This city's eco-strategy nets talent, new businesses

'On our way to being the greenest city in Midwest'

HAMILTON, OHIO—Historic architecture in a Midwestern urban core, once condemned and nearly forgotten, restored to airy, open loft space and charming storefronts that attract talented young professionals from around the country.

That may sound like a description of Over-the-Rhine, but it also captures the new realities of Hamilton, Ohio, the second-largest urban area in the Tri-State.

“We have such an incredible urban fabric,” said Hamilton City Manager Joshua A. Smith, the city’s lead cheerleader. “As we continue to re-purpose buildings downtown, we have such a breadth of opportunities.”

Smith, who just turned 40, has no roots in Ohio. Born in Iowa and raised in a half-dozen cities around the country, he came to the state just three and a half years ago. But you’d never guess it from talking to him.

His adopted home built World War II battleships, which put it on Hitler’s list of top 10 American cities to bomb, he said. Mosler safes built within city limits house the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s an incredible history,” Smith said.

Still, it wasn’t simply Hamilton’s history that appealed to him.

“I was especially impressed by the city’s long-standing commitment to innovative and environmentally sustainable energy production,” he said.

‘Greenest City In The Midwest’

Hamilton owns its electric, natural gas, water and water treatment facilities, including the largest hydroelectric power plant on the Ohio River. A second hydroelectric facility, the Meldahl hydroelectric power plant, should be up and running this year.

Public ownership translates into low utility rates, but that’s just the start, said Smith, who moved to Ohio after several years of city administrator work in Wisconsin.

“Having the ability to tell a business that they can be powered by 100 percent renewable energy [by 2015] here in Hamilton is not something that many communities have and for those do, there is often a premium price that goes along with it,” Smith said.

LISTEN: Smith talks about his city’s green advantage.

The two hydroelectric plants alone will make 70 percent of the city’s energy supply “green and clean,” according to Smith.

Smith’s enthusiasm for going “green without a premium” has caught on, said Chief of Staff Brandon Saurber.

“We don’t know of anyone who is quite as far along as we are,” said Saurber, who counts himself as at least a sixth-generation Hamiltonian. “We’re on our way to being the greenest city in the Midwest.”

The Greater Cincinnati Earth Coalition recognized Hamilton with a 2013 Earth Day Environment Award; the city won an environmental stewardship award at the American Municipal Power 2012 conference.

While sustainable energy production dates back decades in Hamilton, Smith’s fresh focus on marketing the city’s environmental perks has a special appeal to new businesses.

The International Economic Development Council gave Hamilton three excellence in economic development awards in 2013. One praised the work in the Mercantile Lofts ; another the renovation of the Hamilton Journal-News building; a third, the renovation of the former opera house, the Robinson-Schwenn building . Those three projects in total cost $12.6 million.

Many Faces Of Sustainability

While Smith works to make the most of Hamilton’s environmental benefits, he said that reinvigorating the city, which has suffered the loss of many long-time manufacturers, will also take an infusion of different kind of green.

“Sustainability, to me, encompasses the traditional ecological sustainability and also includes economic sustainability, social sustainability and efficient city management,” Smith said.

In the past 12 months, the Iowa native has overseen more than $30 million in new business investment in the city of 62,000.

That includes a more than $11 million expansion of the North American headquarters of German auto parts supplier ThyssenKrupp Bilstein and more than $16 million growth at French-based auto parts manufacturer Valeo Climate Control .

The access to affordable, sustainability definitely played a role in landing the expansion of iMFLUX , a wholly owned subsidiary of Procter & Gamble now located in West Chester. Among benefits to lure $50 million in investments and more than 200 jobs in the next three years? One hundred percent renewable energy plus rates 10 percent lower than Duke Energy.

“Our clean energy was what pushed them over the edge,” Smith said.

Changing Perceptions, One Fellow At A Time

Still, Smith didn’t wait for businesses to bring new jobs to Hamilton. After his arrival, he implemented a post-graduate fellowship program to recruit new graduates into city positions.

During the 11-month fellowships, the new graduates live in the Mercantile Lofts, in essence becoming a part of the revival of the city’s core.

“Coming in through the fellowship program was really great,” said Lauren Gersbach, who returned to her hometown after earning Master’s degrees in applied ecology and sustainable development from Indiana University. “It’s been really

successful.”

Three of the six fellows to date have landed full-time, post-fellowship jobs with the city, including Gersbach. Last fall, she became the city’s first sustainability coordinator.

In addition to working with economic development officials, Gersbach works with community members who want to build a greener city. For example, the Hamilton Urban Garden System (HUGS) has helped build 10 community gardens in two years. Plans include farmers’ markets and increased access to locally grown healthy foods.

“There are great things going on in terms of what different neighborhoods and communities are doing,” Gersbach said.

She never expected to find her ideal job so soon after graduate school, much less find it in Hamilton. So far, though, she’s enjoying walking to work and being ingrained in the community.

“It makes me really excited to see what’s going to happen in the next two-and-a-half years,” she said. “Momentum is growing.”

Like other rust belt cities, Hamilton was ripe for major changes, she said. She credits Smith, with his 12-plus-hour work day schedule, for much of the forward momentum.

“He has been a great leader for the city of Hamilton,” she said. “Joshua has brought in lots of fresh perspectives.”

Fully Committed In Work and Life 

When colleagues talk about Smith, they inevitably use words like “intense” and “focused.” But they also inevitably smile.

As he walks past city offices, he jokes with co-workers as they gather for a meeting. One of them has sent him a link to mug shots of another “Joshua Smiths;” it made him blush.

But when he worked through a meeting agenda at the conference room’s smart board, Smith turned all business. He probed one city official for more details about city employees’ feedback and solicited input on how to best to introduce all city workers to new city goals.

Smith’s intensity starts when he gets in the office, usually before 7:30 a.m. until he leaves whatever meetings hold him on call till at least 12, if not 14 or more, hours later.

Evidence of his investment in Hamilton doesn’t stop with his work calendar, though. He bought a house built in 1850 in the city’s oldest neighborhood, German Village, and oversaw the renovation of the entire interior, including two new furnaces and a new water heater.

“I like to restore old stuff,” he said.

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