Monday, August 2, 2010

Bridging Broadway steps in to address casino issues

Imagine it's October 2012, and you're standing with your back to a sparkling new casino at Broadway Commons.

What will the surrounding neighborhoods look like?

That's the concern of Bridging Broadway, a soon-to-be non-profit looking to be the singular voice of civic-minded Cincinnatians on all aspects of the local casino's impact.

Detroit-based Rock Ventures is working to develop the $350 million-$500 million casino on a 20-acre site off of Reading Road following the approval of a statewide ballot measure, Issue 3, in November.

Despite dozens of non-profits operating in the immediate area, Bridging Broadway President Stephen Samuels believes that his organization is necessary to make sure the casino is well integrated into the City's urban fabric.

"There seems to be a need still," Samuels says. "Out of all of the organizations, still no one's quite got this focus."

Asking questions

Pendleton resident and now Bridging Broadway Secretary Kareem Simpson began his Ante-Up Cincinnati blog shortly after the passage of Issue 3. His neighborhood voted against it.

"There was a lot of literature out there – especially on my blog – not criticizing, but being very skeptical of what the casino was going to bring and just questioning," he says. "Just asking a lot of questions and just erring on the side of caution about what the casino was going to bring."

He says that his blog represented what a lot of Downtowners and urban advocates were thinking. But he didn't intend for it to be a polarizing subject.

"So I'm saying, okay, now you're going to be next to our neighborhood, and now you need to pony up and work with us and our neighborhood's goals," Simpson says. "And we just wanted to hold them [the developers] accountable."

Launching 'Broadway'

Bridging Broadway launched in January 2010 at a reachout session at Corryville's Niehoff Urban Studio, where a general question was asked of what participants wanted the casino to be.

Soon after, a visioning session at the Righteous Room attracted more than 30 people. Two "Broadway Blast" events helped raise awareness, educate the public, and raise funds for the fledgling organization.

"At the beginning, when we were kind of starting the Broadway Blast, we were trying to get people more involved with it," Samuels says. "One, when you're working with a new non-profit, people are kind of leery. They don't know why you're doing this, and what's going to be done."

Both Broadway Blast events were successful, Samuels says.

"I think our goals were met," he says. "It kind of brings a little bit of legitimacy to our organization when we actually reach out to the community, and we want to make sure that people know that that's one of our goals as well."

Making connections

Last month, the City of Cincinnati agreed to collaborate with Bridging Broadway and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky on a comprehensive study of the area around Broadway Commons.

The six-month study, to be conducted by the University of Cincinnati's Community Design Center, will be a holistic examination of the casino's effect on economics, social issues (such as jobs and crime), transportation, and urban design.

Samuels says that the process, which will also include Bridging Broadway Dialogues with residents and stakeholders, will adhere to the organizations three guiding principles: inclusiveness, transparency, and constructiveness.

"We're about connections," Samuels says. "And those connections are physical, social, and economic."

Awaiting an operator

"It's like there are two perceptions, and they're opposite perceptions that I always kind of want to manage," Samuels says. "Do you have a relationship with the developers? One is – are you the community group against the development. And the other is are you guys all about gambling and are you in the pocket of the developers? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. We want everybody at the table."

Samuels says that Bridging Broadway lacks direct communication with Rock Ventures, but has had Anne Sessler of Government Strategies serving as a liaison between the two for several months.

"As a result, pretty much everything we do gets to the developers," Samuels says. "But to be perfectly frank, no one in town gets a lot of time with the developers at this point."

Direct collaboration between the casino and Bridging Broadway isn't likely until Rock Ventures selects a casino operator, he says. An operator was expected to be selected in April, then in June. Two or three operators remain on the developer's short list.

In any case, Samuels hopes that the developer and/or operator can work more closely with Bridging Broadway over time.

"We hope that they will always think of us as an ally, because that's what it takes to work closely with people," Samuels says. "We want this to be a catalyst for this city. So we need the developers at the table."

More work to do

In addition to filling its roster of officers and its advisory board, Bridging Broadway is in the process of filing for 501(c)(3) non-profit status with the State of Ohio. They expect to achieve that status within the next two months.
In the meantime, they're looking to get more people involved.

"When you're starting a non-profit like this, there's obviously a lot of work to do," Samuels says. "But of course it's volunteer, and we're trying to build a support team so that no one has to sweat."

"Our organization wants to include everybody," Simpson says. "We want to make sure that all of them are at the plate. You also have to think, are these people reaching out to us as well. So it's a two-way street. We can't make everyone happy, even though we're going to try to."

But Simpson stresses that there's not a large time commitment.

"A lot of people want this to happen and want it to work, and the people we're approaching to join, they say, 'Well, I'm already on this board, I'm already on this board,'" Simpson says. "But these are the people who are going to reap the benefits of everything we're trying to do in their personal, social, even in their working lives. Because they're Downtowners at heart."

Samuels echoes that point.

"If you don't want to be a board member, you can just support one of our initiatives," he says. "Community dialogues. Fundraising. Or maybe you're a web guy and you want to manage the website and develop the content. There's so much to do."

Those who are interested can also contribute through the project website.

Previous reading on BC:
Strickland signs casino rules, with reservations (6/14/10)
Casino on the agenda for upcoming 'Power Breakfast' (4/22/10)