So I'm a bit late with news this morning, or the morning was a bit early, one of those. It probably has something to do with CityBeat winning six Cincinnati SPJ awards last night. Though I wasn't part of the team in 2013 when those awards were earned, I did my part by putting in extra hours celebrating.
Anyway, enough about us. Here's what's going on in the world.
Cincinnati’s startup community got some love yesterday when America Online cofounder Steve Case rolled into town with his Rise of the Rest tour, which celebrates entrepreneurs in American cities. Case praised Cincinnati’s progress in bringing vitality back to its downtown area and credited that renaissance at least in part to the city’s startups and young entrepreneurs.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzger, who is riding shotgun on the tour, also praised the Queen City for the level of access startups have to the large corporations in town. She said what the city needs now is a big hit — a startup that really makes it big and shows the world that Cincinnati is a great place to start a business.
Mayor John Cranley was in the mix as well, touting Cincinnati’s strengths as a marketing town. He called the city “the best place in the world” for marketing entrepreneurs. While that’s kind of like your parents talking about how awesome you are to their work colleagues (of course he’s going to say that), Cranley’s point holds some weight — with so many big companies in town needing all sorts of fresh ideas, it can’t hurt to be living at their doorstep if you’re hoping to do some business with them.
One Cincinnati startup, called Frameri, got $100,000 from Case and an invitation to pitch their business in Washington, D.C. Frameri, which makes high-style glasses with interchangeable frames and lenses, beat out seven other local businesses in a pitch competition. The company is an alum of OTR’s business incubator The Brandery. No word from Case yet on my business idea, which involves a food delivery service that launches burritos from those pneumatic tubes you see in old bank building drive-thrus. Still waiting for that call, Steve…
• In other downtown news, Kroger is adjusting its ideas about starting a grocery store in the Central Business District. The Business Courier reports that Kroger CEO Roger McMullen discussed the chain’s plans for a downtown store at yesterday’s annual shareholder meeting, revealing that less may be more in the company’s eyes. Kroger had been mulling a full-size store here but is now considering something smaller and more specialized.
• Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld and other Democrats held an event this morning near UC criticizing Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio legislature for the low level of funding for higher education in the state. Democrats also gathered in Columbus to protest dwindling education spending, which they say make college unaffordable for many Ohio families. One talking point — Ohio’s budget spends less than 10 percent on higher education for the first time in four decades. Gov. Kasich has acknowledged that college affordability is a problem but says schools need to do more to cut costs and make sure degrees lead to good-paying jobs.
• The Associated Press reports that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office is having a difficult time documenting how it goes about choosing law firms for special assignments. DeWine says there’s a rigorous process used to vet firms and decide who gets the lucrative state contracts, but public records request by AP found… nothing. It’s entirely possible that the AG’s dog ate the records or that maybe DeWine just keeps all that info in his head. The revelation comes as allegations are being made that these kinds of contracts are often awarded to firms who donate to the state Republican party. DeWine’s opponent for the AG post, Cincinnati-based lawyer David Pepper, has said DeWine’s office is engaged in a “pay to play” arrangement. DeWine, however, says his office’s choices are transparent and fair.
• A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that political polarization, which is at an all-time high, contributes to income inequality. This is kind of like a two-for-one in the “hot political topics” world. The study doesn’t go so far as to nail down why the gap between America’s political ideologies tracks so closely with the gap in rich and poor Americans’ incomes, but it does make a couple guesses, which are worth reading about. Basically, it may have to do with the country’s rightward shift toward policies that tend to benefit more wealthy citizens. Or heck, maybe it’s just a big crazy coincidence and the tea party really will make everything great for everyone if we only embrace their Mad-Max style dreams for a government-less future. Could be.
A national group working to convince companies to change the way they buy produce picketed Kroger's annual shareholder meeting Thursday.
A national group working to convince companies to change the way they buy produce picketed Kroger's annual shareholder meeting Thursday.
About 100 activists showed up, holding signs and chanting as shareholders filed into the meeting at Music Hall. Some were local, while others came from Columbus, Florida and elsewhere.
The group organizing the event, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, is based in Immokalee, Fla., and pushes for higher wages and improved working conditions for farm laborers. A large amount of produce production takes place in Florida and throughout the South, and the industry is rife with complaints of worker exploitation and mistreatment.
Hundreds of thousands of farm workers labor in Florida, and many make just pennies per pound picked, meaning it can take picking a couple tons a day to make a living wage. That’s if they make any money at all. Florida has prosecuted a number of cases of slave labor in the agricultural industry in the past decade and a half, leading to the discovery of more than 1,000 people being exploited for unpaid slave labor.
The adverse conditions affect people of color disproportionately. A study by the Center for Racial Justice Innovation found that 50 percent of low-wage workers in the food industry are people of color, and that 65 percent of low-wage farm workers are Hispanic.
CIW started in 1993 as a small, local coalition working to improve these conditions, specifically working with tomato pickers. The group began near the city of Immokalee in southwest Florida, known as “the tomato capital of the world.” The organization had big success pushing for higher wages and better treatment and has grown to become a national-level organizing group for workers.
Oscar Otzoy picks produce and advocates for farm labor rights. He’s working in Columbus now but lived in Immokalee for eight years before that. He's been involved in the coalition to improve farm workers’ rights that entire time.
He says before the coalition, working days in the fields were long, and workers had little recourse when they were mistreated.
“Back then, you’d work long, hard hours, and if you were abused in the fields, if you were a victim of sexual harassment, as many women are, there was no system,” he said. “If workers wanted to complain, they would be fired on the spot. That’s all changing now.”
Otzoy says the life of a farm laborer can be hard, especially without groups like the CIW.
“You wake up very early in the morning, usually about 4 a.m., and then get on a bus to the field to work,” said Otzoy, describing a typical day before he joined the coalition. “But when you get there, you usually don’t start working until about 10 a.m., when the pesticides have dried and it’s safe to enter. All the time in between is unpaid.”
The CIW’s Fair Food Program, an effort to address some of the hardships of work in the produce industry, pushes for an extra cent per pound paid to workers, supports a code of conduct for companies and educates workers about their rights. CIW says the Fair Food Program has resulted in $12 million in extra pay for workers since it was first instituted.
McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway, Chipotle, Trader Joes, Whole Foods and Wal Mart, among other large companies responsible for billions of dollars in the produce trade, have all participated in the Fair Food Program. Some staunch holdouts include Wendy’s and Publix, a Southern grocery store chain.
Kroger is another company that has yet to join in.
“We’ve been here every year, and we’re trying to grow our numbers,” said Sameerah Ahmad, a local organizer working with CIW at the protest. “We’ve been organizing these protests for a few years. We want to show escalation and pressure and show we’re not going way.
Kroger is the nation’s largest grocer after Wal-Mart, with total sales of more than $34 billion. The chain has not yet responded to calls to join fair food efforts. While the company itself hasn’t participated directly in any known agricultural injustices, Ahmad said that as part of the produce industry, the company should make sure it’s sourcing its food ethically.
“Kroger can take a big step by supporting workers’ rights in the fields,” she said.
Alright, it’s pretty early in the morning for me, so please forgive me for the following hokey, news-related metaphor.
Cincinnati City Council is about to go on summer vacation, but they’ve spent the past few days doing all their homework, including at least one pretty tough math problem. Yesterday they turned their work in, giving final approval for deals that will bring more than 4,000 jobs to the city. These include an eventual 600 new jobs from Cincinnati Bell, which is consolidating its operations downtown, and another 650 new jobs from Catholic Health Partners, which is moving to Bond Hill.
They also made some more controversial decisions, including giving 3CDC preferred developer status over 33 properties north of Liberty Street. The neighborhood’s community council has balked at that idea, saying room needs to be made for independent developers, affordable housing and community input.
The toughest fight came over what to do about two affordable housing projects vying for the same pot of $1.9 million. In the end, council’s Budget and Finance Committee did some subtraction, giving $1.3 million to Over-the-Rhine Community Housing and holding back the rest for supportive permanent housing, possibly in the form a project in Avondale, though that project has received some criticism.
• Mayor John Cranley was scheduled to join U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzger and America Online co-founder Steve Case at Fountain Square this morning to talk about start-ups and entrepreneurialism. The event kicked off at 9:30 a.m. and was part of the “Rise of the Rest” tour, which celebrates start-up culture in America’s cities.
• The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been all over Cincinnati of late. A few days ago, it put two Cincinnati buildings on its list of 11 most endangered in the country. But it’s also given the city some positive attention, penning this blog/love letter to Cincinnati’s brewery scene. Aw shucks, thanks guys.
• There’s a bear out there, and he’s been looking for love in all the wrong places. The black bear seemingly wandered into Ohio from Kentucky sometime earlier this week and has most recently been spotted in Montgomery. An Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokesperson told WXIX that the bear is “looking for a girlfriend” and that the limited bear population in Ohio means he’ll probably have little luck. Which makes me wonder: Whose job it is to teach this bear how to use Tinder?
• Ohio has seen its Hispanic populations grow in every county except one, even as the state’s non-Hispanic population declines. The state gained about 32,000 people who identify as Hispanic between 2010 and now, and lost 7,000 people identifying as non-Hispanic. The ethnic designation is a bit problematic — it has nothing to do with race and identifies people from a range of countries with a range of backgrounds — but in general refers to those who identify with cultures from Mexico, Central or South America. The boost in the Hispanic population isn’t so much due to immigration, demographers say, as it is to birthrate. More American-born Hispanics have recently come of age and started having children, according to the study done by the Census Bureau.
• A recent study suggests America's housing situation is about to change dramatically as more of the Millennial generation surges into the housing market. That could have huge implications for rental costs, housing availability in the city and the supply of affordable housing, experts say.
• Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-West Chester, is threatening to sue the Obama administration over his use of executive orders and his supposed failure at enforcing laws properly. The suit is also rumored to include a dispute over a used 1986 Pontiac Firebird Boehner bought from Obama on Craigslist that Boehner says has a pretty bad oil leak. No, no, it's actually just the first two. Because you know, Congress has been SO SO GOOD at its job lately.
• Finally, it’s been a mixed-up ride for the tea party of late. The insurgent conservative movement gained a huge victory when House candidate David Brat toppled Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But bruising primary results in other states, including Mississippi, haven’t been great for the movement. There, incumbent Senator Thad Cochran held on to his seat even after he was down in the primary election to tea partier and State Senator Chris McDaniel. But Cochran thumped McDaniel in a runoff election. Other primaries taking place in the past few days have shown similar results. The losses certainly don’t represent the end of the conservative phenomenon, but it seems candidates sponsored by outside groups like Club for Growth and Freedomworks are not gaining the traction conservative activists had hoped for. Which, you know, is great, because these guys are usually pretty nuts.
FitzGerald will walk in the parade, but will not hold a speaking event. The parade will be his only public appearance while he is in Cincinnati.
“He knows it’s a great celebration for the 4th of July and he enjoys the Cincinnati area,” campaign press secretary Lauren Hitt says. “He’s excited to get out and see some folks there.”
The Cuyahoga County executive and democratic nominee will face incumbent Republican Gov. John Kasich this November. FitzGerald recently signed on for five debates — Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Sandusky and Zanesville — against Kasich.
This past weekend FitzGerald walked in the Columbus Pride Parade, in line with his support of same-sex marriage.
Last year, Gabrielle Gifford’s appeared in Northside’s annual community parade and held a rally on gun control before the parade.
Member of parade committee Ollie Kroner said the parade organizers typically invite city politicians, but FitzGerald reached out to the parade.
“I just think the parade has a reputation beyond our side and beyond the city,” Kroner says. “When politicians want to come and get a taste for local flair the parade is a great venue for that.”
The parade will take place at noon on July 4 and travel south on Hamilton Avenue through the Northside business district. It is part of the three-day Northside Rock n’ Roll Carnival.
As previously noted, tons happened yesterday. Let’s dive in now that the dust is settling.
The Cultural Facilities Task Force pitched its ideas for ways to fund Union Terminal and Music Hall renovations to Hamilton County Commissioners. The group of business leaders suggested a tax levy that would raise either sales or property taxes to net about $300 million for the projects. Both buildings need significant work. The sales tax would be a quarter of a percent, while the less-favored property tax would amount to about $35 a year on a $100,000 home. The task force recommended the sales tax in part because it will net money from visitors who don’t live in the county as well as residents. But some experts say sales tax puts more burden on the low-income.
The Cincinnati Zoo saw all that prospective cash and decided it wants in. Zoo Director Thane Maynard wrote a letter to the commissioners asking them to consider cutting the zoo into the deal. Many of its buildings are old, even historic, and in need of restoration, Maynard said. Commissioners were skeptical about the possibility of extending the money to three cultural institutions, though they noted the zoo’s needs.
Both Music Hall and Union Terminal were just placed on the National Trust’s list of 11 most endangered buildings. They’re the only two in Ohio on the list, which, if you think about it, is pretty astounding. It’s the first time the Trust has spotlighted two buildings in the same city on its list.
• 3CDC is one step away from gaining preferred developer status for 33 buildings around Findlay Market after the council’s Budget and Finance Committee approved its request yesterday. The status means 3CDC would vet and approve development projects proposed for the buildings as well as carry out its own. It’s the first major play by the development group north of Liberty Street.
OTR Community Council wrote a letter last week to the Mayor John Cranley asking for the city to hold off on the deal, citing concerns about resident involvement and affordable housing. Stay tuned for our in-depth news story about developments north of Liberty, coming tomorrow. Council takes a final vote on 3CDC’s request at tomorrow’s council meeting.
• Also in the Budget and Finance Committee meeting yesterday, council members navigated a tricky conundrum between two affordable housing projects looking for funds. In the past, council has supported giving about $500,000 to a project in Avondale call the Commons at Alaska. The project would provide permanent supportive housing for about 100 people, including some who are disabled. That money would come from a pot of federal funds totaling about $1.9 million. However, Columbus-based developer NCR has encountered difficulties with its chosen site as some members of the surrounding community have protested the plans.
Meanwhile, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing has been working with a developer on a plan to buy 40 subsidized units in neglected properties in Pendleton and renovate them. The city administration indicated they’d have access to that same $1.9 million, so the group didn’t go looking for other money. The two groups found themselves at an impasse. Neither wanted to compete with the other for the money, but both need the funds for their projects. Vice Mayor David Mann suggested splitting the money, and after some wrangling the committee parceled out $1.3 million to the Pendleton project and will hold the rest until the Commons at Alaska, or some other permanent supportive housing project, is ready to go online.
• Representatives from Columbus were in D.C. yesterday to make the case that Columbus is the best possible host for the Democratic National Convention. They're competing with Cleveland and some other cities that aren't in Ohio for the event, which will determine the party's nominee for president in 2016. Both Columbus and Cleveland also courted the GOP for the Republican convention, but I won't tell if you don't.
• There’s a terrible “born again” joke in this next story, but I will not be the one dropping it. Just the facts: A guy from the U.S. got stuck in a giant vagina sculpture in Germany. It took 22 rescuers 30 minutes to get him out. America!
• If you can’t take the Heat, get out of Miami. At least, that’s what someone has advised LeBron James, and he's apparently listening. Ohio’s not-yet-prodigal son has opted out of the last two years of his contract with the team and is now a free agent, according to news reports. It’s not certain that he’ll leave the Heat, but it’s clear he’s at least taking stock of his options. Meanwhile, the entire city of Cleveland sits patiently, waiting for that “so, what’s up?” text message from James…
General Electric is officially moving 1,800 employees to The Banks, the entertainment and retail complex on Cincinnati's riverfront. But it took some deal-sweetening by the city to make it happen. City Council and Hamilton County Commissioners on Monday approved a landmark deal that incentivizes the company to consolidate some administrative and finance jobs at the site, which will be 10 stories tall and cost about $90 million to build.
The city's bid beat out Norwood and other locations, though the city and county had to offer one of the most generous deals in the region's history. The company will receive a 75-percent property tax abatement for the next 15 years, with the other 25 percent of those taxes going to Cincinnati Public Schools. Eighty-five percent of employees' city earnings taxes will also flow back to the company over that period of time.
GE said the incentives are needed because moving to The Banks will be about 15 percent more expensive than other bids it considered. The city hopes the deal will lead to a long-term payoff. County officials tout studies showing big benefits. The Economics Center for Education and Research at UC ran the numbers on the deal and suggest that the project could bring in $1 billion in overall economic activity. The site should reach full capacity by 2018.
The estimated average salary of an employee at the site will be about $79,000, company officials say.
Despite some questions about how quickly the deal came together, both council and county commissioners passed it unanimously during an unusual joint meeting at Great American Ball Park. Council member P.G. Sittenfeld praised the project but noted the city will need to remember to balance fairness and overall impact in the future. Council member Chris Seelbach used the occasion to tout the streetcar, tweeting that it was a big factor in GE's choice to move to The Banks.
A rare alignment of the stars (or at least schedules) makes today a crazy day to be a general-assignment reporter. And while I wouldn’t normally just give you a list of really exciting, awesome meetings that are happening, there are lots of issues that could decide the city’s future being debated around town. I prefer to think of it like a civics-themed pub crawl. In the middle of the day. On Monday. And there’s no drinking (at least until afterward).
• Hamilton County Commissioners meet at noon to hear a presentation from the Cultural Facilities Task Force, a cadre of 22 business leaders who are working on ways to renovate Union Terminal and Music Hall. They’ll be talking about a proposed sales tax increase as well as other options for funding the renovations before the commissioners decide whether the proposal should go on the ballot.
• Then, at 1 p.m., council’s Budget and Finance Committee meets to discuss development in Over-the-Rhine north of Liberty Street, as well as funding for two affordable housing developments. 3CDC would like the rights to develop 20-35 buildings in the area around Findlay Market, though OTR Community Council has asked the city to find ways to get more small developers and resident input into the development process there. Council will also consider a debate over how to fund some affordable housing units in Pendleton and Avondale — council had voted to support the development in Avondale, but some neighborhood resistance to the project has stalled it for the moment. Meanwhile, the city is debating moving some money for that project to one in Pendleton. Advocates say both are necessary and should be funded.
The council meetings are at City Hall, and the Commissioners’ meeting is at the county building on Court Street.
• Another big meeting today involves the city’s deal with General Electric that will bring 2,000 of the company’s employees to The Banks. Council and the commissioners meet at Great American Ball Park at 10 a.m. to discuss incentives for the company for its move, including a 100 percent abatement on property taxes at the site for the next 15 years. The expected package is one of the sweetest deals the city has ever offered a company. GE has also been mulling relocation to other sites, including Norwood, and is asking for the incentives because moving to The Banks could cost more than other options.
• An increasing number of foreign students attend Ohio’s 13 public universities, making Ohio eighth in the nation for international enrollment. Toledo University had the most international students last year, followed by Miami University.
• Pro-choice and pro-life groups are both pointing to 2015 as a big year for the fight over women's health in Ohio. Ohio Right to Life, a very active pro-life activist group, has indicated it’s putting together an aggressive legislative agenda for next year in an effort to curtail the availability of abortions in the state. The group says they’ll be pushing five or six bills to that end and has expressed confidence that many of the incumbents in the Ohio General Assembly, as well as Gov. John Kasich, will be re-elected and support their goals. Meanwhile, NARAL Ohio Pro-Choice, a pro-choice advocacy group in the state, has sounded alarms, saying Ohio is becoming “one of the most dangerous states for women’s health.”
• Finally, with World Cup fever reminding Americans that, oh yeah, soccer is a thing, it’s a great time to check out this Atlantic article on why we call it that in the first place when the rest of the world calls it football. (Hint: It's the Brits' fault.)
Now an advocacy organization is pushing for the BWC to pay back the difference.
While the ins and outs of the rates are complicated, the underlying concept is fairly straightforward: Worker’s compensation functions as a kind of insurance for employers. If an employee gets hurt on the job, worker’s comp will pay for lost wages and medical costs so long as the business is current on its monthly workers comp payment. A lawsuit brought by some employers receiving higher rates charged that those rates were unfair, even forcing some employers into bankruptcy.
The courts have agreed. The appellate court’s decision upholds an earlier ruling against the BWC by the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.
The courts ruled the BWC, along with lobbyists of some favored businesses, rigged workers compensation rates so that some companies picked to be designated “group rate employers” received what the court called “excessive, undeserved premium discounts” on their workers compensation insurance plans. Where did the money for those discounts come from? According to the court, from businesses who were not part of the special group rate. Those businesses paid almost $860 million extra on their workers compensation plans.
BWC hasn’t started paying back the money, and head Steven Buehner told a Cleveland news outlet last week that the agency will appeal the ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court. It has until June 30 to do so.
Buehner says the agency’s rates simply reflect the nature of providing insurance — that low-risk customers receive lower rates than higher-risk clients. Buehner said there isn’t some big pot of money somewhere that the BWC is sitting on and that it hasn’t cheated anyone out of any funds.
If the court’s ruling holds, the BWC will owe more than 100 Cincinnati-area employers $100,000 or more, including a number of nonprofits and arts organizations. All told, the BWC could owe area businesses more than $100 million. Progress Ohio, an advocacy group, has asked Gov. John Kasich to act and make sure the BWC pays the money back.
According to Progress Ohio, which is advocating for the employers in question, the BWC could owe the Cincinnati Ballet more than $300,000, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park nearly $150,000 and the Cincinnati YMCA $140,000. BAE, a British-owned security and armaments business with a plant in Fairfield, is the area employer owed the largest amount of money; according to the advocacy organization, the BWC charged BAE more than $1.4 million extra in premiums.
The Cincinnati YWCA is also owed payback — about $14,000. The organization told WCPO earlier this week it will be "thrilled" to get that money back so it can use it to help women and children in need.