Despite recession, there are few humbugs in Cincinnati

Ebenezer Scrooge would not have liked Cincinnati. It's not just that Christmas shoppers bustle to and fro in the city's vibrant downtown. Or that, on one busy street corner, a Salvation Army volunteer sings ''Joy to the World'' with a smile that seems to glow with each word.

Simply put, Cincinnati radiates a sense of spirited confidence that Dickens's Scrooge would not have understood.

The recent annual outlook conference of the local Chamber of Commerce produced upbeat predictions for the city's future. At another conference preceding it, out-of-town academics, journalists, and politicians heaped praises on the city for its record of good management and clean government.

In fact, Cincinnati has so much going for it that it lacks a sense of crisis that other large industrial cities are experiencing. And that, some observers suggest, is the problem.

Like other cities in the industrial North, Cincinnati has had a string of tough years. Its population has declined steadily, while the suburbs continue to grow. Some businesses have also moved out or folded completely during the latest recession. Meanwhile, federal funds have shrunk from providing 25.9 cents of each city budget dollar in 1979 to 8.9 cents in 1982, according to Applied Information Resources (AIR), a nonprofit research group.

But Cincinnati has survived better than other cities - partly because of its industrial diversity (the area makes everything from autos to hand lotion), and partly because of its well-managed city government. For example, in 1978, when continued Comprehensive Employment and Training Act funding was in question, the city moved to reduce its dependence on CETA workers. That year, the city employed 1,196 CETA workers - 10 percent of its work force. By 1982, when the federal program was cut drastically, the city had to lay off just 42 CETA employees. St. Louis, by contrast, lost 610, according to AIR.

Virtually everyone agrees that Cincinnati is well managed - too well managed, in a sense, some observers say. An AIR report soon to be released implies that residents of the Queen City need to come out of the castle and take a good look at the cracks in the wall.

The city forecasts a $16.6 million shortfall for next year, a deficit made more acute because the city's reserves have been drawn down from $30 million in the beginning of 1980 to an estimated $7 million by the end of this year.

Essentially, the question these observers raise is whether a well-managed government entity needs to foster a sense of crisis to get something done.

The crisis issue, when raised at a conference here last week sponsored by the Seasongood Good Government Fund, drew mixed responses from politicians and experts on government. But in his large, high-ceilinged office in City Hall, Sylvester Murray, Cincinnati's city manager, is concerned.

''You don't engineer a crisis,'' says Mr. Murray, who is also president of the International City Management Association. But Cincinnati's successful management in the past has ''made it harder to sell the problems'' to residents.

Already, a fight is brewing over $16 million in community-development block grants that will flow to the city next year.

The city manager has backed a proposal to fund a $1.4 million project to provide Cincinnati's downtown with luxury housing units. But the citizen's group in charge of community development recently turned down the proposal, arguing that such a large chunk of money would be better spent for low- and moderate-income housing in the city's neighborhoods.

''We're prepared to push this very strongly,'' says Don Lenz, president of the Neighborhood Development Corporation Association of Cincinnati. ''Things are not going to be so buddy-buddy.''

The fight will probably intensify, he says. ''The Cincinnati style of patience and cooperation is going to face a serious test in the next two years. But we've got a long way to go before it becomes destructive.''

''Cincinnati has a very good record in creative problem-solving,'' says Genevieve Ray, local urban conservator.

''I think it will [do it] again.''

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