CINCINNATI -- Foodies and hipsters throughout the region know how many restaurants, bars and trendy shops have opened in Over-the-Rhine over the past decade.
But the owners of those businesses have rarely reflected the diversity of the historic neighborhood.
A new initiative called Represent aims to change that. The goal of Represent -- which kicked off Monday with a free event near Findlay Market -- is to connect more minority business owners to brick-and-mortar storefronts in Over-the-Rhine.
“Over-the-Rhine is one of the most popular business areas now, especially for folks that want to walk around and go to different bars, restaurants and retail shops. Unfortunately, it has not been very representative of the Cincinnati community so far,” said William Thomas, co-founder and expansion director of MORTAR, a business accelerator for low-income, inner-city entrepreneurs.
“With all this energy that’s being put into Over-the-Rhine right now, I do feel like there’s an opportunity to change that," he said, "and in an ideal world, create the most diverse business district in Cincinnati and create a model that can be shown to the rest of the country.”
Over-the-Rhine community leaders and others with an interest in the neighborhood came up with Represent in a working group that Cincinnati City councilmembers Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman convened. MORTAR and the Over-the-Rhine Chamber are leading the effort along with a committee of representatives from the African American Chamber, 3CDC, Findlay Market, Model Group and Urban Sites.
“When you build a multi-cultural, diverse business district that is also very inclusive so that it feels welcoming to everyone, it builds the identity of a business district that attracts visitors,” said Over-the-Rhine Chamber Executive Director Kelly Adamson. “They can also have amenities that serve our local population that lives here as well.”
Emphasis will be placed on attracting black-owned businesses to the neighborhood. Black entrepreneurs own only about 6 percent of the dozens of businesses in Over-the-Rhine, Adamson said, while the city of Cincinnati’s population is 43 percent black.
“We do need to be a little bit more balanced when it comes to black-owned businesses,” said Taren Kinebrew, whose Sweet Petit Desserts has been open on Race Street for nearly five years. “I don’t understand really why that hasn’t happened already.”
Thomas echoed that sentiment.
“I think it’s something that’s probably past due,” he said.
Thomas stressed that the owners of Over-the-Rhine’s commercial spaces probably will need to change their approach to leasing storefronts to make the initiative work.
New approaches, different results
“It will require some folks and organizations to slow down and potentially reevaluate how we bring new businesses into the mix,” he said. “Over-the-Rhine has become quite expensive. So that may require digging in and figuring out alternative ways to bring in additional funding for some of these businesses or different models to attract new businesses than we have used before.”
The Over-the-Rhine Chamber will be changing its business attraction grant program so that it is specifically aimed at minority business owners, Adamson said. The chamber has had the grant program since 2007 and has given away nearly $500,000 since then.
As Over-the-Rhine has become a more popular place to open a business, the grants have become less necessary to fill empty storefronts, she said. So the chamber decided the money should be used to support Represent instead.
One minority entrepreneur per year could get as much as $20,000 to help open a business in Over-the-Rhine, Adamson said.
The new Cincinnati Access Fund announced earlier this month could help minority entrepreneurs interested in opening in Over-the-Rhine, too, Adamson and Thomas said.
From her perspective, Kinebrew said she hopes to see more black-owned businesses throughout Over-the-Rhine.
“With MORTAR being a representative of African-American entrepreneurship and working with the city, I know that they will fight for it,” she said. “So there is a huge possibility it will happen.”
As aggressive as the effort is, Thomas said it would take time because there are only so many storefront spaces that will be available. But he said he’s optimistic.
“This is an exciting time for Over-the-Rhine and our city, and it’s a chance for us to create this city that a lot of us hope to see,” he said. “A city that we are even more proud of to share with the rest of the world.”
Representatives from the organizations that created Represent and the Cincinnati Access Fund will be part of a kick-off event for the new initiative from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Monday Oct. 8. The event will take place at 101 W. Elder St. near Findlay Market. It is free to attend and open to the public.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been writing about women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for more than 20 years. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.