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Rising From Rust

Revitalization of legacy cities starts at the core of the community

  • 4 min to read

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part I 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.

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."

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