What is Cincinnati if not a quilt of overlapping neighborhoods and districts, each an entity with its own needs and history?
This question brought together some 80 decision-makers and advocates on March 17, when population decline and other urban issues were addressed at an invitation-only symposium held by the Community Development Corporations Association of Greater Cincinnati.
The State of Community Development symposium sought to raise awareness and build new connections among the area’s 46 nonprofit community-redevelopment associations, city government, real-estate developers and other influential parties.
Patricia Garry, director of the CDCA, said in a phone interview, “Decision-makers and the world at large have not yet gotten how important community-development groups are to maintaining (and) preserving growing cities and what they bring to a region, so (the event) was to tell people, ‘This is what community development is, it’s all good, come help us.’”
What is a community-redevelopment group?
That depends, said Seth Walsh, CDCA project manager. “Community development corporations originally existed and primarily still exist to do housing development within neighborhoods, (but) they’ve evolved now to include and focus on economic development, which you see in Walnut Hills specifically.
“Each community is obviously different, so each community-development corporation forms for a different reason. Walnut Hills formed to revitalize their business district.... Avondale’s formed to really take on some quality-of-life issues there.”
In an 18-minute speech, Mayor John Cranley told attendees he was optimistic about the direction the city is headed, despite the slow pace of improvement in many districts.
“I know many of you are in neighborhoods that are improving but have a long way to go,” he said. “Market forces are slowly but surely moving in our favor.”
“I think we’re 10 years ahead of our competitors — Midwestern cities of similar size and character,” he said, pointing to the successes in Over the Rhine’s revitalization by Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., known as 3CDC, one of the area’s largest community redevelopment groups.
The mayor described cultural shifts, including the nationwide trend of single millennials and middle-class families moving back to urban, walkable neighborhoods, saying these would benefit Cincinnati “only if we meet people half way, only if we provide the kinds of neighborhoods that they want to choose to be in.
“My No. 1 piece of advice would be to (seek) mixed-use development with retail on the first floor,” as a way of creating vibrant urban settings.
Following Cranley, assistant city manager John Juech outlined a plan to fight crime called Pivot, a “place-based strategy” focusing on specific locations where most of the city’s violent crimes occur.
Shaun Bond, a professor of real estate at the University of Cincinnati’s Lindner College of Business, offered a sobering view of challenges Cincinnati faces, beginning with trends in demographics — a decline in population, an aging population — and in economics, primarily job growth that “hasn’t kept up with what’s been taking place nationally.”
“We have to be thinking about innovation,” Bond said, pointing out that the new generations of freelance and contract workers may be working from home, but they want to live in cities large enough that they can network in their continual pursuit of new work — i.e., densely populated, coffee-housed, sidewalk communities.
“You can’t fix a problem if you can’t see it,” said Garry, of the CDCA. “You can’t change the world if you don’t know what it looks like.... We all need to step up and ask for what we need” to make change happen faster. By which she means cutting short the seven years on average it takes to get improvement projects realized.
To this end, in her presentation toward the end of the event, Garry called for a 100-day “blitz”: “You personally can take the lead on this challenge,” she wrote in prepared remarks. “Whether you are a big group or a small group — find a way to make a CDC project happen bigger, better, faster. From now for the next 100 days, let’s see how much of the paradigm we can shift.”