Janis Overholtser waters and plants flowers at Marcum Park with The Marcum, a mixed use retail and residential complex that is still under construction in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Hamilton, Middletown among Ohio ‘reinvention cities’ getting more attention

The non-partisan Greater Ohio Policy Center, which champions revitalized urban centers, studied Ohio rust-belt cities in 2016 and updated that report last year.

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Columbus has become so big and successful in recent decades that its population and economic booms have been “masking” the many challenges faced by many other Ohio cities, including Cincinnati and Cleveland, which have far more of rust-belt pasts than relatively new Columbus, according to the report “From Akron to Zanesville: How Are Ohio’s Small and Mid-Sized Cities Faring?”

That report argues Ohio’s next governor and lawmakers should not try to adopt one-size-fits-all strategies to help what it calls “legacy cities” with their rust-belt pasts. In some ways, “Reinvention Cities” — the group of rust-belt urban centers with populations between 20,000 and 65,000 — most need help, the group found.

Hamilton and Middletown already have been working on some of the suggestions for ways to improve the Reinvention Cities that the same organization published in recent weeks.

The Reinvention Cities include Hamilton (with 62,366 people in 2014, ranking it Ohio’s 11th biggest city) and Middletown (17th largest in 2014, with 48,527 people). Other Reinvention Cities include Lorain, Springfield, Elyria, Mansfield, Warren, Lima, Marion, Massillon, Xenia, Sandusky, Zanesville, Chillicothe and Portsmouth.

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The Greater Ohio Policy Center separates the Reinvention Cities from the “Large Legacy Cities” of Cleveland and Cincinnati; and the “Mid-Sized Legacy Cities” of Toledo, Akron, Dayton, Canton and Youngstown. Because Columbus lacks a significant rust-belt past, the center considers it a non-legacy city — an entity unto itself in Ohio.

The report examined how cities of various sizes fared since 2000, and also since the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Here were some findings:

  • Population — Columbus gained people before and after the Recession, but large legacies and mid-sized ones lost 10 percent as a group and 5 percent as a group, respectively. Small legacy cities as a group lost less than 5 percent.
  • The small cities, or Reinvention Cities, had the lowest rate of labor-force participation in 2014, at 57.5 percent of those between ages 16 and 62 working.
  • Unemployment rates in the Reinvention Cities were better than the larger cities, as were per-capita income, poverty rate and long-term housing vacancy rates.
  • Median household incomes in the Reinvention Cities were second lowest, at $85,803, ahead of only mid-sized counterparts.

The center in recent weeks issued its vision for the smaller cities it studied, rebranding them Reinvention Cities because they need reinvestment to retool themselves for the future. The center also observed that when an urban center declines, suburban areas around it tend to follow. Center officials offered recommendations for positive change in the cities.

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Among them were “placemaking” programs that make communities more attractive and unique, such as downtown building improvements, use of public art and park upgrades.

Cities have worked to reclaim polluted, formerly industrial “brownfields,” such as the former Champion Paper Mill site, which Hamilton is working to help convert into the giant indoor Spooky Nook at Champion Mill sports complex.

Middletown has agreed to upgrade its sewer infrastructure, another recommendation of the organization.

Middletown Mayor Larry Mulligan supports the group’s profile-raising efforts and advocate for cities.

“I’ve followed the work of Greater Ohio (Policy Center) for a while,” Mulligan said. “This vision statement they’ve put together is really good, and also lines up with what we’re doing at the Ohio Mayors Alliance, which is the 30 largest cities’ mayors.”

MORE: Downtown development, new construction marked Middletown’s 2017

The effort “is really coming together and saying, ‘We have some common issues, common challenges,’” Mulligan said.

The center says one need that remains significant is “workforce training programs that ensure workers have the right set of skills for available local jobs.”

The center also calls for “adequate financial support to build and maintain affordable, safe and adequate housing for families and people of all ages and income, including older adults and children.”

State Rep. Wes Retherford, R-Hamilton, will not return to the Statehouse after a primary defeat, but said he agrees Reinvention Cities could use more help from state government.

“Hamilton has done a really good job in recent years of reinventing themselves and rejuvenating themselves,” he said. “It used to be a factory town — the paper plants, the safe plants, and that kind of stuff — and those things went away. It was rough for a while. Now they’re reinventing themselves as a newer, more modern town.”

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Butler County’s cities “do feel overlooked” by the state, Retherford said. “You’re wedged in between two very large metropolitan areas, in Cincinnati and Dayton, and then on top of that, when people think of job growth, population growth and booms in Butler County, you think of West Chester, because they have I-75 right there.” Given that, the cities “have a tendency to be overlooked a little bit,” he said.

Hamilton City Manager Joshua Smith said many cities are experimenting with ways to create new futures.

“Reinvention Cities like Hamilton have no choice but to change the way we approach our daily work,” he said. “There is no acknowledged blueprint available to follow, in terms of how you take a post-industrial city like Hamilton that was built upon large, heavy manufacturing and rebuild it into a city that is desirable for residents and businesses, while becoming financially sustainable.”

Yet Hamilton has been cited as an example nationally of a city successfully rebuilding itself. Smith said Hamilton’s progress has been accomplished with “a large dose of partnership, innovation, and risk,” many involving non-profit organizations, such as the Hamilton Parks Conservancy, the CORE Fund that has been leading redevelopment of downtown, and the 17Strong neighborhood-building effort.

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Smith agreed with one major policy-center goal: “If the State of Ohio could find ways to assist with grant funding to remediate environmentally damaged properties that already have great transportation and utility infrastructure associated with them, and to rebuild neighborhoods with additional blight funding, there would be a real opportunity to return urbanized areas to a much more productive use,” Smith said.

Mulligan said many of Ohio’s smaller cities are struggling with growth, although “we’re probably, I think, in a better position than some because of being in between Cincinnati and Dayton, in a larger metro area. We’ve got opportunities, but we still have some common issues that we share with some of the smaller cities throughout the state.”

“Our biggest struggle that I hear the most about is roads and infrastructure,” Mulligan said. “That’s certainly changed a whole lot, even on a national basis, with evolution in gas taxes and more fuel-efficient vehicles. The gas taxes aren’t keeping up with the maintenance.”

“More of that’s being directed toward the larger interstates, and that’s fine — that’s where the bulk of the traffic is — but with no great change in the revenue, and increasing costs, that means there’s a smaller piece of the pie to share,” Mulligan said. “So we certainly struggle, like many communities, to keep up with road work, especially up here in the snow belt, where we have a lot of freeze-thaw cycles.”

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