Ratners take on New York 

Where the public trough is a tempting buffet.

It appears that Cleveland's favorite welfare queens, the Ratners, are up to their old tricks, this time in Brooklyn.

Last week, with rapper Jay-Z and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg by his side, family scion Bruce Ratner unveiled plans for a new neighborhood of shops and condos, all centered on a basketball arena that, if he has his way, will someday house the New Jersey Nets.

The arena's designer would be Frank Gehry, the famed architect who created Case Western Reserve's Peter B. Lewis Building, remembered for coming in $23 million over budget and for almost killing pedestrians with the long icicles that fall from its curved metal roof.

Mimicking the Ratners' Cleveland convention-center plan ("Gravy Train," December 3), the Brooklyn development would be right around the corner from MetroTech Center, the seven-million-square-foot commercial development under construction by Forest City Ratner Companies, the Ratners' New York affiliate. The project can get off the ground only if the Nets accept Bruce Ratner's $275 million offer to buy the team.

But in a line that drew instant chuckles from the vultures in the New York press corps, Ratner said the project "will be almost exclusively privately financed." The word to watch is "almost."

"That will be a promise to keep an eye on as the project progresses," wrote the New York Sun. Yet it appears that it's already being broken. Bloomberg will allow Ratner to take taxes generated by the development's first phases and reinvest them back into the project. "We're truly very excited, and we hope he wins and he brings the team to Brooklyn," says mayoral spokeswoman Jennifer Falk.

Excitement is great, Jennifer. Just watch your purse.

Crushing Grandma
Cleveland history buffs suspect the Cozad-Bates house was an Underground Railroad stop. Its first owner, Justus Cozad, was an active abolitionist back when University Circle was a hotbed of such activity. Though preservationists can't prove that escaped slaves slept there, it nonetheless remains the neighborhood's last pre-Civil War building.

University Hospitals bought the house in 1985. The landlocked institution will most likely use the land to build another tower someday, though administrators won't discuss their plans.

At one point, Councilman Kevin Conwell promised to place the house on Cleveland's register of historic buildings because it "may have played an important role in the history of our ancestors." But incoming UH president Tom Zenty informed Conwell that "if you make saving this house a priority, we won't work with you," says the councilman. So he dropped the issue.

Enter Joan Southgate, a 73-year-old who walked all the way from the Ohio River to Canada last year to retrace the course of the Underground Railroad. Southgate organized a group to save the Cozad house. But UH has been trying to knock her out of the box, too. Company spokeswoman Eileen Korey recently released a statement saying that the hospital was "saddened by the misuse of history by 'preservationists' who incorrectly state that the Cozad house was part of the Underground Railroad."

Though Conwell proved pliant, Korey seems to understand the PR risk in crushing a 73-year-old lady -- at least for the time being. The hospital, says Korey, has agreed "not to demolish the house this year."

Schlock and awe
In what may be a death blow to George W's reelection campaign, high-level sources have revealed that the president's last name is also a euphemism for female genitalia. That startling news comes to us from Babes Against Bush, the formidable Detroit-based political group that has launched a "Lick Bush in '04" campaign.

The drive is centered around a calendar that chronicles our fearless leader's greatest misadventures, as well as featuring pictures of the group's supporters in various stages of barenakedness. While the "babes" are not the kind you'd find in most of your finer gentlemen's periodicals -- some, concede organizers, work in a professional capacity at Detroit strip clubs -- the calendar's been a hot seller, raising "political awareness in the most unlikely of audiences: men whose cultural tastes tend toward centerfolds and the swimsuit issues of magazines," according to the group. And the $12 price tag goes to a worthy cause: regime change in America and strippers.

P.R. for dummies
Last week, Punch called Governor Bob Taft's office to get his response to a report by Stop Prisoner Rape that contends Ohio prison guards are playing a serial game of hide the magic wand with female inmates, while superiors turn a blind eye.

Taft spokesman Orest Holubec, as he's prone to do, responded with a statement straight from The Beginner' s Guide to Public Relations: "The governor does appoint cabinet directors to run agencies," Holubec intoned solemnly, "and he has faith that [Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction] Director [Reginald] Wilkinson is dealing with this issue very seriously."

Perhaps Holubec should have consulted the report before calling Punch back. If he had, he would have found that it spends several paragraphs detailing how Wilkinson doesn't deal with the issue seriously.

Wilkinson "has repeatedly made public statements denying that any problem exists," the report reads, citing an op-ed piece the director wrote for the Cincinnati Enquirer, in which he argued that sexual assault in prison is "highly exaggerated" and based on "disingenuous data."

After Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which makes more money available to prevent sexual assaults, Wilkinson told The Washington Post that the notion of prison rape being commonplace is "a flat-out lie." He also told National Public Radio that the incidence of sexual abuse "is nowhere near what the legislation characterized it to be."

According to statehouse scuttlebutt, Wilkinson will soon be promoted to information minister of Iraq.

Beer food you can use
There's a fire at Ninth and Prospect, but the smell is drawing people into the building. That's because Phil the Fire's Chicken and Waffles has found a home downtown.

Phil's culinary skills have been an East Side phenomenon ever since he began renting out the Civic Center in Cleveland Heights two years ago to serve Sunday brunch. The chow was so popular, people stood in lines that stretched down Mayfield Road to get an all-you-can-eat plate at 20 dollars a head, and the cops had to direct traffic.

If chicken and waffles sounds suspiciously like post-bender food, you're right. Originated at Well's Restaurant in Harlem, where they've been serving the unlikely combination for over 60 years, it was created by barflies who couldn't decide if they wanted to eat breakfast or dinner. Phil's menu clearly states that he doesn't make fast food, but the usually slow service perks up for lunch, offering hearty eating for those who like to start their drinking on the early shift.

Green grass in Summit
All the firefighters and cops on Mayor Jane Campbell's chopping block might consider looking to our neighbor to the south for employment opportunities.

A recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that Summit County ranked 7th out of the nation's 315 largest counties in salary growth. Cuyahoga, by comparison, ranked a puny 112th.

However, the grass isn't all green down in Akron. A look at average weekly pay shows that Cuyahoga still leads Summit, $768 to $704.

Coloring the boardroom blue
Charenton Theatre Company, the people who performed Spoon River Anthology in cemeteries and Lone Star in bars, now has its eyes set on the boardroom.

The troupe is fielding requests to perform Glengarry Glen Ross live -- in your company's conference room, lunchroom, maybe even a sizable restroom.

David Mamet's tale chronicles two nerve-racking days in the lives of real-estate agents on the brink of getting whacked. Originally a hit in London, it also scored as a 1992 film that featured Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, and more blue language than a pipefitters' convention.

"I think it's still in the Library of Congress as having the most uses of the word 'fuck' of any play in the last 50 years," says producing director Mindy Childress, who promises a cursefest of the highest order. "It's not a milquetoast piece."

But surprisingly, some decidedly milquetoast companies -- think of Cleveland's corporate giants -- have already expressed interest in hosting the play, which is scheduled to run four weekends beginning in mid-February. The goal is for 16 performances in 16 different venues. All shows will be free and open to the public.

We're No. 33!
Even board games seem to be plotting against Cleveland. Cranium, the team puzzle game sold at Starbucks and other upscale coffeehouses, set out to determine the most fun cities in America. Frosty Minneapolis came in at No. 1. Cleveland finished 33rd.

But Clevelanders shouldn't feel too deflated. One criterion of fun is the number of toy stores in a metro area; having a game company putting stock in toy retailers is a little like an arsonist choosing a neighborhood for the wood-frame houses. Sports teams, restaurants, dance performances, and recreation budgets were other factors. But gaming tables and cocktail waitresses were not a parameter, explaining why Sacramento finished ahead of Las Vegas.

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