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Cincinnati Symphony/MEMI Poised To Develop Banks Music Venue

Hamilton County commissioners and Cincinnati Council's Budget and Finance Committee Monday selected the Cincinnati Symphony (CSO) and Music and Event Management, Inc. (MEMI) as its choice to develop a music venue at The Banks. The county and city must agree on a developer. The full council could vote on the issue Wednesday.

The Joint Banks Steering Committee, which advises the city and county, recommended the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra subsidiary in May.

Commissioner Chris Monzel says he's backing the MEMI proposal because it's the best deal for taxpayers. "When you look at a cost-benefit analysis based on PromoWest and the property taxes and MEMI being a non-profit and not paying property taxes, when you lay it all out, it's still in favor of MEMI in terms of what's the best benefit to the taxpayers of Hamilton County."

The county's Banks Counsel and steering committee member Tom Gabelman says the MEMI proposal calls for using less land than PromoWest, creating a tax benefit of about $5 million.

Commission Denise Driehaus says she's excited about moving forward on the event space. She likes MEMI's indoor/outdoor plan and thinks it will be attractive to younger audiences. General admission and standing room areas don't appeal to her, she says with a laugh, but they do to younger crowds.

Board President Todd Portune says CSO/MEMI is committed to building the type of general admission venue that will attract young and different demographics as well as diverse acts.

This is the same point many critics have used when arguing against MEMI and in favor of PromoWest. They say PromoWest has a history of bringing desired acts to communities like Columbus and they worry MEMI won't be able to draw the acts that have been skipping Cincinnati in recent years.

Driehaus says MEMI tells her it understands this concern and believes its plan responds to it. "The proposal does just that - attracts the young acts to the region - but also has that indoor/outdoor component that allows us to use the outdoor space other ways when there's no concert because it's not built outdoor space."

Will The Bengals Use Veto Power?

None of the commissioners say they believe the Cincinnati Bengals will use their stadium lease-provided veto power to override a music venue. Cincinnati Council Member David Mann broached that issue during a City Council meeting last week.

"There's absolutely no veto looming or otherwise," says Portune. "The Bengals have never said that to us and, in fact, they do not have a right to veto what we're doing... I have no concern about the Bengals taking any steps or action that will upset the decision that we have made here or the work that we have yet to do or the opening of this event in the fall of 2019 as is intended."

Portune adds that Monday's vote is not on a particular design, location, etc., but rather is just voicing the county's choice for a developer.

Council, Not Mayor, Approve

Council's Budget and Finance Committee also voted unanimously, 7-0.

Council Member Greg Landsman praises the proposal. "I do think it's important to do so to join the county, to join the Joint Banks Steering Committee, (in) saying this is the preferred developer and allowing this process to move forward."

Council Member Amy Murray also likes MEMI's bid. "I think their plan is solid. I asked a lot of questions about the different-sized venues and came away feeling very confident that they'll have the best musicians for this type and size of venue, and it's on a smaller acreage so the other acres will be able to be used for other purposes."

Council Member Chris Seelbach voted for MEMI, even though he has concerns about both proposals, including labor issues involving PromoWest.

"I cannot support an organization with what I have seen as unfair labor practices or hostility towards those in our labor community," Seelbach says. "We should never be competing on who can pay someone the least amount of money. That should never be a part of a business equation. But I am also concerned with the CSO, even though the venue sizes are different, do they have the genuine interest when they are going to be competing against themselves?"

Mayor John Cranley, who supports the PromoWest bid, could delay the final vote an additional week by refusing to put the committee's verbal decision on this week's council agenda, instead following strict procedures which would send the issue back to the same committee for written referral.

The CSO/MEMI Proposal

CSO/MEMI proposes a largely indoor venue that could hold 600 to 4,000 people. It would be built on just one three-quarter acre lot at The Banks with lots of park space surrounding, which could be used to host up to 8,000 people for outdoor events, of which it anticipates having about 20-25 per year. The seasonal, outdoor stage would be a temporary structure. The cost of the project, titled "Riverview" in the proposal, is $19.2 million with no public funding requested. It would be ready by November 2019.

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Artist rendering of PromoWest's proposal.
Provided / The Banks Public Private Partnership
Artist rendering of PromoWest's proposal.