Freedom Center update
UPDATE: Cincinnati Councilman Chris Monzel is now weighing in on the issue. He sent this press release today saying council should not give the money to the Freedom Center.
"They were granted the opportunity, for free, to use the land," he said in the press release. "They have not done so in 7 years. Now, after asking the city and county for public dollars from our budgets, they are going to try to charge us for use of that land. The Freedom Center has repeatedly asked for taxpayer monies and they seem to have found another way to try to reach into the public’s pocket. "
Commissioner Todd Portune said Wednesday that talks are progressing with the Underground Railroad Freedom Center and "I think this is going to get resolved in a way everyone can feel good about."
What exactly that means is yet to be seen, but chances are it will involve less county money.
Portune was speaking about the controversy involving the Freedom Center's $1 million asking price for a 1.6-acre lawn directly south of the museum. The county and city gave the land to the Freedom Center in 2002 for a park. The Freedom Center hasn't had the funds to develop the park, but now wants the city and county, who plan to use it for Banks project restaurants, to pay $500,000 each to get the land back.
Commissioners were outraged. Pat DeWine called the request "extortion." Portune took a less-confrontational tone, but said he, too, doesn't think the Freedom Center should charge. (Commissioner David Pepper can't comment because his father is on the Freedom Center board). Several people (Mostly COAST members or their supporters) came to a public hearing Monday night about capital project funding to bash the Center. They told commissioners to make sure it doesn't get any state money. (The Freedom Center, by the way, hadn't even asked for any project money yet.)
"The public doesn’t want funding for the Freedom Center," said Chris Finney. "The organization has repeatedly lied to voters"
Sycamore Township Trustee Tom Weidman presented resolutions filed in 2006 by the township stating it opposed funding for the center.
"It is time for them to wean themselves form public funds," he said. Anderson Township passed a similar resolution.
So it's clear the Freedom Center hasn't earned any friends during this ordeal. But did they really try to hoodwink the taxpayers?
The Freedom Center says it had been negotiating the $1 million price tag with the Banks Working Group since last summer. It had two assessments done that actually placed the land at a much higher value. It says the negotiations were in good faith and everyone seemed to think the request was reasonable.
The Working Group includes representatives from both the city and the county, so none of the elected officials should have been surprised at the request, which was reduced to writing Dec. 31, said Freedom Center's Paul Bernish.
City council wasn't surprised. Some council members even said they thought the Center would ask for more. But somehow commissioners were caught off guard.
Tom Gableman, the lawyer who represents the commission on the BWG, said "My understanding is commissioners were aware that there were discussions about the release of the land."
Portune said Tuesday: "They (Freedom Center) were in contact with various members of the city including the mayor but they neglected to talk to me and Pat. I don't think it was intentional. They may have thought Tom was relaying that information but that didn't happen."
Plus, he noted, "everyone knows the BWG is advisory anyway and until groups sign off there can be no deal."
So at least now, everyone is talking. They have several options: create a city/county/Freedom Center contract that asks for a different price (which would require the city to call a special meeting to vote by the deadline), the developer could buy the rights directly, or the Freedom Center could give the land up for nothing. The last two options would not require a vote.
The parties could also extend the contract as long as the city, county and Banks developer agree to do so.