A decade post-riot, Cincinnati's image recovering

AP News
Posted: Apr 19, 2011 12:07 PM
A decade post-riot, Cincinnati's image recovering

Mayor Mark Mallory has shown he has some winning pitches for Cincinnati.

Sporting dreadlocks and picking up dead animals on city streets in the CBS reality show "Undercover Boss," appearing with Justin Bieber on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and going on national TV to join in the fun over his remarkably bad ceremonial first pitch at a Cincinnati Reds opener, Mallory has gotten plenty of air time.

All that, he says, has allowed him to promote Cincinnati and help draw in new business and events _ such as an NAACP convention _ that showcased the city's progress in the decade since racial riots brought an unwelcome spotlight and led to a national boycott called by local civil rights activists to exert pressure on police and encourage economic improvements.

The fatal police shooting of an unarmed black youth 10 years ago this month ignited simmering feelings of injustice and several days of angry protests, clashes with police, vandalism and looting.

"There was a perception of the city that had to change," Mallory said in an interview this month. "And one of the ways we change that perception is to be different."

By the time Mallory, a state legislator, became Cincinnati's first directly elected black mayor in late 2005 _ three earlier black mayors were elected through city council voting _ there were signs of better police-community relations under federal monitoring and an effort backed by key business leaders to rebuild the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where the rioting was centered.

The mayor also wanted to build back a convention and tourism industry that lost millions of dollars in business during the boycott, which saw major gatherings such as the National Urban League and Progressive National Baptists pull out and cancellations by entertainers such as Bill Cosby and Wynton Marsalis. From 2001 to 2004, no ethnic-oriented conventions came to Cincinnati.

Mallory set out to convince everyone downtown _ cab drivers, waiters, maids, merchants _ that they had a stake in giving Cincinnati a helpful, hospitable reputation. And he hit the road, joining tourism officials to lobby convention planners or going on TV. The opening day toss in 2007 that flew yards off target soon landed him on Kimmel's late-night show and other national outlets.

"It was embarrassing," Mallory recalled. "But I decided I could laugh at myself and take the opportunity to talk about Cincinnati."

Critics say he should spend more time behind his desk instead of on talk-show couches, as the city faces budget crunches and neighborhood crime concerns linger, although serious crimes have declined since 2005.

Some think he's promoting brand Mallory more than brand Cincinnati.

"In terms of rolling up your sleeves and doing a lot of hard work, I haven't really seen it," said Pete Witte, a veteran community activist. "He's traveling around, he's talking about being the face of the city, but I don't see him saying or doing much on the tough issues."

When debate over a growing budget gap in July 2009 became heated while Mallory was on the road, The Cincinnati Enquirer's editorial page called for him to "come home," saying voters "chose a mayor, not a cheerleader-in-chief."

But Mallory, who was handily re-elected to a second four-year term in November 2009, says that representing Cincinnati is his job, and that he's not going to turn down chances to promote the city, especially on free TV time that would cost millions to buy.

"He gets the city noticed," said Dan Lincoln, CEO of the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau, adding that Mallory does things like showing up to dish up Cincinnati chili _ the city's served-over-spaghetti signature dish _ to the delight of visiting convention organizers.

"He's been very helpful out there pitching these conventions," Lincoln said. "I think what he gets is that it's all about economic impact."

The bureau says convention business has risen some 33 percent in the past six years, for an annual economic impact of nearly $60 million. For black-oriented groups' conventions, it's gone from $1.9 million in 2005 to $6.4 million last year, the bureau says.

The Cincinnati Enquirer last year tracked Mallory's trips for a 17-month period through May 2010 and found he took 18 trips. Eight were at taxpayer expense, costing a total of $9,220. The others were paid by hosting groups such as the National Urban League and Sister Cities International or by economic development promotion funds.

The mayor's travel for TV appearances such as "Jimmy Kimmel Live" is paid for by the shows, his office says.

A key breakthrough was landing the NAACP convention for 2008, bringing more than 8,000 people, including presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain, to Cincinnati. City leaders wooed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People away from Las Vegas in a months-long courtship in 2006. Although the boycott had faded by then, Cincinnati's racial conflict was still on many minds.

"I told them what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," Mallory said. "What happens in Cincinnati will make news."

He also told NAACP representatives that coming to Cincinnati would call attention to racial healing and progress. Hazel Dukes, on the national organization's board of directors, praised Mallory's vigorous efforts.

"Your city (Cincinnati) had been blacklisted," Dukes recalled in an interview. "The mayor came and presented the city's turnaround in such a positive light, and told us his vision for Cincinnati was to be where everyone is welcome."

She said it wound up being one of the NAACP's best conventions, with warm treatment from everyone from the city police to ethnic food vendors.

The city also hosted Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Weekend the last two years, which brought celebrities including Cosby, Harry Belafonte and Muhammad Ali. Cincinnati hosts the League of United Latin American citizens this summer and the World Choir Games in 2012.

Mallory, a Democrat, also points to other recent developments, such as a riverfront project that is attracting new businesses and the openings of new condo buildings in Over-the-Rhine.

But some of his plans for the city now face a Republican-dominated Ohio government and a U.S. House led by John Boehner, the Republican whose base is in northern suburbs. Already, Mallory's streetcar project has run into funding opposition in Columbus this year.

Mallory, whose own name comes up in speculation about potential future statewide or congressional runs, predicts the 2012 elections will go better for Obama and Democrats.

"The pendulum swings both ways," he said.

Meanwhile, in February came the announcement that the National Urban League would meet here in 2014, 11 years after the canceled convention would have been in Cincinnati.

"So that," Mallory said, "means we've come full circle."