Some people are born to lead, while others spend years cultivating their skills for leadership. Every once in a while, a community leader seems to be a natural balance between the two — like Ryan Messer, the current president of Over-the-Rhine Community Council.
Five years ago, Messer was relatively unknown in Cincinnati. Raised on a farm in southeastern Indiana, he was the first in his family to attend college and then spent his early career working in the Indiana Governor’s office. He joined the pharmaceutical industry in 1997 at Johnson & Johnson, where he remains.
Johnson & Johnson is a company with a strong culture of civic engagement and inclusiveness, Messer says, crediting its proactive leadership training and advancement opportunities with much of his success personally and professionally.
He arrived in Cincinnati in 2001 for work. He spent about five years here, moved for a short time to New Jersey and returned in 2007. When he moved back to the city, he wasn’t just looking for a comfortable place to land.
“I came here the first time kind of by (my company’s) direction and then I came back the second time by choice,” Messer says. “The choice was: This is a place where I feel like a person can make a difference.”
In 2010, Messer and his husband, Jimmy Musuraca, acquired a vacant building across the street from the not-yet-renovated Washington Park. They’re just two of many new, higher-income residents in Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood that had been heavily blighted for decades.
Messer and Musuraca wanted to be a part of a neighborhood that was headed toward viability and on a trajectory toward progress. They moved here to be a part of and to influence its future.
Civic engagement, Messer says, has been modeled for him throughout his life — first by his parents, who didn’t have a lot of money but were politically active, and later by an older couple he affectionately refers to only as “Ian and Ambrose.” During his formative adolescence and early twenties, the couple modeled volunteerism, community service, cultural philanthropy and grassroots organizing.
Following suit, Messer’s community involvement in Cincinnati stretches region-wide and spans organizations such as STOP AIDS, Caracole
, the Human Rights Campaign
and Cincinnati Opera
, where he’s currently on the Board of Trustees. He’s also participated in the Cincinnati Regional Chamber’s C-Change
and Leadership Cincinnati
programs. After serving as vice president of Over-the-Rhine Community Council (OTRCC), Messer was elected as the Community Council President earlier this year.
Despite his significant community involvement, however, it wasn’t until a new mayor threatened to cancel the city's controversial streetcar project that Messer stepped into the political spotlight in Cincinnati.
‘Believe in Cincinnati’ saves the streetcar
Messer is most often associated publicly with the 2013 grassroots political movement Believe in Cincinnati
. The group mobilized thousands of city residents to save the streetcar project from cancellation at the hands of Mayor-Elect John Cranley, who campaigned against the project.
The Believe in Cincinnati campaign was successful. The streetcar continues on its journey to fruition, and the expertly organized campaign brought our city into the national spotlight
, especially in urbanist circles
where transit issues are a hot topic.
Those who know Messer solely as the face of the Cincinnati streetcar project, though, sell him short. The threat of losing the streetcar may have been the catalyst for launching Believe in Cincinnati, but the movement it birthed was larger than one single ballot issue or transportation method.
What motivated so many residents to participate, according to Messer, was the way their new mayor openly discredited the votes of residents who had already approved the project twice in previous elections. Stopping the project now was “an attack on the path that Cincinnati was on,” Messer says. Believe in Cincinnati, he says, was a public cry that “we are better than that as a city. You can’t just wipe away this excitement and this forward-thinking trajectory so flippantly.”
When it came time for press interviews and public speeches, Messer’s level-headed communication style made him a natural choice for the spotlight. Having him as the front man was fortunate for both the campaign and for Messer himself, as it gave the streetcar its personal touch and provided Messer an issue he could really dig into.
An Over-the-Rhine with Messer at the helm
Over-the-Rhine is a historically-significant downtown neighborhood where economic and racial tensions seem consistently high, especially as recent developments make it an attractive locale for new businesses and residents. Debates about gentrification continue as some older and low-income residents (many of whom are African American) feel their lifestyle and housing opportunities increasingly threatened by the presence of new, higher-income residents like Messer (many of whom are white). With the streetcar project now well on its way
and Believe in Cincinnati functionally pocketed for a season, Messer is bringing the same enthusiasm that saved the streetcar to his role as OTRCC president.
But how does a successful sales manager lead residents in such a diverse part of our city? What does Messer have to offer this alternately struggling and burgeoning urban neighborhood?
His leadership abilities may be evident, but some other stakeholders in Over-the-Rhine are concerned about Messer’s ability to speak for all residents, not just those like himself. His standard of living, after all, does set him apart from many neighbors. In that regard, however, he makes no apologies for his personal success.
Messer believes that his family history and the farm-bred beginning of his story give him a better perspective on poverty, wealth, hard work and what it takes to build a strong community. He “came from nothing,” he says, and has worked for every penny he has. Also, as a gay man who came out in the '90s when the AIDs epidemic and anti-gay sentiments were at a high, he says his concern for the marginalized has always been paramount — which, he believes, is a marked strength in a diverse community such as OTR.
Thus far, his assumption seems to be correct. Bonnie Neumeier is a long-term resident of OTR, community activist and co-founder of the Peaslee Neighborhood Center
in OTR. As someone with an eye on social and political issues in the neighborhood, she has positive things to say about Messer’s concern for and interest in all OTR residents.
“I felt he was very sincere in wanting input from others as he took on leadership at Over-the-Rhine Community Council,” Neumeier says.
She continues with a warning, though: “I think long-term residents know Ryan has good intentions, (but) good intentions aren’t always good enough. Our neighborhood is being planned and developed by corporate Cincinnati without much real input from the voice of the people who call this home. Can Ryan pull together a diverse neighborhood power base that can challenge corporate interests? It’s possible, but it’s tough.”
Telling the new story of OTR
Does Messer have what it takes to lead Over-the-Rhine into the next phase of its history? It’s still too early to tell, and he knows he has a long road ahead of him.
“I see Over-the-Rhine as an opportunity to start to engage a diverse community differently than we have before,” he says. “There is a great amount of pressure for us as the (OTR) Community Council Board of Trustees because we’ve got to get this right. We have to have (the right) people at the table making decisions about what our future looks like.”
The majority of new residents, he believes, have moved to OTR because they want to be a part of a diverse neighborhood. The key, then, is to open the conversation between all residents — old and new — to work together to create a shared future. “How do we tell the story of the Over-the-Rhine we want to create and then engage and hold people accountable to help make that happen? I think it’s time to put that story together.”
If Messer’s record of collaboration and inclusiveness thus far is any indication, he might turn out to be just what Over-the-Rhine needs to bridge the gap between differing voices and interests in the neighborhood. For example, when he decided to launch a new youth program in Over-the-Rhine, Future Leaders OTR
, Avondale resident and community leader Ozie Davis III
became his closest council. Davis had started a similar program before and, in Messer’s mind, would be (and was) his best resource.
Davis speaks candidly of his relationship to Messer: “We met as he was inquiring about the Avondale Youth Council, and I could tell then he was serious about the future of OTR. Ryan is a bridge builder. His work with OTR youth is just the tip of the iceberg. His attempts to meld old with new are admirable.”
In the same spirit, when issues related to affordable housing rise, Messer has worked as a mediator between residents, 3CDC
(OTR’s primary developer) and the City of Cincinnati — all of whom have worked hard to come to agreeable resolutions. Messer has also helped initiate a neighbors-first hiring standard with local restaurants, which could help boost the earning potential of some of the neighborhood’s lower-income residents.
He’s learned, however, that mediation isn't an easy task. Finding the balance between speaking too much and not enough is difficult and can leave all parties frustrated, he says.
So perhaps Messer’s greatest strength as a leader is his willingness to ask for help, which is something he's learned at Johnson & Johnson. According to Messer, an important element of the “J & J” leadership style is that “it’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know all the answers’ as long as you’re willing to bring in people who do. And I think that’s one of my biggest leadership philosophies. It’s that I’m on a constant quest to learn from as many people as I possibly can about things they know about and are experienced in.
"I want to make sure all the right people are at the table. These seem like basic things, but they’re things I’m not so sure we do much of outside of corporate America. Could we weave some of that into public discourse, policy and the community?”
People have speculated about Messer’s future political aspirations and asked if perhaps a City Council bid (or more) is on his horizon. He has no impending plans and makes no promises regarding a career in politics, saying for now he's focused on and committed to his career, his family and his adopted home of Over-the-Rhine. If all goes according to his plan, he'll be around for long enough to see the area continue to thrive and to watch all of its residents come together to — as he says — “tell the story” of its future.
This weekend's Over-the-Rhine Holiday Home Tour benefits Ryan Messer's new nonprofit, Future Leaders OTR. Tours (which include Messer's home on 14th Street) are available Saturday and Sunday; tickets are available through American Legacy Tours.