Monday, July 30, 2007

Field of Schemes

Layout of proposed athletic complex

On 16 July 2007, the Portsmouth City Council took one step closer to once again selling out the public, in this instance by approving the construction of an athletic complex in the economically broken heart of Portsmouth, the same broken heart of town that we have been told for years only a shopping mall could possibly mend. According to the mythology that passes for Portsmouth history, in 1980 several Evil Councilmen stopped the construction of a shopping mall. These Evil Councilmen put such a curse on Portsmouth that for twenty-five years no shopping mall was built. Even the most hallowed emporium of downtown Portsmouth, Marting’s Department Store, which was supposed to become the heart of the downtown shopping mall, went out of business.

Then, twenty-five years after the Evil Councilmen had prevented Portsmouth’s Sleepy Downtown from being awakened by the kiss of City Manager Barry Feldman, plans for another downtown shopping center were drawn up by Neal Hatcher, Portsmouth’s controversial real estate developer. In his usual bumptious manner, using his political stooges in city government and the threat of eminent domain, Hatcher began acquiring property in the heart of Portsmouth for his shopping mall. He acquired on John St. alone 22 pieces of property. Several years ago, I talked to a family on John St. who told me they believed Hatcher had deliberately neglected the property he acquired in the John St. neighborhood to drive the value of property down so that he could then buy what remained at depreciated prices. The family held him responsible for the drug addicts and prostitutes who gravitated to the wasteland he had turned John St. into. The John St. properties he acquired by previous street numbers, are as follows: 9, 630, 636, 638, 640, 702, 704, 708, 712, 714, 715, 718, 722, 802, 810, 811, 815, 816, 820, 918, 924, and 928.

John St.2027
A Hatcher property at 702 John St., 2004

Hatcher acquired many other properties that now are in the area designated for the athletic complex. On Moulton Place he acquired numbers 619, 623, 637, 641, 643, 645, and 647. On 8th St. he acquired numbers 1003, 1011, 1014, 1016, 1017, 1113, 1115, 1119, 1123, 1125, 1129, 1138, and 1140, all now within the athletic complex area. On 9th St. he acquired 1004, 1006, 1008, 1012, 1018, 1022, 1024, 1112, 1114, 1116, 1128, 1130, 1136, and 1140, also now within the athletic complex area. On Gallia St. he acquired numbers 1015 and 1021. On Findlay St. he acquired numbers 724 (the Workmen’s Compensation building), 816, 916, 918, 920, and 1026. On Waller St. he acquired number 423. On Gallia, Findlay, and 9th Streets, which presently define the southern, western, and northern limits of the athletic complex, he acquired properties on the other side of the street that presumably are outside the complex limits, but if any expansion is needed in those limits, he would be in a position to wheel and deal.

Most of the houses in the athletic complex area are gone, as is the Selby factory. Where once it had stood, employing thousands of workers, nothing remains but massive stone slabs piled up like corpses, which have been an eyesore for years. The acres of property Hatcher had acquired for his shopping mall lay devastated, like a London neighborhood that had been leveled by a German V2 rocket in the Second World War.

Hatcher’s critics accuse him of letting property he acquires fall into such disrepair that adjacent property values plummet and pressure is put on people to sell and move out. Take a look at the former Workmen’s Compensation building, at 724 Findlay St., a haunted hulk with creeping landscaping that Hatcher has owned for some time. That building has been gathering bird nests in its hair for years, the better to drive down property values and qualify the neighborhood as blighted. When neighborhoods are classified as blighted, it is easier to eminent-domain and tap into public funds for their “renewal.” I think of 724 Findlay not as the Workmen’s Compensation building but as the Real Estate Developer’s Compensation building, because we can count on Hatcher being paid “fairly” for it, even though it is worth next to nothing commercially in Portsmouth’s current real estate market.

724 Findlay: Hatcher's Decrepit Workmen's Comp Building

Something went wrong and Hatcher’s shopping mall never materialized. Like the shopping mall of 1980, Hatcher’s mall was a castle in the air. The Prince of Eminent Domain was faced with the prospect of a huge financial loss on all those acres he had bought. However, in accordance with the principle of No Building Left Behind, no Portsmouth property owner with political connections ever has to take a loss on any thing, whether it be a 126-year-old mummified department store, a leaking contaminated cable TV building, or acres of devastated land in the center of the city. All that is required is that somebody dream up some public use for the otherwise worthless property. Then sell or give the property to the city. So the location of new public projects are determined by where a business has failed or where a house or building belonging to a politically influential owner is falling apart. That is Portsmouth’s version of urban planning. And what makes it even worse is that those failing businesses provide the initial motivation for a public project. It is not the needs of the community that come first; it is the need of someone with influence to get rid of property that comes first. The future of Portsmouth gets tied to and is fueled by its failures. That is not a formula for success. It is a vicious cycle. Crooked politicians lobby for a new city building because Marting’s goes under; when Marting’s causes a firestorm, another site is found for a city building, the worthless Singer property on Washington St. When Kenrick’s goes belly up, we get a Welcome Center. Now, after Hatcher’s mall went kaput, we get an athletic complex. When asked why he robbed banks, Willy Sutton allegedly answered, “Because that’s where the money is.” If Kalb was as honest as Willy Sutton, when asked why the city builds its public projects where it does, he would answer “Because that’s where the over-privileged own property they want to unload on the public.”

It was probably one of the over-privileged, possibly the Prince of Darkness himself, tossing restlessly in bed late at night, who figured out how to unload twenty or so acres of devastated land that Hatcher was stuck with. What the center of the city needed was not a shopping mall but an athletic complex, not shoppers but athletes, and not professional athletes, either, but high school athletes, teenagers who could be portrayed in a public relations campaign as deserving kids as well as the economic saviors of downtown Portsmouth. Grammar school students were enlisted in the fight for the shopping mall back in 1980, but now high school students are now being enlisted in the campaign for the athletic complex. The argument is that “for the sake of the kids,” we need a massive athletic complex. “Gentlemen,” the high school football coach Skip Hickman told the the City Council at the July 16 meeting, “We’ve drug on for nine weeks. We need your help. Do it tonight, because it’s the right thing to do for the kids.” How has the city ever been able to get away with neglecting the kids for as long as it has? No wonder drug abuse has drug on as long as it has, and that teen pregnancies and academic underachievement have plagued our teenagers. Those of us who never had to play in Spartan Stadium or the baseball stadium should thank our lucky stars. That Howard Harcha IV played in both stadiums and went on to achieve the success he has is incredible. He deserves a mural on the flood wall. That a stadium that had been good enough for an NFL franchise should be good enough for a high school team, or that what was good enough for player-coach Jim Thorpe should be good enough for Skip Hickman – these are the arguments of nay sayers, like those evil Councilmen back in 1980, who stood in the way of the shopping mall. The scandal of letting kids play in Spartan Stadium has to stop. We have to turn the neighborhood that Hatcher had turned into a haven for prostitutes and drug dealers into a field of multimillion dollar athletic dreams. Ten million dollars is just the beginning, as anyone knows who wasn’t born yesterday.

Proposed site of PHS athletic complex

But if you build a multimillion dollar athletic complex, will they come to watch high school football and basketball games? Will they in such numbers and often enough to revive the center of the city economically? Or is that just one of the pie-in-the-sky economic predictions Supt. of Schools Broughton has made. This woman apparently will say and do anything to expand her bureaucratic empire, never mind what it is going to cost taxpayers. To believe her, the athletic complex will transform Portsmouth into a City of Prosperity. Some will probably disagree with the Shawnee Sentinel, which declared last November that “Since her appointment [as Superintendent of Schools] Jan Broughton has become embroiled with the most evil, mendacious, greedy un-elected wealthy gangsters in the City of Portsmouth.” The Sentinel has been proven right too many times to ignore. What sounds outrageous now, may be all too true down the road. We’ve got a Wall of Fame on the river side of the floodwall. What we need is a Wall of Shame. The athletic complex may be the deal that guarantees Broughton a place on that wall.

The athletic complex is not a Field of Dreams. It is a Field of Schemes, conceived in deceit and dedicated to the proposition that not only should Hatcher not have to pay a dime for his business mistakes but that he should be compensated “fairly” for them, to borrow Broughton’s term for how the property owners in the athletic complex area will be treated. According to school officials, Hatcher owns, about 70% to 80% of the less than hundred parcels of property in the proposed site of the complex. By my count, made on the County Auditor’s website, Hatcher owns 68 pieces of property in the area designated for the complex. If the relatively large area occupied by the Second Presbyterian Church is omitted from calculations, which it should since it is not going to be torn down, Hatcher’s 68 pieces constitutes at least 90% of the property. So, when Broughton talks about treating property owners “fairly,” which would be a first, what she is really talking about is treating Hatcher fairly. The city and the school system must not take advantage of him and drive a hard bargain, which is of course is what would happen if we were talking about free market economics instead of Portsmouth corporate welfare economics. If Portsmouth had a competitive, free enterprise economy, Hatcher would pay dearly for his mall folly. But it doesn’t and Hatcher won’t. The public will pay.

The best argument against the athletic complex, perhaps the only serious argument, is economic. The “kids” will be playing their games on untaxable fields and untaxable field houses that will cost the city millions in taxes to build and maintain. Not only are those facilities not going to make a profit, they are not even going to pay for themselves. The city already has an athletic complex – a historic football stadium with an adjoining practice field, a decent baseball stadium, and several Little League and softball fields, located near the river front, in an easily accessible area not far from downtown Portsmouth, an area where an upgraded athletic complex could be conveniently and more economically built, if a new or upgraded athletic complex was what the city really needed most. But of course a new athletic complex is not what the city needs most, not given the hidden costs associated with it.

"It Ain't Worth Anything"

Leave it to Marty Mohr to be the one to let the cat out of the bag. “It ain’t worth anything,” he said famously of the Marting Building to a Columbus Dispatch reporter back in June 2004. That was before he saw the light in Clayton Johnson’s office, recanted, and supported the Marting’s purchase. Mohr let another cat out of the bag, at the July 16th council meeting, when he said less succinctly but a little more grammatically, “All the developments in our community seem to be non-taxable developments. They might be supplying jobs, but there’s no property taxes there. What bothers me the most is the schools thrive on property taxes. You would think they’d want to generate more property taxes.” The only property taxes that Portsmouth high school and Broughton are going to generate are from the property owners of Portsmouth, who are going to be paying taxes through the nose. That’s the bottom line on this whole athletic complex scheme. This is a game, and the outcome is fixed: the public will pay.

One of the great benefits of high school athletics, in addition to the exercise it provides, is that they promote the competitive attitude in young people that makes them as adults willing to work hard and strive. Athletics help make the US the strong nation it is. But the irony is that competition is just what is lacking in the Portsmouth economy. What we have is the equivalent of fixed games in which our public officials are the crooked referees. Our Portsmouth business and professional classes don’t compete with each other; they collude with each other. We recall how Hatcher and the city colluded to turn the 3rd St. neighborhood into a blighted area to facilitate his construction of student dormitories. The deal Hatcher worked out on those dormitories was a no-lose deal in which the university, a public entity, takes most of the risk and Hatcher almost none at all. That’s the only kind of economy the over-privileged of Portsmouth are willing to take part in, one in which risk is removed from any project they undertake, no matter how risky or hare-brained it is.

I have heard that the only way the King’s Daughters Hospital got a foothold in Portsmouth was by acquiring the property on the Scioto Trail without revealing that they were the real purchasers. If the Portsmouth establishment, and the CEO of SOMC in particular, had known, they probably would have found a way to block the move. I don’t know if this is anything more than a rumor, but I do know that the County Auditor’s website shows that the TPA Land Company of Ashland, Kentucky, bought the property at 2001 Scioto Trail in April of 2006 and TPA is still listed as the owner on the Auditor’s website. Competition is the last thing those who control Portsmouth’s economy and city government want. Instead of spending millions of advertising dollars to saturate local media with the claim that “Very good things are happening here,” SOMC should put those advertising millions into making SOMC better able to compete with King’s Daughters. When it comes to hospitals, King’s Daughters is the team to beat in the tri-state league, and competing with, not excluding it, is the surest way to make very good things happen for the people of Portsmouth.

Always willing to advise wealthy widows on their wills and bequests, our local foundations have found benefactors willing to give millions to the new athletic complex. These millions are not outright gifts; they provide tax benefits for the donors. Foundations sometimes launder money that might otherwise end up in the form of taxes in public treasuries. Many wealthy people would rather leave it up to a foundation, rather than the government, to decide how their money will be spent. And who can blame them? But there are foundations and there are “foundations.” What we have in Portsmouth are “foundations,” like the Marting Foundation. It is untrue that the athletic complex will not cost the public plenty of money, both up front as tax breaks for philanthropists and down the line in the form of taxes on property owners. That the athletic complex is a cost-free project that the citizens would be crazy to turn down is an argument fostered by those, like Hatcher and Broughton, who stand to gain by promoting it. Just look at the hidden costs to the city, financially and municipally, of Dr. Singer’s donation of his commercially worthless Washington St. property. With the revenue the athletic complex will not generate over the next twenty-five years, with the flood of traffic that will not come across the Bridge to Nowhere to see high school athletes play, we could finance a renovation of the existing athletic complex by the river that would do the city proud. Instead, we have to trash the past.

Trashing the past

Clayton Johnson is quoting as saying the athletic complex will attract families to Portsmouth. What might attract the kind of families the city needs is not a multi-million dollar athletic complex and state of the art school buildings but a reputation for academic excellence. If the Portsmouth city school system ever had a reputation for academic excllence, it has long since lost it. The city schools need first-rate teachers and first-rate students more than they need first-rate athletes. The money that has been poured into school buildings and will be poured into an athletic complex would have been better spent improving the working conditions and salaries of teachers and the strengthening of academic programs.

Broughton boasts that the city is successfully marketing the new athletic complex and new high school. You don’t judge the quality of school system by the look of its campus any more than you should judge a person by his or her clothes or automobile. It would be far better for the future of the city if Portsmouth High School had a reputation as one of the best scholastically in the state. I know from my experience at Shawnee State that pouring millions and millions of public dollars into new buildings and a new campus is no guarantee that a school will not have a reputation as not only one of the worst in the state but in the nation, as was the case with SSU in the 1990s. SSU got its horrendous reputation in part because Clive Veri was president during the 90s. Veri had a vision for the university that came straight out of a Hollywood musical of the 1930s. Semesters, fraternities, and football were his remedy for what ailed the university. He got the fraternities, and his designated successor, de facto president Stephen P. Donohue, got the semesters, but the football program fortunately never materialized. It was not that football was bad, anymore than semesters were bad. It’s just that they were not right for SSU at this stage of its development. Now Clayton Johnson, Neal Hatcher, and Jan Broughton are doing for Portsmouth High School, big time, what Veri fortunately failed to do for SSU. Portsmouth will live with the fiscal and educational consequences of their greed and deceit for many years to come. And we will all be losers. Let the games begin!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cashing In

Since I posted my last blog, “No Building Left Behind,” I have learned more about the history of the property at 807 Washington St., usually referred to as the Adelphia building. It would be more accurate to call it the Singer building, since Dr. Herbert I. Singer, of Los Angeles, owned it and Adelphia was only leasing it from him.

What I have learned is that Mike Mearan may be an even bigger shyster than I thought, and Dr. Singer may be one of his victims.

I have learned that Mearan bought the property at the southwest corner of Washington and 9th Streets on 31 Dec. 31 1984 for $740,000. Two months later, on 1 March 1985, Mearan then sold that same property to Dr. Singer for $835,000. So Mearan owned the property for only two months before selling it to Singer for a profit of $95,000. Who was Singer relying on for advice about Portsmouth real estate if not Mearan? It is not likely Singer knew he was paying $95,000 more for the property than Mearan had paid for it just two months earlier. Singer should have been told by Mearan back in 1985 that the Washington St. property was not a good investment. By 1985 it was apparent that Portsmouth proper was not a good place to invest in commercial real estate. Portsmouth’s best commercial days were far behind it.

The steady decline in the appraised value of the Washington St. property since 1985 confirms that it was not a good investment. As of 10 Oct. 10 1997, the property was assessed by the County Auditor at $305,130. That’s much less than Singer had paid Mearan for it in 1985. As of 1 Jan. 2004, the assessment figure for the property had dropped all the way to $111,940, which is only 13% of what Singer had paid for it. So, in about twenty years, from 1985 to 2004, the appraised figure for the property had plummeted from the $835,000 Singer had paid for it in 1985, down to $111,940. Usually, property increases in value, but not in Portsmouth.

In representing Singer in the donation of the property to the city, Mearan may be cashing in on his relationship with Singer one more time. Mearan is taking advantage of somebody who reportedly had never been to Portsmouth, and somebody who now may be in his dotage. Singer showed poor judgment in paying as much he did for the Washington Street property, but he showed even worse judgment in hiring Mearan to represent him.

In addition to learning Mearan had paid $740,000 for the property on 31 Dec. 2004, I learned Mearan had bought the property from Jeffrey Albrecht, who now owns the Ramada Inn. It was Albrecht who sold the property in 1984 to Mearan for $740,000. Since Albrecht has been rumored to be one of those interested in acquiring the site of the present City Building, in Portsmouth, which is located directly across the street from the Ramada Inn, you can begin to appreciate the folk wisdom of the saying, “What goes around, comes around.” If Albrecht were ever to come into possession of the City Building site, things would have come full circle. The City Building would be torn down at the same time a new city building would be rising on the corner of Washington and 9th Street, which Albrecht once owned. The circle would be really complete because Albrecht and Mearan would be in the thick of the monkey business, as they were over twenty years ago on Washington Street.

I did not put any credence in the rumor that Albrecht was interested in the site across from the Ramada Inn, because who would know better than Albrecht, captain of “The Queen of the Rust Belt,” as his motel has been nicknamed, that the area is not “prime real estate,” even though our dunce mayor repeats that it is. But maybe the mayor is right. If the Washington Street property was worth $835,000 in 1985, and the Marting building $1.9 million in 2003, then the land across from the Ramada may be worth $10 million in 2010, or whenever gambling comes to Portsmouth. And now that Mearan has been appointed to the City Council, and has insinuated himself deep into the body politic of Portsmouth, like a trichinella worm in pork, anything is possible. Then he will be cashing in on all of us, not just Dr. Singer.

Mearan made a quick $95,000 on this property

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

No Building Left Behind

Southern Ohio Museum: Original No Building Left Behind

     The good news is Marting’s won’t be the site of the new city building. The bad news is the Adelphia site will. Why is that bad news?

      Remember that the first principle of Portsmouth real estate is that no over privileged private party or corporation should ever have to take a loss on a building or piece of land, no matter how worthless or hazardous it is, as long as there are public funds that can be tapped into to bail the owner out, or as long as there is a tax break that can be derived from donating the property to the public, and letting the city deal with the headaches and expenses associated with owning and dealing with the property. This first principle of Portsmouth real estate could be called the No Building Left Behind policy.
      Instead of being free to build from scratch on the best site possible, city planners must start with a building and site that has been unloaded on them with the connivance of corrupt public officials. The City Building Committee Final Report (11 Dec. 2006) listed as the first and presumably most important reason for locating the new City Hall Complex on the so-called Adelphia building site is that the city owns the property. It is like the old days, when ATT had a total monopoly of the telephone industry, including the manufacture and sale of telephones. The policy of ATT back then was you could have any color phone you wanted provided it was black. Under the No Building Left Behind policy, the city or county can erect a new public building or city hall complex anywhere they want provided it is an undesirable site or building that the city has paid too much money for or has accepted from a donor who has stipulated the site or building must be used for a public purpose so that the donor can get a tax write-off.

      Consider the following examples of Portsmouth’s No Building Left Behind policy at work, beginning (1) with the earliest one I know of, the 1977 sale of the obsolete Security Central National Bank building to the city, which then leased it to the Southern Ohio Museum Corporation for one dollar a year for a period of twenty years, with the city, as lessor, having major responsibility for maintaining and insuring the building; (2) the empty and virtually worthless department store that the Marting Foundation illegally and infamously unloaded on the city for $1.9 million; (3) the nearly bankrupt Travel World Agency, which three well-connected Portsmouth businessmen, with Clayton Johnson as their lawyer, “donated” to Ohio U., as a tax write-off; (4) the empty Thatcher house, on Franklin Blvd., for which SSU paid the politically connected Thatchers much more than it was worth and which SSU later sold to a doctor at a $50,000 loss to the taxpayers; (5) Dr. Rooney’s house, on Camelot Drive, the remote and parking-less money pit that SSU paid top dollar for and, with the meter still running, now serves as the slipping and sliding home for SSU president Rita Rice Morris; (6) the empty and otherwise worthless Kenrick’s department store that was taken off George Clayton’s hands with county and federal funds and converted into a Welcome Center; (7) the “sale” of the Temple B’Nai Abraham to SSU for an ungodly sum; and (8) the “donation” to the city of the misnamed Adelphia property, which should be called, the Singer property. Adelphia never owned that property, having only leased it instead from Dr. Herbert Singer, of Los Angeles.

The No Singer Building Left Behind

      The history of the Singer property bears a depressing similarity to all the other shady real estate deals of the last thirty years. Just as you would not know that Martings is really three very old buildings beneath a faux brick façade, the Singer building is actually two old buildings hidden behind a rusting metal façade. What became the Singer property was once the site of an automobile dealership, but after things went kaput in Portsmouth, that dealership and others on Washington Street went out of business. While the history of the building and the date of its construction is something of a mystery, which even the crack consultants of Ameresco Corp. could not unravel, what we know for sure is that at one point local shyster lawyer Mike Mearan owned the so-called Adelphia property. Then, in 1984, he sold it to Dr. Herbert Singer, of Los Angeles. Following his purchase of the property from Mearan, Singer then leased the building for twenty years to Adelphia Cable. I have heard that Adelphia was paying Singer a sizable rent each month. [I was subsequently told by an employee of Adelphia Cable that it was paying $12,000 a month rent, which over the 20 year lease would be $2,880,000 dollars.]

      Because of the massive fraud perpetrated by the family that owned the Adelphia Corporation, that company went bankrupt and the larcenous founder, John Rigas, went to prison. Because of the protections afforded to bankrupt corporations, Adelphia apparently did not need to meet the obligations of the final year of its twenty-year lease with Singer. I was puzzled when Adelphia hastily moved out of Singer’s building to a smaller less conveniently located site. Because commercial property in Portsmouth is notoriously hard to rent, I wondered why Adelphia hadn’t used its leverage to negotiate a new lease for Singer’s building, at better financial terms. Subsequent events would make clear why Adelphia wanted out of the Singer building as fast as possible. First of all, how would you feel as a tenant if the building you were paying good money for had been neglected for some time, and had leaky room in which there was asbestos in the decking? How would you feel, furthermore, if your absentee landlord lived in Los Angeles, over 2500 miles away?

      Following the flight of Adelphia Cable from Washington Street, Singer was stuck with an ugly building that had virtually no financial or architectural value and no prospect of being rented by another tenant. His curiosity getting the better of him, Singer finally made his first visit to Portsmouth to see the property, but only after Adelphia had moved out. At some point Singer hired the controversial real estate agent-developer Neal Hatcher to handle the property. Months turned into years and the Singer building sat on that decrepit southwest corner of Washington and 9th Street, unattended and leaking, like so many other empty commercial buildings in Portsmouth (think Marting’s, think Kenrick’s). The Singer building was almost as bad as many of the buildings that Hatcher owns and neglects.

      Singer was responsible for city taxes on the decrepit property, but in deadbeat fashion he stopped meeting those financial obligations. This was not very civic-minded of him, but what did he have to lose, way out there in California, in stiffing the taxpayers of Portsmouth? But he still needed to find some way to unload the property. Because Hatcher could find no buyer foolish enough to buy the property, Singer hired Mike Mearan to come up with a plan to stick the public with it, and Mearan, a gifted con artist, did. Mearan knows the winding and dimly lit corridors and courtrooms of the City Building and the County Courthouse of Portsmouth the way a proctologist knows a cancerous rectum or Jean Valjean, in Hugo’s Les Miserables, knows the sewers of Paris. What Mearan advised Singer to do was donate the worthless property to the city, stipulating that in accepting the property the city would have to commit to using it for a public purpose. That was an all-important stipulation, because only then would Singer be able to claim a tax write-off from the IRS. Another stipulation that Singer put on the “donation” was that he would not have to pay the $23,000 back taxes he owed on the building. At the City Council meeting 13 Feb. 2006, the council approved a motion from David Malone to excuse $5,707.50 in taxes due on Singer’s property. This was in addition to excusing Singer of the $17,000 plus taxes he had already failed to pay. Councilman Malone,whose math is notoriously fuzzy, is usually accorded the honor of making motions that bilk the taxpayers. The scheme Mearan came up with was to propose to the city that the building Singer was offering be converted into a police station, which clearly met the definition of “public use.”

“Wonderful Idea”

      The public first learned of the Singer-Mearan donation scheme when Hatcher, acting as Singer’s real estate agent, appeared at the 13 Dec. 2004 City Council meeting with Tanner and Stone smoke-and-mirror architectural plans to convert the Adelphia building into a police station. I was at that meeting and I remember that the architectural drawings made the renovated Singer building look like the Gingerbread house in “Hansel and Gretel.” It looked good enough to eat. Who paid for those architectural plans? Singer? Hatcher? Mearan? Or did Tanner and Stone donate their time in anticipation of future fees? According to the minutes of the 13 Dec. 2004 Council meeting, “Mr. Hatcher said he felt it would be a wonderful idea and provided drawings showing the Adelphia Building as it exists and how it might look if converted into a Police Station. . . . Mr. Hatcher suggested an ordinance accepting the building should include an amount not to exceed $500,000 to 600,000 for improvements. He noted the advantages would include parking for the police. He said he felt this to be a good opportunity for the City of Portsmouth . . .” Not wanting to hog all the glory, Hatcher pointed out that the plan was the brainchild of Mike Mearan.

      At the Council Meeting 10 Jan. 2005, Kalb urged members of the City Council to visit the Adelphia building and judge for themselves if the building was worth accepting from Singer. Kalb claimed that someone else was interested in the building if the city wasn’t, which is the familiar tactic that is used in real estate negotiations to get a reluctant party to buy. The same tactic was used by George Clayton to justify raising the price that SSU paid for the Mooney house on Camelot Drive. Playing the role of a political pimp, for which he is well suited, Kalb was in effect saying, “Hey, there are other guys interested in this gal if you ain’t.”

Shyster Lawyer

     Mearan appeared at the 14 March 2005 City Council meeting, identifying himself as “an attorney representing Herbert Singer who is offering the former Adelphia building to the city . . . the intent of Dr. Singer is to give this property to the City for the City to use.” Mearan went on to admit that Singer’s “intent” in offering the building to the city was really not philanthropy but to get a tax write-off, and he could only get that if the property was used for a public purpose. As the minutes of 14 March 2005 state, “Mr. Mearan said that in order for Dr. Singer to take advantage of certain IRS regulations the City could not sell or lease the building because that would set a value on the property and would restrict the amount Mr. Singer can claim as a donation to the City.” The next sentence of the 14 March 2005 minutes reveals how little philanthropy had to do with Singer’s donation. “Mr. Mearan stated that with the understanding that the City would accept the property and use it for City purposes, with a restriction of ten years after which if the city wants to get rid of the building or do whatever they want with the building they could do so.” Do whatever they want with it? In other words, after ten years of public use, which would qualify Singer for the full write-off, the city could shove the building as far as Singer or Mearan was concerned. Once Singer got his tax-write off, he didn’t care what happened to the property, just as he hadn’t cared what happened to the property when he owned it, as long Adelphia paid the rent. Singer had squeezed all he could out of it.

      The City Council bought into the Singer-Mearan-Hatcher scheme and passed an ordinance at the 14 March 2005 meeting "Authorizing the Mayor and the City of Portsmouth, Ohio, to accept a deed to real estate generally known as 807 Washington Street, Portsmouth, Ohio, said property to be used for city-related purposes for a minimum period of 10 years." Kalb reported at the Council Meeting 23 May 2005 that he had met that morning with Mike Mearan, who showed him the deed that signed the so-called Adelphia building over to the city.

      The city’s acceptance of the Singer building was the first step down a long and expensive road for taxpayers. There are some things that are not only not worth the asking price, they are not even worth accepting as a gift. Failing to look the gift horse in the mouth, failing to look for mold and asbestos in the building, the city accepted Singer’s offer. The result was the city ended up paying through the nose for a nag that was fit only for the glue factory. If the Singer building had been a horse, the humane thing would have been to shoot it. Instead, the City Council accepted the building from Singer and, following Mearan’s stipulation about public use, agreed to turn it into a police station. The close examination of the building was made only after the city accepted the building. That examination showed that beneath the rusting metal façade, the Singer building was unsalvageable. The leaking roof was leaking worse, making that asbestos problem even worse, and the moisture was creating black mold, also known as toxic mold, which for a building is like AIDS. The Singer building was an incurably sick building. It was not safe to convert into an outhouse, let alone into a police station. Why hadn’t the city council and mayor made a close examination of the building before they accepted it from Singer? Because too many of our city officials are in office to do the bidding of those with big bucks. They dare not not ask embarrassing questions or try to get at the truth. The truth about the Singer building was the last thing they wanted. So the city was stuck with yet another decrepit old building with asbestos and mold.

No Oxycontin Left Behind

     Did this mean that Singer was going to lose his tax write-off? Did this mean he was going to have to pay the $23,000 in taxes after all? There was little likelihood of that, especially after Mearan became a member of the Portsmouth City Council. Mearan became a member of council not the democratic way, by running for office. Here is how he got on council: After I filed a complaint with the County Board of Elections, charging Tim Loper was not living in the First Ward, which the city charter requires, he was removed from City Council. Mearan was subsequently appointed to replace Loper by the City Council. The City Council did not stop there, because next it appointed Mearan to the City Building Committee. Howard Baughman and the City Council did not stop there, because then they appointed Mearan to chair that committee. Mearan's first act as chair of the CBC was to assign his drug-addicted employee Heather Hren (shown left in photo at work for CBC ) as its stenographer, a position she held until she was arrested for transporting oxycontin from Columbus to Portsmouth in a car Mearan had rented for her. In addition to No Building Left Behind, we have No Oxycontin Left Behind.

      So Mearan was not only appointed to the Council and appointed to the CBC, he was appointed chair of it. In what other city could such a brazen conflict of interest take place without so much as a peep from the press or local law enforcement officials? An attorney representing a client who would get a tax write-off if his “donation” was used for a public purpose, such as a police station or city building, chairs a committee that is considering locations for a new police station and a new city building. What do you think the odds were that the City Building Committee, with Mearan as chair, would recommend the Singer property be used for a police station? And what do you think the odds were that the CBC, once the Singer building was shown to be unsalvageable, would then recommend that the building be torn down and that the site be used to build a new police station and city building? Pretty good chance, I would say.


      What follows is a list of the improvements that the Building Committee acknowledged would have to be made to the so-called Adelphia building to convert it into a police station. (1) Installation of communications and data cabling; (2) Installation of new emergency generator; (3) Modification of existing electric distribution system; (4) Installation of new Heating-Ventilation-Air Conditioning systems; (5) Installation of new plumbing piping and fixtures; (6) Floor cutting, concrete patching, and tile for new locker rooms; (7) Cleaning of wall studs, walls and floors to remove mold residue; (8) Painting of structural steel in older section of building; (9) Painting of all interior walls; (10) Removal and replacement of all interior doors and hardware; (11) Removal and replacement of all flooring materials; (12) Removal and replacement of all of the existing ceiling tiles; (13) Removal and replacement of 50% of insulation above the ceiling; (14) Removal and replacement of 50% of existing drywall; (15) Installation of new energy-efficient windows and exterior doors; (16) Installation of new roof for entire building; (17) Exterior work including replacement of metal siding and painting of masonry; (18) Site work including resurfacing of parking lot and landscaping. These eighteen proposals should have been replaced by one simple proposal: Remove this contaminated building forever from the face of the earth and let the negligent landlord pay for at least part of the removal.

      Why in the world would any public official agree to spend as much money as these improvements would cost to convert an old building in terrible condition when a new one could be built for the same price? Why resuscitate a corpse when you can have a new baby? You can bet the cost of converting the so-called Adelphia building was going to be much more than the $500,000 to $600,000 Hatcher originally estimated. That estimate was so much fairy dust tossed in the eyes of a gullible public. And notice that one “improvement” that seems hardly worth mentioning, removing mold residue, proved enough to scuttle the whole project.

      If Singer had not neglected his building as much as he obviously had for as long as he had, maybe the building would have been worth saving. I say maybe. But why should the public pay for the neglect of an absentee landlord who allowed his property to deteriorate so badly? Because that is a feature of No Building Left Behind. After all the profit has been wrung out of a property and a business, the owner turns it over to the state, county, or city government to let it deal with the consequences. When rail passenger traffic was no longer profitable, turn it over to the government and complain about how inefficiently the government runs things. When the Marting’s department store can no longer turn a profit, sell it to the city government for one last profit squeeze of $1.9 million and let the empty building become a festering political and financial problem for years.

Black Telephone

      The City Building Committee tried to pass off the Singer property, which it was led to by the nose, as the best site for a new city complex. What the CBC decided is the equivalent of saying that a black phone would have been its first choice even if there were fifty-seven other colors and shades available. The corner of Washington and 9th Streets is about as good a site for a new city complex as John Street would be for a convent or the Scioto River for a surfing competition. What is there about that corner that suits it for a city complex? There’s not much to be said for that location. Instead of a view of the Ohio River and the bridge, the only thing you can see from the corner of Washington and 9th is the steam escaping from that crooked smoke stack on the roof of the the Osco factory. If the city had not been hornswoggled into accepting a building that should have been condemned as a health hazard, where might the new city building have ended up? We will never know for sure, because the No Building Left Behind policy dictated that the city building and the police station was either going to be in the Marting’s building or on the Singer property. That is like giving a condemned man the choice between the noose or the electric chair.

      But the Singer site is the lesser of two evils, because no one is any longer trying to claim the Singer building is salvageable, whereas there are still die-hards who will still tell you the Marting building should be converted into a city building. At least on the Singer site the city can start from scratch instead of having to renovate a decrepit 125-year-old department store. The City Building Committee was under a lot of pressure to choose the Marting building for a city hall, but Clayton Johnson had succeeded in making that building so politically radioactive that there is now no chance of his original scheme ever being carried out, even with his obliging tools Kalb and Baughman backing it.

      The best site for a new city building would be the site of the present City Building. If the City Building is going to be razed, then a new one should be raised on the same site. Why? Because it is the most convenient, the most time-honored, and the most scenic spot. And it is downtown. Being downtown was supposedly a major advantage of the Marting building. But city officials, and above all Mayor Kalb, have been angling to make the site of the City Building available to a developer for years. It is too valuable, Kalb says, to be wasted on a mere city hall, on the house of local government. The phrase that gets repeated is "prime commercial property." The CBC even uses that phrase in explaining why the current site of the City Building should not be wasted on a city hall complex: it is prime commercial property. If it so valuable commercially, why has the Ramada Inn, directly across the street, been a financial basket case ever since it was built. The Ramada Inn has survived by housing university students and as a half-way house for people with drug-related problems. The Ramada Inn survived by mooching off the public sector, and we are supposed to believe the land across the street is too valuable to waste on a new city complex?

      The single most important truth about No Left Building Left Behind policy is that we wouldn’t have had any of the shenanigans and headaches and scandals associated with the Marting building and the Singer building if Kalb and his cronies had not been conspiring for years to systematically neglect the City Building with the intention of eventually tearing it down in order to sell the site to some developer. The anticipated tearing down of the City Building was what made the Marting and the Singer rip-offs possible.

      When it comes to saying just which developer is interested in the City Building site, Kalb has been like a coy stripteaser, revealing just enough to pique the public’s curiosity, but not enough to reveal who that developer is. Who is Kalb protecting, who is he hiding? Which developer is it whose name would create a firestorm if it were known he was the one waiting to get his hands on the City Building site? Which developer is it who is ultimately responsible for where the City Building and the Portsmouth Police Station apparently will end up? Whoever ends up on whichever site, keep in mind that all the shenanigans are really the result of the No Building Left Behind policy, according to which a building that has architectural and structural value, such as the Train Depot and the City Building, will be torn down while many millions will be squandered acquiring property and buildings that are actually liabilities, not assets. This is the way things are done in Portsmouth. The question is will things ever change?