The most recent unsuccessful attempt by Mayor Kalb and his cronies in city government to convert the Marting department store into the seat of city government at public expense, and the shyster Mike Mearan’s attempt to cut his Los Angeles absentee landlord client Dr. Singer in on the stick-the-public-with-worthless-property-scam – neither of these crooked deals would have bedeviled Portsmouth for the last six years if it had not been for gambling, or the possibility of legalized gambling, coming to Portsmouth.
The unmarketable Marting building on Chillicothe St. and the worthless Singer property on Washington St. became hot properties only because the city could not hand over the municipal property to the crooked developers and shyster lawyers until a new home could be found for city offices. It was the need to find someplace, anyplace, to move city offices to, as soon as possible, that made these worthless properties have any value. No sucker had been found in the private sector to take the Marting building off the hands of the Marting Foundation, even though a ruse was employed to make it appear there was more traffic on Chillicothe St., near the Marting building. Nobody in the private sector was foolish enough to throw their money away on the Marting building, or on Dr. Singer’s toxic Washington St. building, so Clayton Johnson and the Marting Foundation and Mike Mearan unloaded these worthless structures on the city – in the case of the Marting building for $2 million, in the case of Singer’s property for the delinquent taxes Singer owed on the property and for an IRS write-off he could get after the city put it to public use.
Gambling is the domino that started the chain reaction: lose sight of that and you lose sight of the craze, the casino craze, of the last six years. Some downtown businessmen saw casino gambling as Portsmouth's salvation. "Kevin Johnson, co-owner of the Emporium of Portsmouth," reported the Portsmouth Daily Times in June 2005, "said there are a number of reasons he is supporting legalized casino gambling, including the potential for significant economic development." Analyze the current political impasse without factoring in gambling and you are analyzing nothing but the limits of your own understanding of Portsmouth and why some Portsmouth lawyers are reportedly buying up land across the river, in Kentucky. Gambling explains the deliberate neglect of the Municipal Building over the last ten or fifteen years. Gambling explains the empty Marting department store being unloaded on the taxpayers. Gambling explains the leaking and moldy Adelphia building becoming the proposed site for a Justice Center. Gambling explains what has happened with these buildings, and whatever other unmarketable properties the city might yet try to unload on the taxpayers as a possible site for city buildings. If Singer’s property turns out not to be the site for a new city buildings, the Fifth Third Bank building could become a possibility again. Mearan was at one time floating the Fifth Third as a possible home for city offices. Whether or not Fifth Third is still in the picture, the important point is that, given the scheme that Kalb & Co. have concocted, renovating and restoring the Municipal Building is absolutely out of the question because that would mean the land under it would not become available to developers for gambling-related purposes. That literally is what’s at the bottom of the city’s current political mess. The problem is not the alleged irreparable condition of the Municipal Building but the land, the potential goldmine, under it.
Hatching the Scheme
There are those who criticize Kalb and the city government for having no plan for the city. They are wrong. Kalb and Co. have a plan, or more accurately a scheme, even though they won’t admit it. The scheme is to turn over in a sweetheart deal the land on which the Municipal building currently sits to local developers and lawyers who will make many millions if casino gambling comes to Portsmouth and vicinity. That plan was first hatched more than ten years ago. Kalb said publicly more than once in the past that the municipal land is “prime real estate,” and that a local developer was very interested in it. More recently, he has become more cagey, claiming there is no party in particular interested in the property, just a general interest. He is, of course, protecting the identity or identities of those whose useful tool he is.
What else can we expect from a mayor who is addicted not only to nicotine but to gambling, who drives a city vehicle to Kentucky not only for his smokes but for his lottery tickets, a man who could be a poster child for the harmful effects of prolonged use of marijuana?
It doesn’t really matter how far from downtown the city offices will be as long as the site of the present Municipal Building is torn down to make way for gambling related development. Shawnee State U. could play an important role in helping Portsmouth out of the hole it’s in, but not as long as the university is in control of the kind of characters who have dominated the Board of Trustees for the last quarter of a century. If the trustees, led by George Clayton, could stash the president of Shawnee State university in an unmarketable house a couple of miles away from the downtown campus, at the top of Camelot Drive, where it had to be buttressed to stop it from sliding down the unstable hill, then what’s to stop the low-lifes in city government from erecting a new city building on the Singer property, in no-man’s land, in the shadow of the billowing Osco factory? They would build a city in Timbuktu, just as long as they could move out of the Municipal Building and let the bulldozers and the developers take over.
All claims that the Municipal Building is irreparable must be seen in the light of gambling. All claims that the decrepit Marting building, which is a half century older than the Municipal Building, would be a great place to relocate city offices must be seen in the light of gambling. The U.S. Post Office was built at about the same time and in the same style and of similar materials as the Municipal Building, but nobody claims that it is about to collapse. Nobody has neglected upkeep of the Post Office with the aim of tearing it down to make way for a “Convention Center.” Convention Center! Who the hell is going to come to a convention in Portsmouth? The National Society of Five Dollar Hookers? The Amalgamated Union of Drug Dealers and Crack Heads? The only thing a Portsmouth “Convention Center” would attract is gamblers and a higher class of hookers. Only the incorrigibly foolish expected a $6 million makeover of the Marting building was going to revive downtown Portsmouth when a $38 million dollar bridge to downtown Portsmouth did not. Voters knew that converting the leaky-creaky Marting department store into city offices and into a place to buy a newspaper and a cup of coffee was not going to revive downtown Portsmouth. By a large majority, voters made it clear twice, in elections in May 2006 and November 2008, that they wanted no part of that scheme.
Nobody is going to revive downtown Portsmouth as a retail shopping center. Nobody could in 1980 and nobody could in 2008. We are about to get instead a sprawling non-revenue producing high school athletic complex in downtown Portsmouth on land that Neal Hatcher tried and failed to build a large downtown shopping mall. Let the high school games begin! Hatcher gambled but, playing by rules that are all in his favor, it was the taxpayers who lost, as it will be if casino gambling ever comes to Portsmouth. The risk that has been wrung out of the local economy by and for the few who who have a chokehold on it would be reintroduced, in a distilled form, in casino gambling. The wheels of industry would be replaced by the wheel of fortune, the entrepreneur by the croupier, as I suggested in an earlier posting "Slots and Sluts."
Kalb & Co.’s passion for casinos should be seen in the larger context of the financial crisis that now exists throughout the world as a result of what economist Robert Kutner calls Casino Capitalism, which to escape from creeping socialism has been snowballing ever since the beginning of rampant deregulation during the Reagan administration. Banks and other financial institutions whose names are now notoriously familiar have enticed and tricked the trusting and the desperate, the gullible and the elderly, into living beyond their means by piling up credit card debt and by taking out mortgages on property they couldn’t afford. Thomas Friedman in the NY Times called attention to a Mexican strawberry picker in California who, “with an income of $14,000 and no English, was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $720,000.” Even some of those who had paid off their mortgages and owned their homes free and clear were bamboozled into remortgaging their homes with high-risk, high-interest loans. Peter J. Boyer in the New Yorker recounted the plight of a ninety-year-old African-American widow in Dayton, Ohio, who was talked into remortgaging her home, which she owned free and clear, and who when she couldn’t keep up with the high payments of the new mortgage and faced eviction, tried to shoot herself.
Casino Capitalism in America was not confined to the last twenty years. In his account of his experiences as a bond trader thirty years ago on Wall Street, in the 1980s, Michael Lewis in his book Liar’s Poker chronicled the astonishing greed of the people he worked with and for on Wall Street, and the contempt they had for anyone who made less money than they did. For the last four years in River Vices I have been blogging about similar greedy characters in Portsmouth, and three of them in particular who appear dehumanized by their lust for money, and one of whom, in a story I have heard a number of times, and find not hard to believe considering the man’s reputation, was asked how much money it would take to satisfy him. “There will never be enough money,” he reportedly replied.
The presumption prevails that a business that caters to a human vice, such as gambling, will always have plenty of money and can never go broke. Nevada, the gambling and prostitution capital of America, was once thought to be recession proof. Not any more. Nevada was one of seven states that led the way into the current recession. Nevada led the country per capita in subprime mortgages, which is the financial Russian roulette form of gambling that triggered the current world financial crisis. Las Vegas was hoisted on its own Peppard. ( I am thinking of “The Rabbit Who Ate Las Vegas” episode of the TV Series The A Team, starring George Peppard, in which an otherwise absent-minded professor devises a gambling system to beat the Las Vegas casinos.) What happened in Las Vegas, the gambling, didn’t stay in Las Vegas. It infected the rest of the country, and then it returned to Las Vegas in the form of subprime mortgages. Gambling is a parasitic industry that depends on a non-gambling host for its survival, and on otherwise normal people in surrounding states and regions who actually work for a living. The slice of the pie gets smaller and smaller as more states and localities take the gambling route and fewer and fewer people are gainfully and productively employed. When the whole economy becomes a gamble, when gambling becomes America’s national pastime, with the stock market as its field of dreams, and when Free Market Fundamentalism becomes our financial religion, even Las Vegas became a shit hole to Wall Street plungers.
Getting out of the economic hole that Portsmouth has been sinking into for almost a half century is going to be very hard, and there is no guarantee that it will ever get out of it, but what Portsmouth needs to give up is the illusion of finding prosperity through gambling. (Remember Rev. David Malone’s “City of Prosperity” program, not long before he pleaded for forgiveness for committing adultery with a member of his congregation?) The people of Portsmouth need to replace Malone, Kalb, Albrecht, and Mearan, as they have already recalled or helped forced out Bauer, Caudill, Sydnor, Loper, Mohr, Horner, and now Howard “I’m not really a politician” Baughman. Portsmouth needs to put more honest people in public office and more crooks in jail. It needs to stop the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership from fixing the game.
Above all, Portsmouth needs to stop believing the myths of the past, such as that three evil council members sabotaged "the Mall" back in 1980, and the myths of the present, perpetrated by Art Kuhn at the Portsmouth Daily Times, that a handful of "naysayers" are all that stand in the way of Portsmouth's revival. What Kuhn really can't stand is democracy and free elections in which the "naysayers" outvote him and those who listen to him by overwhelming margins. Portsmouth has got to stop listening to Kuhn's lies and stop gambling with its future.