EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part III 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.
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.”