Program aims to preserve Ohio city's past

JOHN JOHNSTON The Cincinnati Enquirer Published:

CINCINNATI (AP) -- For decades, crowds flocked to the red-brick theater near downtown Cincinnati.

The building, built around the turn of the 20th century and topped with an impressive metal dome, could accommodate 1,400 people. It opened as the Casino Theater, later renamed the Regal.

It anchored what was once a thriving business district. Neighbors who lived in apartments above the stores and other patrons came to the theater to see cartoons, feature films and stage shows.

"It was a special place," said 73-year-old John Harshaw Sr. of Silverton, who grew up in Cincinnati's West End and first set foot in the Regal when he was 6 years old.

On Saturdays in the 1940s and '50s, after the last movie of the day, "any big (African-American) entertainer you could name -- from Ray Charles to Duke Ellington to Count Basie to Sarah Vaughan -- appeared free on the stage," said Harshaw, author of a 2009 book titled "Cincinnati's West End."

It was a long time ago. Today, with new apartments and townhomes across the street and a city recreation center next door, the old theater looks lonely, its entrance boarded up. It has been closed since 1996.

But it has not been abandoned, torn down or forgotten. Rather, it stands as an example of a relatively new initiative aimed at striking a balance between razing blighted buildings and preserving historic assets.

"We have gorgeous, iconic buildings we're lucky to have" in Cincinnati, said Paula Boggs Muething, president of community revitalization and general counsel for the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority. She counts the Regal among them.

Standing outside the theater, she said: "I think something really special will go in here at some point."

The chances of a Regal rebirth got a boost when it was selected for the Historic Structure Stabilization Program, which is run through the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corp., better known as the land bank. The port authority oversees the nonprofit land bank.

So far, four buildings have been selected for the stabilization program since it began in 2012. The goal is not to restore or renovate them, but essentially to save them -- mothball them for possible future redevelopment.

The Regal is "a fabulous building," said Margo Warminski of the Cincinnati Preservation Association. "But it was sitting basically with no roof for years."

Stabilization work has focused on "buttoning it up," Warminski said. That includes roof repair, tuck pointing, and some modest interior work, "making sure it's dry and stable so that it can be marketed to a developer."

Warminski serves on a land bank advisory committee that meets quarterly to identify and rank buildings that are candidates for the stabilization program.

The program has mostly flown under the radar. It operates with a "modest fund" of $250,000 a year -- which pays to stabilize the targeted buildings -- out of a total land bank budget of $2.5 million to $3 million, Boggs Muething said. The land bank itself is funded by a percentage of delinquent property tax collections.

Far more attention has focused on the land bank's efforts in freeing foreclosed and abandoned residential properties of liens, delinquent taxes and other obligations so they can be redeveloped; the land bank's residential program targets 14 communities in Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The land bank also has administered $11.1 million allotted to the city and county through the state's Moving Ohio Forward Demolition Grant Program. About $7 million of that went to the city of Cincinnati, which tore down about 330 blighted and abandoned properties in 2013, with more demolitions to come.

"None were saved, even though some of those buildings could have been reused," Warminski said. "And some of them were highly architecturally significant."

The state declined a request from the city and the land bank to make some of the Moving Ohio Forward money available for property rehab, Warminski and Boggs Muething said.

"So we decided we needed to have our own program geared specifically toward historic structures," Boggs Muething said.

Warminski said the Historic Structure Stabilization Program "is an attempt to somewhat level the playing field, to at least give a fighting chance to some historic buildings."

When considering a property for the program, the land bank advisory committee rates it for architectural significance, its contribution to the immediate surroundings, community support for the structure, the likelihood it will soon return to productive use and whether other funding can be leveraged.

Typically, properties in the program are tax-delinquent. Some have been through tax foreclosure. Such was the case with the Regal. After it did not sell at two sheriff's sales, the land bank was able to pull it off the forfeited land list and take ownership.

In other cases, the land bank stabilizes a property through an agreement with the city of Cincinnati. Ed Cunningham, division manager of the city's property maintenance code enforcement, said if a property owner allows a structure to deteriorate but continues paying taxes, the city can declare it a public nuisance. Then the land bank, as the city's agent for making repairs, places a lien on the property for the amount spent on stabilization.

That way, "we can at least be part of the equation when it comes to who is ultimately going to have control over the property," Boggs Muething said.

By working together, the city and land bank are able to "get some properties out of the hands of recalcitrant owners and into the hands (of people) who are going to make them better for our city," Cunningham said.

The land bank's historic stabilization program was modeled after the city's Historic SOS (Stabilization of Structures) program, which began in 2010. Like the land bank program, it operates with a modest budget, about $200,000 a year. It chipped in to stabilize an old firehouse on McMillan Avenue; that building, now being developed into a restaurant, is considered a key to Walnut Hills' revitalization.

As for the Regal, Harshaw is among those who are happy to see the building stabilized, with a chance now to return to its former glory. If not as a theater, then something else.

"That would be outstanding," he said.

It remains to be seen, though, whether a developer will take on a Regal Theater renovation.

"You can't just hand the keys over to any person who comes along. It has to be the right fit," Boggs Muething said.

___

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