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Mansfield vs. Hamilton: An examination of two Midwestern legacy cities

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Part I: Revitalization of legacy cities starts at the core of the community

The cities of Mansfield and Hamilton, Ohio are comparable in every way but one: Hamilton is a thriving legacy city in the Buckeye state. What's the key to their success?

From the outside looking in, the cities of Mansfield and Hamilton, Ohio don’t seem all that different.

Walking down the main stretch of each Rust Belt city, the architectural earmarks are nearly identical. Each has a quirky coffee shop downtown, a small candy shop up the street and a gazebo to anchor the city’s center. Each has a number of repurposed historical buildings downtown, and branch campuses of a nearby major university.

Their origins aren’t so different, either, though only one’s namesake was honored in a Tony-award winning musical. The city of Hamilton was founded in 1794 and named for the U.S. secretary of treasury; Mansfield was founded 14 years later and named for the U.S. surveyor general.

In fact, the two cities are so familiar that Hamilton’s Mike Dingeldein went so far as to call them twins. Coming from a founder of the community-based architecture firm Community Design Alliance (CDA), that’s saying something.

Still, despite so many similarities, only one city is considered to be thriving on paper. According to the Greater Ohio Policy Center, Hamilton is one of the strongest-performing legacy cities in Ohio, consistently gaining population, stabilizing vacancy rates and attracting new businesses.

Which begs the question, what is Hamilton doing right?

Based in Columbus, the Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) is dedicated to answering that question. The organization’s mission is to champion revitalization and sustainable growth in Ohio, tackling issues such as transportation innovation, infrastructure modernization and legacy city regrowth.

In a report released by the GOPC titled “Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities,” the organization outlines eight strategies for success in legacy cities like Hamilton and Mansfield. The strategies include:

• Build civic capacity and talent.

• Encourage a shared public- and private-sector vision.

• Expand opportunities for low-income workers.

• Build on an authentic sense of place.

• Focus regional efforts on rebuilding a strong downtown.

• Engage in community and strategic planning.

• Stabilize distressed neighborhoods.

• Strategically leverage state policies.

Co-authoring the report was Alison Goebel, executive director at GOPC, and Torey Hollingsworth, manager of research and policy. The pair measured a number of metrics from 2000 to 2016 to determine the health of a city itself, including economic factors like workforce participation but also neighborhood indicators like housing values and vacancy rates.

“What is tough to measure but has emerged as something important is looking at the civic infrastructure of a place – the people doing the work to move the city forward,” Hollingsworth said. “How well-connected they are, what vision they have and if they are implementing it.”

Hamilton is highlighted in the report specifically in reference to the second strategy, with the study praising the city’s coordinated effort with its local public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Mansfield was not included in the study.

“Hamilton has a strong civic infrastructure and they’ve worked hard to put that in place,” Hollingsworth said. “The leadership from the public and private sector are all working together, they talk to each other regularly and are working on a shared vision.”

That leadership includes Mike Dingeldein. In addition to founding the Community Design Alliance, Dingeldein also serves as the executive director of Hamilton’s CORE fund – the Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment.

Launched in December 2012, CORE was developed by Hamilton community leaders to combat community disinvestment, and expand economic opportunities for residents. Through CORE, partners pool resources to provide gap financing, residential redevelopment grants and capital for strategic property acquisition.

The initiative got its start in Hamilton with the arrival of a brand-new city manager, Joshua Smith, in 2010. Dingeldein compared Smith’s greenness and “don’t-take-no-for-an-answer” attitude to a young JFK.

“He came to town with a lot of ideas,” Dingeldein said.

Perhaps Smith's most appealing quality was his outsider perspective. A lifelong Hamiltonian by contrast, Dingeldein knew Smith could see potential those native to Hamilton might not recognize.

“The early pioneers in Hamilton’s revitalization were outsiders,” Dingeldein said. “We only saw 60 years of decline. We’ve moved the needle on external image, but internal image was way harder to change, the opinion of ourselves.”

The GOPC pointed to Smith’s arrival as a turning point for Hamilton as well.

“Sometimes there is a little bit of a generational difference that can change things,” Hollingsworth said. “As younger people come into positions of authority who may not remember the ‘good old days’ it can be easier to think about what a different future looks like.

“It’s not always about age, there are people of all ages who are contributing to cities who are changing, but I think not having such a strong tie to the city’s past identity can be what makes a difference.”

Dingeldein and Smith worked together to determine the focus area of CORE, which begins with the central business district of Hamilton and the immediate surrounding areas. The goal was to provide financial resources for qualified residential and commercial real estate properties within Hamilton’s urban core.

“We started manually putting together historic restoration deals, and we realized there was something you could put in a bottle there, you could formalize this approach and create a private, nonprofit development agency that would be the catalyst for these projects.”

A capstone project of CORE came in 2015, when STARTEK – in yet another similarity to Mansfield – chose 150 High St. to create a 682-person call center. The 167,000 square-foot former department store had been vacant since 2009, and now houses STARTEK along with medical offices and a grocery store.

Thanks in large part to CORE, the city of Hamilton has seen $65 million in investments in the past five years. According to Dingeldein, for every dollar invested by the CORE fund, approximately $6 in private investment follows.

"There’s an opportunity right now, maybe a 10-year window, that urban revitalization is fashionable and moving the millennial generation back into urban storefronts is fashionable," Dingeldein said.

"Look at the historic building fabric, what they built and left behind is unbelievably fantastic. It's not Hamilton that created that, it's all over. All of that is here right now and we have an opportunity to tap into that."

Part II: Downtown success feeds economic development

Investing in the success of a downtown can have a positive ripple effect throughout the rest of a community.  

When it comes to revitalizing a city, it’s natural to start at the center and work your way outward.

Yes, downtown development is not the only initiative in the works for CORE, Hamilton’s Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment – according to Executive Director Mike Dingeldein, the organization currently has at least eight initiatives in the works.

However, downtown revitalization has to be first.

“If you don’t start with your downtown, it’s the nucleus,” Dingeldein said. “Our downtown revitalization changed the entire 60,000-person population’s opinion on everything. They realize now the city’s credibility is off the charts.”

The city of Mansfield has taken a page from Hamilton’s book with a new motor vehicle registration fee that will generate funds directly towards downtown improvements. The legislation passed at Mansfield City Council on May 15.

The idea behind creating a fund specifically for downtown Mansfield development came from a group of 15 local people traveling to Austin, Texas for the city’s annual South By Southwest conference in March. The trip was sponsored by the Richland County Foundation, with the goal of infusing new energy into local revitalization efforts.

“Their single charge is to come back to the community foundation by the end of this year with an investment strategy to improve downtown,” said Brady Groves, president of the Foundation.

The $5 increase in registration fees is estimated to generate $220,000 per year over the next 12 years. A newly-formed advisory committee will guide strategic thinking and provide recommendations for use of the funds.

In addition, the city will have the ability to leverage the funding to apply for competitive state and federal grants and generate even more dollars towards downtown development.

“Downtown should, and can be, a very thriving area,” said Mansfield Mayor Tim Theaker. “So if you can make improvements that keeps it safe and brings more businesses and people downtown, that’s what you need to do.”

Bringing businesses is the sole focus of Tim Bowersock, Mansfield’s economic development director. Bowersock is officially responsible for industrial retention, expansion and relocation efforts, as well as establishing economic development programs and marketing plans.

When a new business is thinking about coming to Mansfield, Bowersock is one of their first contacts. Usually that comes in the form of a request for information that resembles a book.

“And when we get these leads, they want a response within two or three days,” Bowersock said. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything, they just want all that information to start weeding out who they want to see.”

Typically that information includes workforce availability, affordability of land, infrastructure and utilities, and access to transportation if needed. Quality of life also comes into play, which according to Bowersock can mean anything from good schools, good healthcare availability and low crime rates, to access to food, entertainment and shopping.

But more often than not, site consultants for larger companies learn the most by immersing themselves in everyday life.

“They’ll eat at restaurants, not necessarily with us, and they’ll just sit there and talk to people,” Bowersock said. “You can get a lot of knowledge sitting in a restaurant talking to the help or the guy sitting next to you, and sometimes that can make or break a project.”

While Bowersock focuses heavily on economic development, he realizes that community development goes hand-in-hand with his responsibilities. For example, if there are no jobs, there is no one to buy houses, and a community's housing stock starts to deteriorate.

“If you don’t have quality of place – quality housing, retail, restaurants – then it’s very hard for a company looking at the area to want to open up here,” Bowersock said. “They have to ask, are we going to take care of their people and have the amenities they need to be a happy employee?"

 Part III: Parallel priorities of placemaking versus profits 

The city of Hamilton has seen success in building quality of place before focusing on economic development, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

When it comes to revitalizing a city, workforce training and attracting new businesses is a must. Community growth and beautification is also a must.

But it creates a sort of chicken-and-egg situation: Which comes first, quality of place or economic development?

In Hamilton, creating a place where people actually want to be has been a priority for at least the past decade. In turn, the city has seen increasing property values, enhancements in physical aesthetics and a rejuvenated economy.

“Quality of life investment has the highest return on investment, and the lowest motivation for the private sector to invest in,” said Mike Dingeldein, executive director of Hamilton’s CORE fund – the Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment. “But every quality of life investment we’ve made has been a catalyst to a huge private investment.

“It’s been surprising that the things people say are the city’s job – to build parks, improve streets and improve facades – they’re not breaking even yet, but they’re making everybody else jump in. We’re getting huge new projects on the private side.”

“Placemaking” is moving higher on the priority list for many cities. A city needs businesses, which need to attract talent, but talented people must also be attracted to the city itself.

According to Allison Goebel, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC), placemaking is a new focus of South Bend, Indiana after its city government created a department specifically for that purpose. One initiative pursued by South Bend was investing in sidewalks and bike lanes.

“Communities focused on improving quality of life for their existing residents also build up the community’s muscle to confront challenges and take advantage of opportunities,” Goebel said. “That doesn’t mean they’re suddenly problem-free, but they are on the path towards having a stronger community.”

However, the two factors are so intricately linked it’s hard to say which is most important. Mansfield’s Economic Development Director Tim Bowersock said he could – and has – attended 10 different workshops and seminars debating the merits of both approaches, and heard 10 different answers.

“Personally I think it’s my side of things, but that’s kind of biased,” he said with a laugh. “Without jobs, it’s really hard to convince contractors to build, retailers to locate here, and so forth.”

In Shelby, Bowersock’s approach wins out as the city prepares to fund a dedicated economic development program, including hiring a dedicated economic development director.

“Unless we have revenue coming in, we can’t improve,” reasoned Jake Penwell, treasurer of Shelby’s Community Improvement Corporation.

“As you develop more industry, more people contributing at high-skill, high-wage jobs, you can afford other things along the way. And that allows us the avenue to drive towards community improvement as well.”

Penwell serves as a member of the corporation’s “Path Forward” committee along with Cody Albert, Carrie Kemerer and CIC President Greg Timberlake. The committee was formed to set an agenda to keep Shelby and the CIC moving forward, and meets weekly to further their goals.

“We’re trusted to lead, and have been doing that,” Timberlake said. “It’s an expression of it’s time to move, it’s time to go somewhere, and the only place to go is forward.”

The city of Shelby partnered with CIC to hire the Montrose Group, an economic development planning service, to create an economic development study for Shelby and provide recommendations moving forward. The CIC presented the study to Shelby City Council in July 2017.

It is the mission of CIC – a mixture of mayoral appointments and private citizens representing businesses and organization in Shelby – to promote economic and industrial development in the city.

Lack of economic development in Shelby was identified by the Montrose Group and the CIC as the most tangible opportunity for improvement in the city. Shelby hasn’t had a dedicated community and economic development coordinator since 2015.

“We have to put a stronger emphasis on economic development because we have no strong voice fighting for the city,” Penwell said. “It’s not to say other people weren’t providing support, but there’s only so much they can do. That’s where the Montrose Group came in.”

The study published by the Montrose Group recommended Shelby partner with an economic development organization – in this case, the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce – to fund a dedicated economic development effort and program.

In an ideal world, Shelby’s economic development coordinator would function exactly how Bowersock’s position functions for the city of Mansfield: attraction of new businesses, and retention and expansion of current businesses. The position’s partnership with the city is a necessary factor, as well.

“The city in general has to support new businesses, you have to have clarity around that,” Timberlake said. “We need to clean up our awareness of utility costs, put all that into marketable format, and bring in more jobs, better-paying jobs, more businesses, and a clear marketing plan for the city. Within 10 years, I would want to see positive change in the downtown vibrancy.”

The CIC’s connection with the city of Shelby is an important part of their model. Collaboration between the private and public sectors is vital in moving the city forward, according to Penwell.

“As we talk about our economic development plan, it calls for public-private collaboration,” Penwell said. “By being forced through our bylaws to be public-private, its made those relationships easier.”

Collaboration at the regional level is also vital to the city’s economic development plan, and a bit of a challenge. As Richland County’s northernmost city, nearly 20 miles from the city of Mansfield, Shelby often has the impression of being its own island.

“There was a perception, whether real or not, that by Shelby wanting to do so much alone we were not building synergies that could help us do more,” Timberlake said. “We need each other, badly, because no group can build a good future on its own. It’ll fall apart.”

Part IV: Civic engagement key to shared vision for success 

Developing civic capacity can create momentum towards a shared goal for a city, which should be to create a stable, vibrant community people are proud to live in. 

“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.”

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