What’s Next For Union Terminal?

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Photo illustration by Alvaro Dominguez

Shortly before the polls closed on November 4, people with a particular interest in the passage of Issue 8—the proposed five-year, quarter-cent sales tax increase designated for the renovation of Union Terminal’s facade and infrastructure—began gathering in the former railroad station’s Losantiville Dining Room. There at the invitation of Museum Center president and CEO Douglass McDonald, most appeared to share his cautious optimism that the levy would pass. A few were clad in their orange “I Love My Union Terminal” T-shirts. Many were young adults, bringing the same millennial energy to the celebration that they brought to the campaign. A small band played. With the absentee ballots already counted and showing a wide-margin win for the levy, it was hard not to be jubilant.

The outlook wasn’t always this positive. Last spring, the newly formed Cultural Facilities Task Force recommended putting a 10-year tax increase on the ballot to fund the renovation of both the Terminal and Music Hall. By early August, the three presiding Hamilton County Commissioners—in a controversial 2–1 verdict—deleted Music Hall from the equation, cut in half the duration of the tax, and agreed to let the voters decide. The resulting party line was that voters would be more inclined to say yes to one reno as opposed to two, and besides, Music Hall’s appeal is more “elitist.” While the legitimacy of that claim is debatable, it is true that opposition to the levy seemingly evaporated with the commissioners’ decision. In the intervening months, the resulting angst from the pro-levy faction over the removal of Music Hall was quickly quelled as well, as proponents of the Terminal made the reasonable argument that this was a do-or-die deal for the famous landmark. In extremis, half a loaf is better than none.

Most of the election drama stopped there, the issue ultimately passing with 61 percent of the vote. But that was merely the first step of a long journey that is just now starting to unfold. To “fix” the terminal will cost $209 million, with $170 to $185 million of that coming from the levy, depending on consumer spending. The remaining balance will come from historic tax credits (approximately $24 million), a $5 million state grant, and private philanthropy. What isn’t clear in the immediate aftermath of the vote is how to bring in that money fast enough.

“Contractors can’t wait five years to be paid,” says Murray Sinclaire, investment banker by trade and chairman of the Cultural Facilities Task Force. “So we have to figure out the financing that will allow us to get started. Possibly a group of local banks gives us a friendly loan.”

Bob Sheeran, vice president for facilities at Xavier University and a fellow task-force member, also points out that once architects are selected for design and construction, the project will have to put out for a bid and will need to finalize things like budgeting, scheduling, and municipal interface. Sheeran wouldn’t say for sure—no one wants to speculate—but clearly, it will be many months before the repairs actually begin. And even beyond that, the vote is raising questions of how similar situations might play out down the road. “We’re going to get Union Terminal and Music Hall done,” says Sinclaire. “My greater concern is another year when it could be the zoo or the art museum. Our grandchildren will have to deal with that, unless we can find a way to do a big fix for all of our facilities now.”

Still, election night was a clear victory for local civic and cultural advocates. Union Terminal was brimming with people who care deeply about the city, including power-broking attorney George Vincent, Greater Cincinnati Foundation tsarina Kathryn Merchant, and grand poohbahs of the Cincinnati Preservation Association Dick Duval and Paul Muller. Some read much more than one building’s salvation into the vote. “The strength of the win perhaps put the specter of the Paul Brown Stadium [deal] to bed,” said County Administrator Christian Sigman. “If we can deliver now, on time and on budget, maybe we can start doing some big things in the county again, which we haven’t
done for 20 years.”

By 10:30 p.m., enough of the results were in for Douglass McDonald to confidently pop the cork on a bottle of champagne, drawing cheers from the crowd—some fresh to the fray, some veterans of civic struggles. It was a big win for an old building, no doubt, but also for a city striving to be contemporary while still holding onto its past.

Photo illustration by Alvaro Dominguez
Originally published in the January 2015 issue

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