Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Big Store


It’s hard to believe. They are now talking about converting another former big Portsmouth department store into a city hall. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For the past four years Portsmouth has been rocked by controversy involving another big department store that the city wanted to convert into a city hall.

The scandalous sale of the Marting department store to the city led to the recall of Mayor Bauer and the recall of two council members, Ann Sydnor and Carol Caudill. The Marting sale led to a court case, brought by Teresa and Bob Mollette, in which Judge Marshall ruled the Marting sale invalid. Undeterred, Mayor Kalb and the clownish city council turned right around and worked out another arrangement with the Marting Foundation whereby the city got stuck with the Marting department store again, only this time the Singer building (often inaccurately referred to as the Adelphia building) was thrown in to the mix: the city acquired the Singer building, along with the Marting department store, and committed itself to converting the big one into a huge city hall and the dinky one into a police station. Outraged at the Kalb administration’s contempt for public opinion, the Concerned Citizens of Portsmouth got the proposed conversion of Marting’s placed on the ballot last May 2nd, when it was soundly defeated by the voters.

So now what are the clowns doing? With the cooperation of the SOGP’s house organ, the Portsmouth Daily Times, they are beginning a public relations campaign to convince the public that the Fifth Third Bank building, formerly the Montgomery Ward department store, would make a good city hall. How many times does a sucker have to buy the Brooklyn Bridge before he learns his lesson?

Fifth Third, former Montgomery Ward store


I first proposed back in March and repeat it here, slightly amended, the First Commandment of Portsmouth’s over-privileged: “Local government shall not construct a new building or renovate one it already owns when a doctor, lawyer, businessman, or banker has an old building that can be turned into a public building at great public expense.” The five buildings I offered as examples were lawyer John Thatcher’s house, on Franklin Boulevard; Dr. Rooney’s house, on Camelot Drive.; George Clayton’s Kenrick’s department store; Dr. Singer’s so-called Adelphia building, on Washington St.; and the Marting department store, on Chillicothe St. Now add the possibility of the Fifth Third Bank building to that list.

The Fifth Third Bank is reportedly considering vacating their building, on Chillicothe St., right across from Marting’s. According to the Scioto County auditor’s records, Fifth Third bought the building from Bank One in May 1998. In a press release at that time, Stewart M. Greenlee, president and chief executive officer of Fifth Third Bank of Southern Ohio, said that the purchase of the building “will allow us to greatly expand our Portsmouth banking operations . . .”

Why is Fifth Third Bank, eight years later, moving out of the building? Wouldn’t you think that would be one of the first questions a newspaper reporter writing a story about the Fifth third Bank building might ask? Did its banking operations in Portsmouth fail to expand, as president Greenlee predicted they would? Or is the building itself perhaps something of a headache, particularly in its heating and cooling operations? In an interview in the documentary Recall of Mayor Bauer 2004 (available at SSU and the Portsmouth Public Library), former Portsmouth mayor Frank Gerlach told me that the maintenance problems in the former Montgomery Ward building were no secret and could serve as a warning to those who wanted to convert an even older department store, Marting’s, into a city hall.

Whatever other reasons Fifth Third Bank might have for moving out of the former Montgomery Ward building, the profit it might make by unloading it are potentially large. According to records at the county auditor’s, available online, Fifth Third paid $231,000 for the property in 1998. Those same online records say that in 2005 the property had increased in value to $2,847,020. Leaving aside the question of how or why it happened, that’s a staggering 10-fold increase in value in seven years. If Fifth Third could sell the property at anything approaching $2,847,020, or even half of that, it would still be doing well financially. I learned from a visit to the auditor’s office that just this year the value of the property had been “readjusted,” and dramatically reduced to $1,281,490, or less than half what it was worth last year. Could it have been reduced for a quick sale?


Now that he has been appointed, not elected, to the city council and is acting like a city manager, the lawyer Mike Mearan may be just the one to serve as the go-between in unloading the former Montgomery Ward building on the city. It was Mearan who worked out the deal that got the city to take the so-called Adelphia building off the hands of absentee landlord Dr. Herbert I. Singer, of Los Angeles. Singer owed about $20,000 in back taxes on his building and other Portsmouth property. The deal Mearan worked out for Singer with the city took Singer off the hook on his delinquent taxes and also qualified him for a tax-write off. But Singer would qualify for that tax write-off only if the city used the building for some public purpose. The public purpose that the city decided on
or that the SOGP decided for it was to convert the Singer building into a police station. The Singer building was the Mini-Me of the Marting deal, so no one seemed to notice.

Incidentally, when Singer bought the building in 1984, Mearan acted as the middle man, just as he may be acting now as the middleman for the Fifth Third building. Mearan appears on the scene like the fourth Marx brother, the unfunny one, who acts smart.

The question arises, since Singer was his client, whether Mearan has a conflict of interest. How can he hope to be objective, as a city councilman, about either the Singer-Adelphia building or the Fifth Third Bank building, with which it has been bundled? Whom is he serving, the citizens of Portsmouth or Singer and others? Isn’t this a question a reporter from the Daily Times should have asked Mearan? Of course it is.

It is one of the vices of our river city that the city’s building plans seem to depend on what unrentable and unsellable properties private individuals and corporations want to unload on the city to escape property taxes and earn a tax credit. City officials are only too eager to accommodate the wheeler dealers of Portsmouth by using public funds to buy their distressed real estate. When property loses all commercial value (“It ain’t worth anything,” as Marty Mohr said of the Marting building) the city or county gets stuck with it. When all the juice is squeezed out of the lemon, the city ends up with the rind. There is an adage that if you get stuck with a lemon, make lemonade. But what do you do with a lemon rind? The Fifth Third building, alias the Bank One building, alias the Montgomery Ward department store, may be about to be squeezed for the last drop, and the taxpayers will be stuck with another rind.

The former Montgomery Ward department store, like the Marting department store, appears much too large for the current needs of the city government. Can somebody help me with the math? How is it that Portsmouth in 2006, when its population is about 20,000, needs a building that is three times the size of the building that was erected at a time when the population was more than twice what it is now? Unless taxpayers want to put the mayor and other city officials in offices large enough for them to play cornhole during lunch hours, converting the Fifth Third Bank building into a city hall makes about as much sense as converting Marting’s did. Mayor Kalb may feel a building as large as Marting’s or Fifth Third is what the taxpayers would want him to occupy, in keeping with the dignity of his office, just as he thought they would want him to be driving a new Ford Expedition SUV. The city has wasted millions of taxpayers' dollars on its dreams and schemes for the Marting building, but the voters thought they had put an end to even bigger expenditures when they defeated the Marting referendum at the polls on May 2nd. If the city acquires the FifthThird building, it may only be getting started. Estimates of converting the Fifth Third will run into many millions, and remember that initial estimates of conversion are usually appreciably less than the final costs, because those who have an interest in promoting the conversion want to minimize the true costs.

If there is a legitimate case for converting the Fifth Third building into a new home for city government, Mayor Kalb is not the one who can make it. After the Marting’s fiasco, he has lost all credibility when it comes to any building. If the Municipal Building cannot be repaired, and even worse if it is a death trap and should be evacuated as soon as possible, as he has claimed for years, then something should have been done about it a long time ago. But there are those who say that the Municipal Building could be fixed, and others who say, for historical and architectural reasons, that it should be fixed. But the issues behind the Municipal Building may not be engineering, architectural heritage, and safety, but land speculation, gambling, and prevarication.


The city council may be still shopping around for a new home because some unidentified developer is apparently interested in the land on which the Municipal Building is located. Somebody has reportedly been interested for more than ten years in developing that land. Kalb in the past and Mike Mearan more recently have referred to the land under the Municipal Building as prime real estate. Prime real estate? Dubbed “The Queen of the Rust Belt” by one travel writer, downtown Portsmouth’s Ramada Inn has been able to stay in business as long as it has partly by serving as a dormitory for students and as a temporary half-way house for those with DUI problems. Why would land right across the street from the Queen of the Rustbelt be considered prime real estate? Why would anyone want to build another hotel or “a conference center,” to cite another rumor, at that location?

In the zeal of some to tear down the Municipal Building, what we are possibly dealing with is the politics of gambling. The land on which the Municipal Building rests, as well as adjoining real estate in downtown Portsmouth, will increase dramatically in value if gambling comes to Portsmouth. If and when that happens, land prices in downtown Portsmouth will probably skyrocket. Why waste any of that potentially prime land on a municipal building when a docking facility for gambling boats could be built there? And why repair the current Municipal Building when there’s another former department store up on Chillicothe St. that may be empty soon and weighing heavily on the hands of its owner?

At some point in the mid-1990s, I thought I might transfer some of my banking to whatever bank occupied the premises of the former Montgomery Ward building. It might have been Fifth Third, or it might have been Bank One at the time. My recollection was the ground floor had recently undergone major renovations. The setting was plush. The woman behind the desk who interviewed me was dressed to kill. The few employees I dealt with struck me as people who, dressed in new clothes, felt they had come up in the world, though they still had to deal with peasant depositors. Arrivistes is what they reminded me of. An arriviste is someone who has suddenly risen to a higher economic status but lacks the class or confidence to carry it off. Even though I was in pokey Portsmouth, not New York, the renovated former Montgomery Ward building reeked of expenditure and pretentiousness. I decided that any bank that wasted money trying to create an expensive atmosphere was not a bank I wanted to do business with, not permanently anyway. I decided to keep all my banking at my plain Jane bank. At least nobody there was trying to pretend they were in downtown Manhattan or even downtown Columbus, which is to say any place but downtown Portsmouth.

The politicians in the Municipal Building strike me as arrivistes who are embarrassed to be working in a modest building constructed in the face of great financial difficulties during the Great Depression. Since they hold public office, they obviously feel they deserve better from the taxpayers of Portsmouth. Architectural and historical awareness, along with manly competitiveness, seems to have been bred out of most of the pork-fed males in the area, particularly the rich white trash. They are incapable of appreciating the tarnished charm and historical significance of the modest Municipal Building, which may have been systematically neglected and vilified in preparation for the great day when gambling comes to Portsmouth.

The original plans for the Municipal Building were drawn up before the stock market Crash of 1929; those plans called for a larger structure than what the city had to settle for in the Great Depression that followed. Back then, city officials realized they had to scale back and live within their means. Our current officials act as if it is still the Roaring Twenties, and that the sky is the limit when it comes to a new home for the city government.

They want the big official SUV and the big former department store with the phony false façade and offices big enough to play cornhole in, and never mind the millions of taxpayer dollars it will take to finance their illusion of having arrived.

Portsmouth taxpayers can’t afford the dreams of the clownish Marx Brothers in the Municipal Building, not when times are as hard as they are. The city government needs to think smaller, think more economically. They need to get over the Big Store mentality. In considering moving out of the former big store, isn’t that what the Fifth Third Bank might be doing? Perhaps the bank's Portsmouth operations did not “greatly expand,” as its president had predicted they would. And Fifth Third has billions in assets. How much does the city of Portsmouth have? Not enough to waste on more Big Store fantasies.

5th 3rd cartoon

Sunday, June 11, 2006

MySpace Generation


“When You Were Sweet Sixteen” was written in 1898 and by the 1940s it had become one of America’s favorite sentimental ballads. Its opening lines are “I love you as I never loved before, / When first I met you on the village green.” A hundred years ago, sixteen stood for innocence and sweetness, at least in popular culture. Back then it was the village green where you met your virginal sixteen-year-old sweetie; now it is the mall or, more recently, where you can encounter uninhibited fourteen-to-sixteen-old babes who may be virgins but only because they practice safe sex by giving blowjobs. Or so they imply. Cool!

Now Hillary Duff sings in “Sweet Sixteen”:

Today I'm gonna ride away
And feel the sun throughout my hair
Finally free to be who I wanna be
Who that is I don't really care.

And Billy Idol sings:

I'll do anything
For my sweet sixteen,
And I'll do anything
For little run away child

Sixteen ain’t as sweet as it once was, and probably never was anyway. With Madonna and Britney Spears as role models, and their mindlessly erotic music everywhere, what chance does a prepubescent teen have of dancing to the beat of a different drummer? What chance does she have of having a birthday party without getting waylaid by the media? Whether you are sweet or not, if you are about to turn sixteen, MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 show wants to know

We are looking for the most OVER THE TOP, OUTRAGEOUS and EXCLUSIVE parties ever! My Super Sweet 16 documents all the planning, primping and partying that goes into pulling off the ultimate birthday bash and if your party is going to be AMAZING (even without MTV), then we want to hear from you!

Portsmouth was exposed to the unsweetness of truth last week when it was revealed the mayor’s sixteen-year-old daughter had been exposing herself, figuratively speaking, on her blog. A vocal local critic of the mayor, who exposed the mayor’s daughter exposing herself as an aspiring Lolita, was denounced by anonymous chatroomers for invading the teenager’s private space – private along with 80 million other MySpacers and potentially billions of others. How dare she peek! Cheez! Is nothing sacred? Whose business is it if the mayor’s sixteen-year-old daughter wants to post the following weltschmertz reflections on her blog, along with Lolita pics of herself, for anyone in cyberspace to see?

What a loser I am... home blogging on a Saturday night. I'm 16, could be out doing anything, but I'm here. I've been here three weekends in a row. Still not sure if I like this whole anti-social thing or not. I left my house for like, 3.5 hours today.. watched the local bands strum their shit. Then I crawled back into my hole.
I'm tossing around Blink 182 and Britney Spears, odd mixture.. but it makes me happy. Well, listening to Blink 182 is my equivalent of watching kittens drown or something. It's like instant depression. But I love their songs, so I can't help but listen.
It'd be nice... to have a blowjob. I mean, it'd be nice to have something interesting to say. I could definitely do some venting.. trash all the people getting on my nerves, but I'll keep those thoughts safely in my brain. I pretty much keep everything tucked away in my brain these days, so my blog is pretty useless. Maybe that's why I haven't posted in like a month. It's hard to blog when you're not willing to share any thoughts. . . .

There is a long entry on self-mutilation, or what I’ve heard a college student who indulges in this disturbing practice refer to as “cutting.” The mayor’s daughter says she has so many scars that “Soon I'll just be one big scar.” Then she adds, “The fact that I've got not-so-pretty scars all over doesn't bother me. It[‘s] that the physical scars are just a reminder of the emotional scars. Like an emotional scar you can see.” Is this only a game or a desperate cry for help? “Maybe I should get a therapist,” she says. Like a photo that shows her lying down between the rails of a track, we want to believe the self-mutilation does not point to deeper self-destructive urges. If her parents were not aware of the extent of her “cutting,” and had not been reading her blog, some good might come from the publicizing of it, however painful it being made public might be. If she is crying out for help, maybe those cries can be heard better, and a more serious crisis averted.

Or even if things are not critical, there is the future to consider, and the career goals she might have. The New York Times reports that MySpace is one of the websites recruiters check to see if job applicants have posted any risqué photos or compromising or provocative blog entries about sexual activities or drug use. Even if one of the more than 80 million MySpacers is only attempting to appear cool or clownish, or merely imitating his or her peers, a potential employer would rather not take risks on somebody who is trying “to show how funny, cool, or outrageous they are” (6-11-06). It is likely a recruiter would find the following outburst by the mayor's daughter outrageous but not very funny or cool: "Fuck you. I hate you. 'Suck' my dick. And (die)."

That the mayor's daughter provided her name and the city in Ohio her father was mayor of is all a predator would need to track her down, as has been pointed out. And it is not just predators who might be tracking her. Government agencies and data miners might too. “I am continually shocked and appalled at the details people voluntarily post online about themselves," a Silicon Valley security officer warned. “He is far from alone in noticing that fast-growing social networking websites such as MySpace and Friendster are a snoop's dream,” says a report in the New Scientist (6-9-06). Sites like MySpace usually ask members to provide information about their blogger friends. “People often list other facets of their personality including political, sexual, entertainment, media and sporting preferences too. Some go much further, and a few have lost their jobs by publicly describing drinking and drug-taking exploits.” In an earlier blog, I reported on a promiscuous Washington secretary who blogged her sexual diary, thinking she could confine it to a few of her friends. She lost her job when her blog got circulated, but she got a contract for a book about her sexploits.

Britney Spears: MySpace madonna

Allowances must be made for the mayor's daughter. How do you think you would feel if you had spent the first sixteen years of your life growing up in one of the most corrupt and crime-ridden cities in Ohio, within a culture of prostitution? And how would you feel if your father, perhaps absent too often, was part of the political corruption? How would you feel if you were part of the MySpace virtual orphan generation?

The mayor’s daughter looks bright enough to survive it, a lot brighter than Britney Spears, and one day she may look back on it as a very awkward stage she had to go through. And maybe the mayor will stop exploiting her in photo ops and will stop criticizing other people for being irresponsible parents. How does that saying go? “People who live in stoned houses . . .” No, that’s not it. How about “Sixteen’s not all it’s cracked up to be, especially for the MySpace generation.” Yes, let’s settle for that, even if it’s not short and not sweet.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Vox Porkopoli


Writing recently in Rolling Stone magazine, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., claims that “Republicans prevented more than 350,000 voters in Ohio from casting ballots or having their votes counted – enough to have put John Kerry in the White House.” When it comes to elections, there’s something about Ohio. The whole nation now knows that.

What is true at the state level, in Ohio, is also true at the smallest political unit, the ward, or at least in Portsmouth’s First Ward, which I live in. A candidate who was not a legal resident of our ward was allowed to run for the city council in 2004, though the city charter states that anyone running for city council must be a resident of the ward he or she seeks to represent. The candidate in question, Timothy Loper, had already shown himself useful on the city council to the people who control Portsmouth, so a residency requirement was not going to be allowed to stand in the way of his representing a ward he did not live in. Portsmouth’s sleazy city solicitor, David Kuhn, took Loper under his wing and advised him each crooked step of the way. Through a tortured and ridiculous display of legal finagling, Kuhn declared Loper was still a legal resident of Ward One even though he had moved to another ward.

I challenged the city solicitor’s tortured logic and appealed to the Scioto County Board of Elections. The Board ruled Loper was not a legal resident of the First Ward, having moved out before the November 2004 election. Since he was not a legal resident of the First Ward, Loper was not a legal candidate in that election. Defying logic and the Board of Elections, Kuhn delivered a formal ruling declaring that Loper, although living in the Sixth Ward, was a legal resident of the First Ward.

The issue of whether Loper was still the legal representative of the First Ward, of whether the Board of Elections or Kuhn was correct, was placed on the agenda of the city council. Because witnesses would have appeared at that meeting, and Kuhn would have been required to defend his flatulent ruling on Loper’s status, there was no way that council meeting was going to take place. One of the ways in which the Portsmouth city council avoids having to face the truth is to have several council members not come to a meeting. Lacking a quorum, the meeting is cancelled. The first meeting of the city council I ever attended, several years ago, was cancelled under just those circumstances, when current mayor, then president of council Jim Kalb joined others in absenting himself. Like students who skip school rather than show up for a test they know they will flunk, the city council absented themselves rather then face the Loper issue.

Cockamamie Argument

Shortly thereafter, Loper resigned from the city council, claiming he did not have the money to hire a lawyer to defend himself. Somebody was providing thousands of
dollars of materials to renovate the decrepit house Loper had fraudulently claimed as his First Ward residence, and somebody was providing the labor for the renovation, so his poverty plea rings hollow. I believe Loper was persuaded to resign by those who knew that the ruling of the Scioto Board of Elections would prevail over Kuhn’s cockamamie argument, and Loper had become an embarrassment who was not worth fighting for. Loper said at the time of his resignation that he had been persuaded by certain unnamed businessmen that he was mayoral material and should consider running for Mayor in 2008. Holding out the prospect of his being mayor someday
that was possibly one of the lures Loper’s handlers used to get him to resign. At one council meeting Loper vowed he would not be played for a dummy any longer, but that declaration, if sincere, did not last long.

Elections are supposed to be the essence of democracy. But instead of having a special election for the First Ward, the city council is going to appoint Loper’s successor. The city charter does allow the council to appoint the replacement of somebody who vacates a seat for any reason. But my argument is that Loper did not legally occupy the seat, since he was unqualified to run for the seat in the first place. Thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands of others have died in Iraq. One of the reasons for their sacrifice has allegedly been to have free elections in Iraq. But in Portsmouth’s First Ward we will not have an election. Even if Loper’s election was illegal, Kuhn has been quoted saying in the Portsmouth Daily Times, the city council has the right to appoint his replacement. Even if the election was not legal!

Another argument that has been made is that the city cannot afford a special election. A city government has squandered millions of dollars on the Marting building, which the voters have consistently indicated they did not want, but a couple of thousand dollars on an election, that we are told we cannot afford. The mayor thinks the city can afford somewhere between $25,000 to $35,000 on a new Ford Expedition for him, to improve the city’s image, but not a dime to allow voters of the First Ward to choose our council person. No, they will choose our representative for us. One of the six council members has already been appointed, rather than elected, and yet another one will mean one-third of the city council will not have been elected.

And what of the somewhat kettle-of-fish pool of applicants the city council will choose from? The relatively large number of them alone may reveal something important about the porkish character of Portsmouth.

Loper ran unopposed in Nov. 2004. So why now, less than two years after that election, do we have some six applicants (who presumably are legal residents of the First
Ward) when we previously had only one candidate? I have trouble trying to figure this one out, but the only explanation that occurs to me is that, given the porking of our local culture, being given something is so much more enticing to potential Portsmouth politicians than earning it. An election presumes candidates will do the difficult work of collecting signatures and do at least some campaigning. Unlike applicants, candidates have to run for office. That usually takes months of effort, even at the ward level. It might even require the expenditure of a little money for campaign expenses.

It is much easier to apply to the city council for the office, rather than run for it. For applicants there is no collecting signatures, no running the gauntlet that City Clerk Aeh, City Solicitor Kuhn, and Police Chief Horner set up for dissident candidates, who are treated like
domestic terrorists. An applicant can have the whole process over in about a week. How much easier it is to receive than give. The Portsmouth City Council gives new meaning to the phrase “to apply oneself.” Maybe there should be I Applied buttons for applicants

Vox populi is Latin for voice of the people. What we’ve got in Portsmouth appears to be vox porkopoli.

I Applied

To view other River Vices blogs on the theme of Portsmouth pork: