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News: Square Not Hip

Young professionals look beyond Fountain Square project to improve Cincinnati

By Jay Antenen · July 28th, 2004 · News
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Bold Fusion brought together 350 young professionals July 23 to network with each other and local business leaders, who got an earful about what the
Cameron Knight

Bold Fusion brought together 350 young professionals July 23 to network with each other and local business leaders, who got an earful about what the "creative class" sees as Cincinnati's priorities.



Young professionals and members of the "creative class" have a simple message for downtown developers: Build us grocery stores, unique boutiques and useful public transportation -- not a spruced-up Fountain Square.

A sold-out audience of 350 young professionals gathered at Paul Brown Stadium to discuss the future of Cincinnati in a series of panel discussions and audience feedback sessions at the first annual Bold Fusion Young Professionals Summit July 23.

The five-hour event, sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the University of Cincinnati, brought together young professionals, business leaders and downtown development officials for what was billed by the Chamber as a day for young professionals to have their say with "the crowd with clout."

While the tone of the event was primarily positive, some members of the audience directly criticized the plans of development officials Stephen Leeper, president of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC), and Laura Long, executive director of the Cincinnati Business Committee, the influential organization of local corporate CEOs.

In an anonymous poll taken during the conference, only 10 percent of respondents reported that rebuilding Fountain Square should be the city's top priority. Still, Long told the audience that the proposed Fountain Square project had to be finished before a revitalization of Over-the-Rhine and completion of The Banks riverfront development.

"You have to understand that there is an hierarchy of economic development," Long said. "And it is about how cities make money and where they make money first. The heart has to be restored correctly to rebuild the city's tax base.

Young professionals and members of the "creative class" have a simple message for downtown developers: Build us grocery stores, unique boutiques and useful public transportation -- not a spruced-up Fountain Square.

A sold-out audience of 350 young professionals gathered at Paul Brown Stadium to discuss the future of Cincinnati in a series of panel discussions and audience feedback sessions at the first annual Bold Fusion Young Professionals Summit July 23.

The five-hour event, sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the University of Cincinnati, brought together young professionals, business leaders and downtown development officials for what was billed by the Chamber as a day for young professionals to have their say with "the crowd with clout."

While the tone of the event was primarily positive, some members of the audience directly criticized the plans of development officials Stephen Leeper, president of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp.

(3CDC), and Laura Long, executive director of the Cincinnati Business Committee, the influential organization of local corporate CEOs.

In an anonymous poll taken during the conference, only 10 percent of respondents reported that rebuilding Fountain Square should be the city's top priority. Still, Long told the audience that the proposed Fountain Square project had to be finished before a revitalization of Over-the-Rhine and completion of The Banks riverfront development.

"You have to understand that there is an hierarchy of economic development," Long said. "And it is about how cities make money and where they make money first. ... The heart has to be restored correctly to rebuild the city's tax base. It is about strong market comparables, and if we don't build market comparables starting with Fountain Square where the retail base is, where the corporate base is, we won't be successful."

Leeper said area residents need to understand that a revitalized downtown will not serve all of them.

"We cannot make downtown serve everybody, although it is everybody's central business district," he said. "I think what we do is say, 'We should do this but don't do Fountain Square because we should do The Banks' or 'We should get boutiques but we shouldn't worry about restaurants.' I think we need to worry about everything."

The majority of the audience didn't appear to agree with Long and Leeper.

Mixed communication
Nick Spencer, founder of Cincinnati Tomorrow and a Charter Committee candidate for city council last year, said developers need to go back to the drawing board.

"The numbers don't lie," Spencer said as the crowd gave him a round of applause. "We don't want Fountain Square. It's not where we want you to put our tax dollars."

At the end of the event, while other attendees mingled across the room at the bar, Leeper spoke to Spencer and reportedly told him, "I should've known you were a disciple of Richard Florida, a guy who never got a thing right in his life."

Spencer says he responded by calling Leeper a "hack."

Florida was an economic development professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh when he wrote the best-selling book The Rise of the Creative Class, which has been cited repeatedly by local business and political leaders who are trying to attract and retain young professionals in Cincinnati. University of Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher mentioned Florida and his book in her keynote address at Bold Fusion.

Florida often was critical of large-scale development projects in Pittsburgh -- new stadiums and convention center -- that Leeper headed before he came to the 3CDC position.

In a telephone interview, Spencer confirmed his conversation with Leeper and said he thought Long and Leeper came across at the event as arrogant and condescending. He added that he believes developers listen to corporate CEOs rather than young professionals.

"What is interesting to me is, when you have business leaders and the Chamber going on and on about how important the creative class is to the city, those people are not being listened to in terms of what they want," Spencer said. "I don't understand that."

Bill Donabedian, co-founder of the MidPoint Music Festival and discussion panelist at Bold Fusion, agreed with Spencer. He said at the conference that local corporations need to offer more financial support for the already thriving local music and theater scene -- amenities that Florida identified as helping members of the creative class decide where they want to live.

"Corporate Cincinnati needs to change," Donabedian said. "Corporations in town here talk about maintaining young people and trying to get involved in these things, but they really don't support them."

To convince young professionals to move to Cincinnati, Donabedian recommends developers focus on bringing record stores, boutiques and other small businesses to downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

He said in a telephone interview that he's angry that most corporations don't follow through with their claims that they support young professionals in Cincinnati.

"I'm not mad that a company doesn't want to work with me," Donabedian said. "My problem is that (corporations) talk about appealing to young professionals, but if you ask them what are they doing they'll talk about events they've always done. They aren't changing. They aren't doing anything new."

Long explained in a telephone interview that the primary goal of the Fountain Square project is to rebuild the city's tax base so there's more capital for future development such as The Banks. The square has to come first, she said, for economic and social capital reasons, but it's just the beginning.

"Rebuilding the tax base is one of the hardest things," Long said at Bold Fusion. "The question is how do we stay alive and make money."

When the Fountain Square project is complete, Long envisions a downtown with layered development appealing to a wide range of people and age groups -- not just young professionals.

As for the conference and criticism directed toward developers, Long said she learned valuable information on the preferences of young professionals. She also pointed out a benefit for YPs in Cincinnati: a low cost of living.

"Living in New York or Chicago comes with a high price," she said.

Fix the conservative image
The July 23 event wasn't just limited to arguments over development. Audience members said Cincinnati's culture needs to become more inclusive and welcoming before more young professionals will move to the area.

A poll conducted at the event found that 54 percent of audience members believe repealing Article 12, Cincinnati's anti-gay charter amendment, would help fix the city's conservative image.

The conservative nature of the city affects other areas of life as well. Audience members who had recently moved to Cincinnati said they had a hard time adjusting to the area's culture.

"There is a big disconnect between those who are native to Cincinnati and those who are just moving in," said Clara Rice, a staffer at the Playhouse in the Park. "I know personally, having never come to Cincinnati until my interview with the Playhouse, seeing four or five people in the first week that I got here asking where I went to high school was a little bit intimidating."

A few audience members also raised concerns that Bold Fusion did not address the issues of race and class.

"If you want to talk about what makes some of the other cities throughout the United States great cities, they have great diversity," said an audience member who didn't give her name. "I don't want to see us ignore that. Even in this room we don't see a true representation of Cincinnati."

Results of the Bold Fusion polling are being compiled by the Chamber and will be posted later this week on its Web site for Young Professionals of Cincinnati USA, ypcincy.com. ©

 
 
 
 

 

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