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