. Many of Ohio’s regional chambers of commerce have come out against the plan, saying it will limit Ohio’s nascent economic recovery. Kasich’s plan has also drawn flack from liberals, who say it makes the state’s tax structure more regressive. It’s also not gotten a lot of love from the Republican-dominated General Assembly, who have signaled they will be making changes to Kasich’s proposed budget.

• Here’s an interesting, and distressing, wrinkle in the ongoing national conversation about police use of force set off by the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. This story explores the little-recognized fact that all the police involved in recent controversial shooting deaths of unarmed black citizens have been remarkably young and inexperienced — all well under the age of 30. While it’s important to realize that a number of systemic issues seem to be at play in the deaths of young men like Tamir Rice in Cleveland and John Crawford III in Beavercreek, officer inexperience seems to be an important, and under-recognized, element to the tragedies.

That’s all I’ve got today. You know the drill: tweet at me (@nswartsell), email me (nswartsell@citybeat.com) or comment with news tips or general heckling. Whatever you gotta do.

by Nick Swartsell 03.10.2015
Posted In: News at 09:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

Ohio police task force meets in Cincy; Senate Dems back Strickland; the great $85,000 cheese heist

Morning y’all! Here’s a brief morning news rundown before I jet off to some interviews.

The Ohio Task Force on Community-Police Relations met last night at UC for a sometimes intense five-and-a-half-hour listening session. A large group showed up to listen to expert testimony and to speak to the panel themselves. Perhaps the most charged moment came when John Crawford, Jr., the father of John Crawford III, a Fairfield man shot by police in a Beavercreek Walmart, gave emotional testimony about the need for police reforms.

Among experts presenting were Garry McCarthy, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, who talked about data-driven policing, Lt. Colonel David Bailey from the Cincinnati Police Department and Al Gerhardstein, a Cincinnati attorney who played a key role in the city’s collaborative agreement following the civil unrest here in 2001. State Sen. Cecil Thomas also testified about his role in the agreement. About 45 community members signed up to speak, including young activists with the Ohio Student Association, who argued there should be youth representation on the 18-person panel. Most attendees were from Cincinnati, but some drove from as far away as Columbus and Toledo. The panel concludes a tour of four listening sessions across the state. Now the task force, which was convened by Gov. John Kasich in December, will work on a report about its findings due at the end of April.

• A potential Over-the-Rhine neighborhood parking plan continues to take shape. Council discussed the prospective plan yesterday at its Transportation Committee meeting but did not pass anything just yet. Right now, the plan council is mulling would charge about $100 to park in one of 400 reserved spots around the neighborhood. That’s about a third of all the spots in OTR. Those who receive housing assistance would get a deal on the parking plan, however, only paying $18. Only two passes would be permitted per household.

• A bill necessary to move forward with tolling on a potential Brent Spence Bridge replacement is a likely wash in the Kentucky state Senate, meaning it’s back to the drawing board for the $2.6 billion project. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear recently proposed a public-private partnership to fund the 51-year-old structurally obsolete bridge’s replacement, but that requires Kentucky, which owns the bridge, to pass a law allowing public-private partnerships. Some Kentucky politicians, including many Northern Kentucky officials, oppose tolls on the bridge, saying they’ll hurt commuters and businesses in the region.

• Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland has garnered another big endorsement in his run against Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 2016 race for Republican Rob Portman’s Senate seat. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of the party’s senators, has backed Strickland over Sittenfeld. There was some speculation that Sittenfeld, who is regarded as a promising rising star within the party, would bow out to the more experienced and well-known Strickland when the latter announced his campaign last month. But the younger Democrat has vowed to stay in the race, even as the going gets tougher. Yesterday, we told you that current Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown also endorsed Strickland. Sittenfeld has backers of his own, to be sure, and has raised a respectable $500,000 for his campaign.

• Finally, let’s go national. When something like the following happens, I automatically assume it happened in Florida, and I’m right a distressing amount of the time. On Sunday, thieves there stole a tractor-trailer with $85,000 worth of… mozzarella cheese. That’s a felony level of cheese there, friends. If I had that much cheese, I’d probably swim in it the way Scrooge McDuck used to swim in all those crazy gold coins he had. Police haven’t found the culprits yet, but I have a hot tip for them: Look for the guys making an insanely large pizza.

That’s it. See ya. Tweet at me @nswartsell or hit me on email (nswartsell@citybeat.com).

by Nick Swartsell 03.09.2015
Posted In: News at 10:04 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mornings News and Stuff

New home for crime lab?; Seelbach pushes for streetcar plans uptown; is it time to abolish Ohio's death penalty?

Hey all! Hope your weekend was great. I spent my Saturday at the Neighborhood Summit, so mine was super fun because I’m a huge dork. If you’re like me and you’re into community building, urban planning, transit, or anything else at all city related, though, it’s kind of like our Midpoint. Highlights included a three-part panel discussion among Police Chief Jeffery Blackwell, activists Damon Lynch III and Iris Roley and other experts talking about how far the Cincinnati Police Department has come since 2001, as well as another set of presentations about immigration in Cincinnati.

Anyway, on to the news. Could labs on Cincinnati’s East Side currently occupied by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health be a new home for the Hamilton County crime lab? County Commissioner Todd Portune says he’s looking into that possibility. Last month, the federal government announced it was providing $100 million to build a new facility for NIOSH to combine the organization’s two labs in Cincinnati into one complex over the next few years. That could free up plenty of lab space for the county’s cramped and outdated morgue and crime labs, currently in a building built in the early 1970s. What’s more, some of that $100 million could go toward renovating the current NIOSH lab so the county crime lab could move in. The idea comes after county commissioners killed a plan to move the morgue, crime lab and other county offices to a former Mercy Hospital in Mount Airy donated to the county for a dollar. Commissioners have said it would cost too much money to retrofit that building for the new offices.

• A statewide task force on police-community relations put together by Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the wake of controversy over police shootings is coming to Cincinnati tonight. A public listening session will be held at 4:30 p.m. at the Kingsgate Marriott, 151 Goodman Drive, near the University of Cincinnati. City Locals Councilwoman Amy Murray, Pastor Damon Lynch III and others make up the panel, which will produce a report in April on ways to improve relationships between police and community members. Kasich ordered the task force in December in response to nationwide consternation over police shootings of unarmed citizens of color across the country. In Ohio, the August shooting death of John Crawford III in a Beavercreek Walmart and the October killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on a playground in Cleveland have gotten national attention. Both held toy guns at the time of their deaths, and police say they seemed to pose a threat. But the families of both Rice and Crawford say police were reckless and did not act appropriately. They say the shootings are indicative of a larger cultural problem between police and communities of color.

• As political bickering continues to swirl around the streetcar’s first phase, Councilman Chris Seelbach is pushing the city to work on planning the rail project’s next leg. Seelbach has created a motion in council seeking to spur the city to begin work on plans that would take the streetcar uptown toward the University of Cincinnati and many of the city’s hospitals. The motion directs the city administration to give detailed accounting of how much the next phase of the project would cost and how it might be paid for with state and federal grants. Seelbach has also requested the city refine its process for engaging community members along the route to get better input on the project. Originally, plans for the streetcar treated the downtown loop currently being  built and an uptown jaunt as one phase. But then Gov. John Kasich pulled $55 million in state funding for the project, resulting in the current scaled-down scope. Mayor John Cranley, who has been a vocal opponent of the streetcar, has said it’s much too soon to begin focusing on the next phase before the first is even finished. But Seelbach and other supporters say the only way to tap into federal funds and other sources of funding is to have a plan in place and ready to go.

• Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of Ohio’s highest-profile Democrats, has endorsed former Gov. Ted Strickland in his run for the state’s other senate seat, currently held by Republican Rob Portman. That’s not a surprise — Strickland is one of Ohio’s other super high profile Democrats — but it does signal the challenge City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld has ahead as he challenges Strickland in the Democratic primary for the seat. Sittenfeld, who announced his candidacy last month, has recently said he won’t back down from the race despite his big name competitor. He’s raised at least $500,000 for his run and told supporters last week that he’s all in for the fight. Though Brown endorsed Strickland, he was careful to praise Sittenfeld in his announcement, saying the 30-year-old has a bright future in politics.

• In the face of issues around execution drugs, a steady number of exonerations of those on Ohio’s death row and other factors, is it time to consider reforming or abolishing Ohio’s death penalty? Many feel strongly that it is, including unlikely conservative opponents to the punishment. Recent delays to executions caused by Ohio’s struggle to find a source for drugs that will end an inmate’s life humanely have renewed calls for the state to reconsider its death penalty entirely. This Columbus Dispatch story takes a deep look into the issue and is worth a read.

• Finally, March 7 marked the 50th anniversary of the violent clash between police and protesters in Selma, Alabama, an event that helped fuel new national civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act. Thousands visited Selma over the weekend to commemorate the anniversary, which was marked by passionate speeches by both President Barack Obama and outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder used his speech to question the future of the VRA, parts of which have been dismantled by recent Supreme Court decisions. Here’s a pretty in-depth New York Times piece about events in Selma over the past few days.

That’s it for me. You know the drill. Tweet (@nswartsell), e-mail (nswartsell@citybeat.com), comment, send me a telegram or a fax (do people still fax? Is that still a thing?) Here we go. Tweet me about whether you still use a fax machine or even know what a fax machine is. I kind of do.