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Leadership in the Queen City: Lessons from Cincinnati

By Alison D. Goebel, Associate Director As part of Leadership Ohio’s Class of 2014, I have been spending one weekend a month in a different Ohio city meeting local leaders and learning about the issues, challenges, and opportunities facing the state.  I have participated in a team-building retreat in Oberlin, learned about state government in Columbus, and explored Ohio’s role in early American history in Marietta (you can read my thoughts on our Marietta trip here).

This month’s Leadership Ohio Class was held in Cincinnati and focused on sustainability and economic development.

View from the Observation Deck of the Carew Tower in Downtown.  Over the Rhine is in the foreground and the Uptown neighborhoods of Clifton and Avondale on the hill.

I have always had soft spot for the Queen City, but the leaders we met and the projects we saw underway bowled me over.   Some lessons I learned from the weekend:

  • Sustainability Conserves Financial Resources: Cincinnati Zoo is the “greenest” zoo in the nation.  While environmental stewardship is a natural interest of the Zoo, their work is also motivated by economics.  The Zoo has experienced a net savings of over $2 million through infrastructure modernizations, such as using pervious pavement and roofs with plants.  Sitting on the top of one of Cincinnati’s many hills, the Zoo now annually diverts over 18 million gallons of water from the city’s wastewater sewers by reducing unnecessary consumption and capturing rain runoff for reuse on the grounds.
  • Transportation Options Appeal to All Sorts of Unexpected People: My husband joined me for an extra night in Cincinnati and we stayed across the river in Covington, KY, because all the rooms in downtown Cincinnati had been booked by country western fans attending a large concert at the Great American Ballpark. (An aside: on principle, we always try to keep our sales tax and bed tax dollars in Ohio, but couldn’t this particular night.)  We took a $1 trolley from Covington to Fountain Square in the heart of downtown Cincinnati.  Joining us on the Trolley were several middle aged couples who were clearly tourists and cowboy booted concertgoers who were running late for their show.  Other riders included a few workers who were getting off their restaurant or hotel shifts and a teenager.  Yes, our late night return trip to Kentucky had its share of inebriated yuppies (perhaps the epitome of ‘choice riders’ of public transit), but the Trolley also had more cowboy booted concertgoers whose farming pickup trucks were parked at our hotel.  Given transportation options, people will take them; public transportation is not an either/or choice.
  • Cross-Sector Collaboration Produces Quality Places that Attract Outside Investment: There is palpable excitement and energy around the major projects underway in the Queen City, namely the ongoing revitalization of the central business district around Fountain Square, and the rebirth of The Banks, Over the Rhine, and the Uptown neighborhoods.

Cincinnati Street Car rails. I speak as an individual, not as a GOPC staffer, when I say I am really excited about the Streetcar.

Free concert at Fountain Square on Saturday night.  Several hundred people danced to the music while the bars and restaurants surrounding the Square were packed with locals and tourists enjoying the weekend.

I met one local leader who now runs a venture capital firm in Cincinnati—he was from Manhattan originally and had been smitten by the city 6 years ago.  Part of his current job is to attract other entrepreneurs and small business owners to locate and stay in Cincinnati.  It sounds like it’s working.

None of the projects underway in Cincinnati—physical or business development—could happen at the scale that they are without significant coordination and collaboration among the private, public, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors.  Cincinnati is still a recovering legacy city and continues to face significant challenges.  But the vision the City has for itself and the steadfast way it is executing this vision demonstrates the outsized gains a community can make when all major institutions are “rowing in the same direction.”

Like many legacy cities, Cincinnati has faced and continues to face serious challenges.  However, my trip to Cincinnati convinced me that the initiatives underway are strengthening the city’s role in restoring prosperity to the region and are significantly contributing to the state’s overall economic future.