Solution sought for Cincy-area museum renovations

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CINCINNATI (AP) -- Officials in the Cincinnati area are discussing a plan to create a new agency and use a sales tax increase for renovations and expansions at Cincinnati museums and its music hall, zoo and other venues.

The Hamilton County-wide tax would be used for major renovations that local governments, corporations, donors and current taxes can't fund. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported Sunday (http://cin.ci/IibdFh) that current planned projects would cost nearly $500 million.

The plan being considered would likely be used for major cultural and arts facilities such as the Museum Center at Union Terminal, Music Hall, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. Money raised would not be used for daily operations but set aside specifically for capital needs, and a board would oversee allocations.

"If we don't do something like this, those facilities will continue to deteriorate," said Hamilton County Administrator Christian Sigman. "That's unacceptable."

The initiative would take after similar initiatives in various other cities, including Denver, Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

Hamilton County's current tax rate is 6.5 percent. County commissioners can raise the sales tax, but likely would first ask voters to improve any hike, likely a one-quarter or one-half cent increase per dollar. It's estimated a one-quarter cent increase would bring in about $30 million a year.

"A lot more thought needs to occur before we can determine not just whether it's a good idea, but whether it's even practical or possible," said Cincinnati City Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls. "I don't know whether the voters of Hamilton County have the appetite for another sales tax."

Discussions are being led by the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation that has funneled tens of millions of dollars into efforts aimed at enhancing the quality of life in Greater Cincinnati.

"These cultural treasures are part of what makes Cincinnati so special," said Andy Scott, who has been hired by the foundation to oversee the issue. "No one wants to risk losing that."

He and Sigman have been working in recent weeks to drum up support among with local elected officials, representatives of the facilities and others.

Among renovations planned, those at the 79-year-old Union Terminal, home to the Cincinnati Museum Center, could approach $150 million, and Music Hall supporters say a $165 million renovation is needed to keep the 134-year-old facility a top concert venue.

Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel said both are owned by the city of Cincinnati and that the county should not be responsible for funding upgrades.

"The city should pay for these buildings, not be building streetcars or atriums," he said, referring to debated projects to bring a streetcar system to the city and renovate an open-air courtyard at City Hall.

Cincinnati City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. said the proposal "at least deserves a serious hearing."

"We clearly have some facilities that need attention, and the attention they need comes with some fairly large price tags," he said. "I think the consensus in the community is that these are gems that should be cherished and need to be preserved."

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Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com

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