If The Da Vinci Code had been set in Cincinnati, author Dan Brown's sinister secret society, Opus Dei, would be the CBC. The Cincinnati Business Committee has probably launched more conspiracy theories and imaginary plots than Brown's Byzantine novels about the Catholic Church.

But like the real Opus Dei "” an innocent group founded in 1928 to spread the message that God's holiness can be found in everyday life "” the CBC is hardly so sinister. Its purpose is to spread the simple message that Cincinnati can solve its problems when business leaders help.

That "Cincinnatus" ideal explains the CBC. And the CBC explains the soul of Cincinnati the way oil explains Houston and steel explains Pittsburgh. But for 30 years, Cincinnati hardly knew who was in the most powerful club of insiders. So conspiracy theories spread like a virus.

"In the past CBC, those guys would get together and close the door and decide what the city needs,"says current CBC Chairman Tom Williams (pictured). "That was the perception, not the whole reality."

And for most of the late '70s and '80s, it worked. The CBC launched big-picture reforms and commissions that were only possible with the can-do spirit and make-it-happen authority that comes naturally to the CEOs of Procter & Gamble, Kroger and the major banks.

The 1988 Smale Commission (named after P&G CEO John Smale) tackled the city's decaying infrastructure. The 1991 Buenger Commission (Fifth Third boss Clem Buenger) delivered blueprints to remodel Cincinnati Public Schools. CBC leaders did not throw open the doors to public participation, but they were honoring a tradition anchored in local bedrock since Cincinnati was named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the general who abandoned his plow to save Rome in 539 BC, then went back to his farm when the battle was won.

"It started out focused on the core of downtown Cincinnati, with the goal of revitalizing the city," says William Keating, a former judge, councilman and congressman who served two tours on the CBC, as publisher of The Cincinnati Enquirer.

He says the CBC was the go-to group for any civic project. Keating remembers a proposal to raise $6 million in bonds for the Cincinnati Convention Center. "We sat down in a (CBC) meeting, and before we left we had enough support to cover the bond issue.

"When there was a problem, we would get to work on it."

But in the 1990s, the CBC hit a political pothole. A CBC city charter reform for a strong mayor became a referendum on the group, and lost in a landslide. Critics said the CBC was secretive and authoritarian. The NAACP said it had "inordinate power." And Washington Post columnist Neal Peirce said the CBC was an anachronism long abandoned by other cities.

"Somehow, along the way, it became more embroiled in public issues that it should not be involved in," Keating says. "But now it has returned to its original mission, in my opinion."

CBC Executive Director Gary Lindgren agrees: "The CBC is a lot more open and works more collaboratively than in the past.

"Absolutely," Williams says.

Part of that is the changed nature of the world and the city. And part of it is a deliberate goal. "We're more collaborative, more open, more transparent," says Williams, who has chaired the CBC for a year.

In the past, the CBC would announce a plan and politicians saluted. A city manager in the 1990s complained about weekly CBC suggestions that were not entirely optional. Politicians leaned on CBC leadership like a crutch, letting the city's political muscle turn to flab.

When the CBC stepped back after the 1995 election rebuke, the vacuum was painfully apparent. City Hall lost direction and degenerated into a bickering Springer Show. The region lost its rudder and compass.

So what has changed?

Then: The 1977 membership list was dominated by founding families such as Lazarus, Williams, LeBlond, Geier, Lindner and Barrett.

Now: Some of those names are still there "” Williams, Lindner, Barrett "” but many new names are not the usual Blue Chip City names, such as the president of the University of Cincinnati, the CEO of Children's Hospital Medical Center and the president of Ethicon Endo-Surgery.

Then: The CBC was all male, all white, all downtown.

Now: The CBC includes African Americans and women, with members from Blue Ash, Northern Kentucky, and businesses outside the city core.

Then: The CBC included strong manufacturing, such as machine-tool giants Cincinnati Milacron and LeBlond Machine Tool.

Now: The biggest manufacturer is Toyota.

Then: The CBC leaders were described as "patrician," "conservative," "fiercely loyal" to their hometown.

Now: "P&G, the banks, the major corporations are still there, but so much has changed because the city has changed as well,"Williams says. "No doubt the time constraints on CEOs have changed in 35 years. Today they run global companies. The world is faster. The world is busier."

But CBC members without family-tree roots in the region are still fiercely loyal to Cincinnati. "They are still dedicated to prove we can make something happen in this modern age," Williams says.

"A good example is 3CDC," he says. The high-powered group that remodeled Fountain Square and resurrected downtown nightlife ââ"¢¬Å"exists because the private sector decided to step up and do something downtown because we couldn't wait any longer."

The CBC has other ambitious plans:

> Economic development to inject 3CDC-type energy in three critical areas: Madisonville along I-71; the I-75/Mill Creek Corridor and Bond Hill; and Queensgate/Lower Price Hill, which could be developed into a working port, Lindgren says.

> Cincinnati Public Schools is still a CBC priority, with the New Teacher Project to finally tie teacher evaluations to student performance. The teachers' union and superintendent have both publicly supported the CBC New Teacher report "” something almost unheard of 20 years ago. "Education is really viewed by our members as having the biggest impact on our community," Lindgren says.

> The Holy Grail of civic reform: government consolidation. Nobody is saying "metro government" yet. But the CBC has launched a remarkable effort that brought 75 percent of Hamilton County's 50 small communities together to explore shared resources. They are saving taxpayers $2 million per year on fuel and road-salt purchases, and bigger savings are planned by combining emergency communications, tax collections and other services.

Such small steps could pave the way for regional cooperation. "I would hope so," Williams says. "Were balkanized."

Ironically, the new and improved, open and transparent CBC gets little media attention. But the CBC is as strong as it ever was, and Cincinnati is lucky to have it, Keating says.

"The way it is working now is the way it was originally intended to work. The CBC is a very important part of the community and will always be. We need help from the business community and the political community to get things done."

The Catholic Church told readers of Dan Brown's books: "We would like to remind them that The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction, and it is not a reliable source of information on these matters."

The new CBC is no conspiracy either. It's only the kind of civic-minded business leadership most cities would envy. It's an expression of Cincinnati's common-sense, Midwestern code: Building a better city is everyone's business. "