Hamilton! Has A Point - But Many Just Don't Get It

Posted: June 29, 1987

HAMILTON! Ohio — National attention is nothing new to this town. We're talking about the erstwhile home of ChemDyne, a toxic-waste dump that made Love Canal look like Lourdes.

In the 1970s, anybody who was anybody in the environmental-catastrophe game knew where Hamilton was, the place just north of Cincinnati with the railroad tracks crossing the main street, so that folks in a hurry - say, to keep poisonous chemicals from seeping into the water table - frequently got stuck in massive traffic jams waiting for 112-car trains to chug by.

ChemDyne is mainly just a bad memory now. The dead fish have long since floated down the Great Miami River, and High Street now boasts its very own underpass, but until a year ago Hamilton's identity was still pretty much grounded in the bad old days. In the last Rand McNally ratings of American cities, Hamilton ranked 202d out of 329.

Which is why the city fathers decided to act. One year ago, by official resolution, Hamilton, Ohio, was redesignated Hamilton! Ohio.

As City Manager Jack Becker had advised the municipal council the previous summer, "There is no law that says a city must have a comma after its name. An exclamation point is used to convey excitement or strong emotion, and that is the way we feel about Hamilton."

What he meant, of course, was "that is the way we feel about Hamilton!" But no matter. In every other respect, he had made his point.

Clearly this was no mere stunt. This wasn't like the harebrained idea Becker's predecessor had during the worst of the ChemDyne mess - to build a fountain in the middle of the river (maybe to distract attention from what was oozing into it). The name change would yield genuine dividends. It would generate publicity, pique the interest of potential new industries and spontaneously boost the sagging morale of the populace.

That was the plan, anyway. One year later, the dividends have yet to cascade in.

Maybe the first bad sign came when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names refused to recognize the change, meaning that the exclamation point won't appear on maps or road signs. "Members of the board agreed that punctuation marks are not part of geographic names," wrote the board's executive secretary, Donald J. Orth. "They saw no reason to consider formally adding such a mark to the name, any more than approving a comma for use after the name, as in Hamilton, Ohio."

This was quite a blow. Subsequently, it also became clear that despite a flurry of national publicity (the mayor even got on the CBS Morning News), millions of businesses across the country continued to not locate in Hamilton!

"We had some leads," Becker says. "We had a mom-and-pop-type hotel that was interested. I think that is still pending."

Meantime, General Motors Corp. decided to close its Hamilton-Fairfield plant, which will cost Hamilton!ians 800 jobs. That development was not exactly a boon to city spirit, the revival of which also has not been quite as thorough as predicted. Of 65 respondents to a Hamilton Journal News poll, 45 expressed reservations about the repunctuating of Hamilton!

"What does Hamilton have besides an underpass - which every city has - high taxes and a lot of chemical waste?" asked Robert J. Wilson. "We don't even have a nice park."

And a man named Ed Brown waxed stunningly metaphoric: "I had a friend who

put a Cadillac hood ornament on his tired old Volkswagen. When he was finished, he had an old tired Volkswagen with a new, shiny hood ornament. It still stalled at every light."

Maybe the most eloquent statement about Hamilton!'s progress is found along its byways. A drive through town reveals all manner of signage incorporating the city's name. There is Hamilton Denture Studio, Hamilton Plaza, Hamilton Vacuum Center, Hamilton Insurance Agency, Hamilton Inn, Hamilton Church of God.

Every one is sans exclamation.

"I hadn't really given it much thought," says Robert Quick of Hamilton Insurance. "I doubt that I'd change it. I don't know that I understand why they did."

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