Hamilton Statue
Hamilton Statue

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part IV of a 4-part series within the “Rising from Rust” project looking at strategies for success in Hamilton, Ohio and how they could apply to Richland County.

“Learn to think continentally.” Alexander Hamilton said that once.

These words from one of our founding fathers are often interpreted as thinking beyond one’s self. Take the world-view. Break down the parts of a whole.

For the city that bears his name, part of Hamilton’s key to success was realizing that no single entity had the resources to revitalize the community alone. To that end, Hamilton leadership in both the public and private sector meet regularly to work towards a shared vision of success.

“We have a fixed number of assets, and if we’re all in silos trying to solve the problems ourselves, it’s wasting those assets,” said Mike Dingeldein, executive director of Hamilton’s CORE fund – the Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment. “Instead of being in different boats rowing in different directions, we want to be in one boat rowing the same direction.”

That shared vision for Hamilton has a name: Vision 2020, a detailed and coordinated guideline to the decision-making process that will shape Hamilton’s future growth and the development of both natural and built environments. The plan is overseen by a Vision Commission created by Hamilton City Council in 2001.

The benefit of a shared, long-term plan is understood by Mansfield’s Economic Development Director Tim Bowersock.

“I’m a lifelong Richland County resident, so I’m biased, but I also see a lot more good here than what I think a lot of the public perception is of Mansfield and Richland County,” he said. “I think we need to really sit down and develop a good plan for not just the next few years, but beyond that.”

But the buy-in is required by more than just city leadership. According to Dingeldein, a revolutionary idea introduced by Hamilton’s new city manager was that economic development is not the sole responsibility of the city.

“Everybody in the city, every policeman and fireman and private company and small store owner, is responsible for economic development,” Dingeldein said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach, and that was the biggest change for me. It was, ‘I need every one of you to buy in and go down this rabbit hole together.’”

According to the Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC), it’s this kind of civic engagement that is a key to Hamilton’s success.

“There’s a lot of ownership among regular residents about what happens there,” said Torey Hollingsworth, manager of research and policy with GOPC.

“City government has really encouraged a spirit of volunteerism; if you have an idea about how to make Hamilton better they encourage people to take it on instead of looking to the people who are in charge to make things happen. There’s really an opportunity for anybody to make an impact.

“And the small things can contribute to the bigger picture,” she continued. “Quality of life and quality of place is people feeling like their community is cared for and that other people care.”

Building civic capacity.

A shared public- and private-sector vision.

An authentic sense of place.

Rebuilding a strong downtown.

Engaging in community and strategic planning.

Any one of these is a step forward towards revitalizing a community, but there is no one silver-bullet solution. And it’s definitely not instantaneous.

In case studies of legacy cities with the GOPC, some of the strongest legacy cities in the Midwest took 30 to 40 years from deciding to do things differently to the vibrant, inclusive places they are today.

“Frustration can build because it takes a long time,” Hollingsworth said. “It takes a long time even for what looks like the start of something to emerge. And it can be hard to really measure the length of time for these efforts because a lot of the important stuff happens behind the scenes before the first revitalization project happens.”

They also caution that not every city is the same; what works for Hamilton may not be an exact blueprint for success for a Mansfield or a Shelby.

“We don’t like comparing what one is doing and the other is not doing,” Goebel said. “Each city is so unique that it’s important to learn case studies and best practices that are transferrable, and the devil is in the details.

“But we do know generally the different parts that seem to be consistent success factors,” she said. “And developing civic capacity can give momentum, but it has to be momentum towards a goal: A stable, vibrant community people want to be in.”