COLUMBUS (TDB) -- Looking back, it now appears that legislators were misled. Former Gov. Bob Taft's administration convinced state lawmakers to spend $4.15 million on Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center by pledging the museum would create more than 1,000 jobs. In fact, Taft budget director Tom Johnson testified in 2005 there would be 1,404 jobs -- something that does not seem to have happened.
[UPDATE: 7:30 AM 1/17/08 -- Today's Cincinnati Enquirer notes that the Freedom Center drew 160,000 visitors last year, which it describes as about the same total as 2006. If the newspaper is correct, the Freedom Center draws about 60% of the visitors projected when state financial aid was sought (see below). And 50,000 of the annual visitors are school kids bused in for tours. The lackluster attendance numbers reported by the Enquirer suggest the museum may not even be meeting the original mission that was set down for it merely as a cultural and historical attraction. Clearly, there are questions about whether it was oversold as an economic development engine for Cincinnati, a city that needs jobs and has one of the nation's highest poverty rates for its residents.]
Recent data published by the Butler County Economic Development Department listed the Cincinnati-Dayton area's 50 largest employers. The Freedom Center is not on the list. But based on what legislators were told, it should be on the list. Tied for No. 48/49 on the list are Toyota, which has 1,400 employees at its North American headquarters in Erlanger, and Cox-Ohio Publishing, which owns the Dayton Daily News and other SW Ohio newspapers. Toyota and Cox each have 1,400 workers. 50th belongs to the VA Medical Center in Dayton, with 1,382 workers.
Clearly, the Freedom Center does not have anywhere near as many employees as Toyota or the Daily News; the exact size of its payroll is not public. Johnson's testimony is available on the State of Ohio's website -- click here and check page 9.
He asked lawmakers for "$4.15 million for the Freedom Center that will be responsible for 1,404 jobs. The Freedom Center is expected to attract more than 261,000 visitors annually, who will generate $12.4 million economic benefits to the region. But the economic and job benefits are not limited to Hamilton County alone. Half of Ohio counties have one or more communities with Underground Railroad sites. It is projected that Underground Railroad tourism for these communities will increase from $3 million to $7.5 million by 2007, in large part because of the presence and support of the Freedom Center."
The list of the Cincinnati-Dayton area's largest employers is here. In all, the state has appropriated $14.65 million for the Freedom Center, which cost $110 million to build on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati. The museum now is seeking $1 million from Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials for development rights so another riverfront project -- The Banks -- can be built on property the Freedom Center controls. The land was given to the museum by the city and county.