As Mark Mallory approaches his first anniversary as mayor of Cincinnati, the Tristate business community's verdict on his performance might be best summed up as watchful waiting.

Business-wise, the Mallory administration has been characterized more by promising oratory and behind-the-scenes activity than any front-page blockbuster news. He gets high marks for reaching out to other communities and leaders in the sense of regional cooperation, for making the transition from a legislator to an executive, and for promoting a positive image of the city.

Thus far, though, there's no radical changes, no huge business news to credit t'”or blame on"”the former state senator who beat David Pepper last year in a tough Democratic primary runoff, then cruised in the general election.
Candidate Mallory emphasized economic development. He vowed to be a "hands-on mayor" working directly with businesses, large and small. That approach has been most evident in the surprising relationship he established with Republican County Commissioner Phil Heimlich, and their frequent private meetings about The Banks riverfront development project.

Mallory's ride during his first year in office has been bumpy at times. In March, after just three months in office, a rift with City Council members over The Banks prompted Mallory himself to declare "the honeymoon is over."
Then Mallory got the man he wanted as city manager, Milton Dohoney Jr., despite protests about the process. In September, as the city's homicide rate pushed toward a possible record, Mallory stood by the side of Police Chief Thomas Streicher when he declared Cincinnati to be safer than most U.S. cities. The public backlash stung Streicher more than the mayor, but Mallory has had plenty of other distractions, from criticism over his police bodyguard to allegations of scandal involving his brother, Dale, who was seeking election to the same seat in the Ohio House of Representatives that their father, William, held for 28 years.

The Mallory administration's toughest 2006 test is just ahead: getting a two-year budget passed in the face of a looming $28 million deficit. The new city manager works up the numbers, then Mallory presents the budget to City Council, which has to adopt it by the end of December. And it has to be balanced, even though some council members want more money for public safety, Mallory wants to spend more in other areas, and the city manager is warning that past cuts are compromising the effectiveness of key city services.

Business leaders are watching this closely. "The budget is any administration's most telling policy statement," observes Doug Moorman, vice president for government affairs at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. "Any government budget decision is about the allocation of disappointment."

Laura Long, executive director of the Cincinnati Business Committee, agrees. "I think the challenge for both the mayor and City Council and the city itself is how do we increase the city's revenue base, and at the same time we do not increase taxes and have a significant improvement in the quality of life for everyone?"

None of this seems to disturb the air of tranquility that surrounds Mark Mallory. Tall, wiry, always dressed like he just escaped from a GQ fashion shoot, he's the model of a modern politician. But the next time you see Mr. Mayor, fix your eyes on the tiny ring adorning his left pinky. It's a stress ring.

The idea is that when you're stressed, you spin this small ring-within-a-ring. It's supposed to restore your sense of inner balance. By his own admission, Mallory spins it "all the time."

He's not imperious or caustic, or given to negativity. He can match any politician word-for-word when he starts talking about education, or taxes, or crime"”or business.

"We have to make it clear that Cincinnati's open for business," he insists in a Cincy Business interview in his office. "We have to make that clear to people who want to come here to do business. We have to make that clear to our citizens who need to interact at some level with our 7,000 employees, whether it's the sanitation worker or a permitting office or some area of customer service."

Mallory seems to prefer, however, talking about details that could put even the most enlightened electorate to sleep. He could chat for hours on end about management, theories of government and long-term planning"”insisting these are subjects that mayors need to pay attention to.

Prior to 1999, the top vote-getter in City Council elections was designated mayor. It was mostly a ceremonial position. Voters passed an amendment to the City Charter, creating a so-called "strong mayor," who is directly elected. Technically, it's a "stronger" mayor, but without powers granted to CEOs of some other cities. Article III now says the mayor shall appoint a city manager, and a council member as vice mayor, and council committee chairs. He sets the legislative calendar and can veto council legislation (and council can override a mayoral veto with six votes).
"It's a pretty short section," Mallory observes, then switches from being the details man to the big-picture leader. "The role has got to be much bigger than that," he insists. "The role has got to be that of a visionary. The role's got to be of a facilitator. Of a motivator. Of a convener."

On the plus side of Mallory's ledger is GO Cincinnati (with GO being an acronym for Growth and Opportunity). Announced in September, this public-private group"”called both a "commission" and a "team""”is supposed to assemble "a comprehensive economic growth strategy" for the city. GO Cincinnati will be chaired by city Councilman Chris Bortz and Ellen van der Horst, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. The group is supposed to deliver a comprehensive strategy by May 2007.

Laura Long of the CBC says this is an example of "the good things coming out of City Hall." The CBC has been advocating for an economic growth strategy for two years, she says. "A true economic business plan is essential."
Chairing the Economic Development Committee in his first term on City Council, and member of a family well known for its involvement in local politics and real estate development, Bortz says he hoped to see GO Cincinnati launched in January, and understands those who feel it took too long. "I feel their pain," he admits. "[The delay] was enormously frustrating. But we got it going, and it's now on the right path."

What kind of actions would Mallory embrace? He's not enthusiastic about incentives such as tax breaks to entice or keep businesses, but admits they can be "worthwhile tools" in certain situations. "I think there are times when you have to do it. If the option is to give a tax incentive or watch XYZ corporation go somewhere else and take 1,500 jobs, then I think you have to take a very strong look."

But incentives should be viewed as investments, not handouts. "It's all about what you're getting in return," he explains. "If a company has guaranteed that it will maintain a staff of so many employees, you have to make sure they do. Or if they assure you that they would maintain their headquarters in the city for five years, make sure they did."

He's far more enthusiastic about the concept of "continuous improvement." In management terms"”and understand that everything is in management terms with Mark Mallory"”it's not just about, oh, fixing a dysfunctional city department. It's about fixing it, monitoring it, assessing it and then"”if need be"”tweaking it again. And again.

The mayor offers an analogy. "I would direct people to their cell phones. The moment you realize your cell phone is not as functional as you need it to be, you go get a new one. Unfortunately, people have a hard time applying that same philosophy in government. If you have implemented something for a year or two years and it's not working, it's hard to walk away from that because well, we just did it. Too bad. If it's not working, you have to change it."

With continuous improvement in mind, Mallory endorsed the City Hall Works initiative pressed by another rookie councilman, Democrat Jeff Berding. The goal is to improve the quality, reliability and efficiency of city services, with improved customer satisfaction. The advisory committee, chaired by Berding and including business representatives, analyzed a performance audit conducted by an outside consultant, and is supposed to finish its mission in December.

Another task that will say much about the Mallory administration's business outlook is the choice of a new director of economic development. Chad Munitz left the post this summer to work for 3CDC, and acting Director Mark McKillip announced his retirement in November.

Although Mallory likes to talk about management, he says he wasn't elected to micromanage. "The mayor's job is to set forth a vision and a plan for this region that goes far beyond your term," says Mallory. "I look back 100, 150 years in time, and those people were planning. They said we need a dedicated music hall, they built great businesses and they built great industry. They built great neighborhoods, they built great educational institutions, institutions of medicine. They were thinking down the line."

That's why Mallory often returns to education. When the Strive education initiative was announced this summer, he stood tall on the Purple People Bridge with the mayors of Covington and Newport, the city school superintendents, college presidents and business leaders. The idea and the event were perfect for a politician who embraces regional collaboration and believes education at the root of municipal health.

"If we really get the investment in education right and turn out well-educated, well-trained workers, they not only will work for our businesses, but they will create business," he believes. "They will become innovators. Those are the things that set you on a healthy course. That goes beyond building a casino here or wherever."

Mallory understands the important of how people perceive his city. "For me," he says, "it really is about atmosphere. It's about the sense or feeling that people have about downtown. Yes, we've got to make sure that our downtown is safe, but also that it is perceived to be safe. There's a huge difference."

He wants to be seen not just as a leader, but also as an urban consumer. "So I do all that I can to involve myself in things that are going on downtown. Friday and Saturday nights I go to places downtown, just sort of run around and see what's happening. People freak out"”'The mayor's here, I can't believe the mayor's here.' I go, 'Well, yeah'."
Bar-hopping? Theater-going? Dining out? It sounds more like public relations than municipal planning. But Mallory is insistent. What people see is key to what they think.

"PR is a huge part of rebuilding downtown," says Mallory unapologetically. "And I can be an important part of that PR."

What about the personal values that drive Mark Mallory? He often mentions how people"”and corporations"”must be accountable for their actions.

"It was mom who drilled into our heads this concept of personal responsibility, that you were required to work, that you were required to achieve," he reflects, noting how her lessons were rooted in daily experience. "We used to get our chores on Saturdays, lists of things that we had to do. If you went through the list too fast, that meant you weren't comprehensive enough in what you did."