Ten Things To Watch in 2011

Hotels, revitalized retail and the elusive grocery store blossom in downtown. Light rail attempts a comeback. A home-grown music festival turns ten. Dogs having their day.  These are just some of the things Soapbox will be watching in 2011.

Neighborhood to watch: Downtown

Part of the Banks project will open in 2011 with local fare like Moerlein's Lager house going toe to toe with Toby Keith and three concept restaurants/clubs from a New Orleans based group in downtown's newest neighborhood on the River.  However, the oft dreamed of downtown 'grocery' gave most downtown residents the biggest cheer when it finally came to be in the form of Mayberry chef/owner Josh Campbell's new store on 7th street. For years a 'grocery store' has been the subject of an eternal chicken and egg argument for downtown's re-settlement: will new residents come without a grocery or would it take a magic number of new residents to justify the opening of one?  The point is moot now. Adjacent to apartments and downtown dwellers, the store came online in late 2010 offering a compliment of groceries, ready to eat deli food, beer and even a peanut butter making machine. With prices that don't overinflate its 'monopoly' on downtown grocery shopping, what we'll watch is the aftereffects in 2011: will the store draw more residents and with it, competitors? Either would be another healthy sign of downtown's transition from 'destination' to 'home.'

Add new hotels like 21C in the former Metropole space getting its official start, plans for a Downtown Holiday Inn that will include 200 rooms in an 11 story hotel at Seventh and Broadway, and a Residence Inn under construction in Lytle Park, and you have another indicator that more people are coming downtown and sticking around. DCI President David Ginsburg agrees.

 "A successful hotel business is an indication people want to visit our city. There is already a lot to do here and more is coming. This means more jobs and economic development in every sense. It is a very exciting time for downtown Cincinnati."

Transportation to Watch: Could light rail make a comeback?

By 2020, OKI estimates that large stretches of Greater Cincinnati's regional freeway system will have 'failed in their mission to move people and goods' (as well as getting shoppers to IKEA in West Chester). So why do state funds continue to be utilized to literally and figuratively patch existing interstate issues? What would it take to get light rail back in the picture?

Last proposed in 2002, the Metro Moves campaign for light rail lost a county wide vote but the Riverfront Transit Center, which could serve as a terminus for East/West light rail lines, was built shortly thereafter. As well documented in these pages, the Cincinnati streetcar is also moving forward. Is this the year light rail makes its comeback? 

John Schneider, who ran the original Metro Moves campaign and has been a prime proponent of the streetcar notes that "the real driver in transportation choices is the price of fuel. When the cost of driving gets to be expensive - gas will get the issue before the public again," he says. To do so, Metro would have to start now and get the issue on the ballot in time for the next major national election in 2012. Until then, Schneider isn't optimistic that light rail will find its own legs in the new year.  However, he notes that the progress on the Cincinnati streetcar could serve as a primer for the uninitiated, educating thousands of riders via the streetcar experience. 

"The streetcar is a great way of introducing the concept of rail to the people of Cincinnati. You put two or three streetcars together and you have light rail," he says.

Federal funding, which came with the initial light rail proposal in 2002, would probably be in short supply in this year of budget cuts and belt tightening. And current state leadership has already made its intrastate rail stance clear, sending $400 million in federal funding to build a 3C rail system in Ohio to California and parts unknown. When the time does come, Schneider says light rail in the I-75 corridor would be a great place to start, noting that the City and Metro have preserved their right of ways for rail projects.

Issue to Watch: Metro Government (or are two-heads better than one?)

End of year budget planning that confirmed million dollar deficits for both City and County coffers had some members of City Council invoking the phrase "shared services," the first step many municipalities take towards metro government. Realistically, the conversation about metro government in Hamilton County starts with more than just the city of Cincinnati and county commission though. Hamilton County has 49 political jurisdictions involving local municipalities, townships or special districts, that have to reach some sort of agreement (blood oath? Paper, rock, scissors?) before metro government in any form or fashion could come to the Queen City. But what better year to explore the possibilities?   It's no surprise that many sources within both administrations confirm the conversation didn't just start with the notion of shared police services this past December. And now with two former City council members on the Board of Commissioners, political leadership on combined government issues could make this conversation a reality.

Festival to Watch: Midpoint celebrates 10th anniversary

The grassroots music festival that started on a shoestring in 2002 will hit the decade mark this September. Founded by local music fans, the festival has been produced by alt weekly CityBeat since 2008.  Started as a celebration of local and regional independent artists, the festival has expanded its reach and now blends high profile artists like Tom Tom Club, Ted Leo, and Van Dyke Parks with up and coming indie artists. Still a celebration of local music, the festival has also been successfully used as a tool for civic and corporate employers and college kids to tout Cincinnati as a 'cool city.'  Unique partnerships with innovative local social media purveyors Topic Design and homegrown sponsorship from Dewey's Pizza as well as national interest have kept the Festival fresh and exciting to watch for years to come.

Local airport to watch: CVG

CVG looks much different than it did 10 years ago. Northern Kentucky based Comair went bankrupt in 2005 leaving terminal C quiet, and higher than national average airfares have sent many passengers to Dayton, Louisville and Indianapolis.  A new campaign designed to draw those passengers back, and early talk that the airport is reaching out to low cost carriers like Jet Blue to offer more options is a starting point to regain its footing. A new CEO, John Mok, will play an important role in making CVG either a Delta focus hub or a strong multi-carrier airport. Already home to dozens of international companies and partnerships, there's a renewed focus on drawing international companies to the region via outreach efforts by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and new centers like MidwestEB5 - designed to seek foreign investment capital for US based business ventures. All of which make having an airport with a strong international presence even more important.

Ideas to watch: Cincinnati Innovates returns

With a top prize of $25,000, and over 300 entries in this past year's contest, Cincinnati Innovates is a clearinghouse for really good ideas that are designed, invented, and built by regional innovators. This past year's winners were responsible for designing a host of inventions and ideas, including a safer endodontic file that protects patients from nerve damage during root canals, a device that enables painless and non-invasive diagnosis of osteoporosis, an application that lets you grab status updates, comments and photos from Facebook, to a startup eBorrowing community where you can find someone in your neighborhood or social network willing to lend you something that you need. 2011's contest will open for entries this spring, but those innovators who want to get a head start on cultivating their good idea should probably take a page from Metro Innovation CEO and Cincinnati Innovates founder Elizabeth Edwards' new book, Startup.

Retail to watch: The rise or fall of Tower Place Mall

If the stories we have covered in the past year have shown us anything it's that independently owned, locally based business owners are our greatest entrepreneurial success stories. In fact, economic indicators will tell you that independent businesses have been able to make a dent in the new economy while big box retail has suffered. But downtown retail could get a boost if management and the new owners of Tower Place Mall can find an inventive solution to fill the rash of vacancies that have plagued the retail center over the past decade. Adjacent to busy Fountain Square and Macy's downtown store, the Mall even has its own Facebook page of concerned shoppers cheering it on from the sidelines. And that's important considering it's sister mall in Columbus, City Center, was reduced to rubble this past year. While we're in no danger of losing the physical structure - Carew Tower needs something to rest on after all - the Mall is in need of a few good ideas. While the new management team is committed to revamping the Mall's approach, perhaps offering affordable space for independent retailers with unique offerings mixed with hard to find specialty stores from larger companies might be one way to bring customers back and create something unique.

Development to watch: Dog days are over?

As Jack Rouse once opined in these very pages "the health of an urban environment can, in part, be measured by the number of dogs."  The "puppy metric" as Jack noted is in full force in 2011. Popular OTR bars Grammers' and Neon's are well known for their pooch friendly policies, and our canine friends even got their own 'grocery' store when Pet Wants opened in Findlay Market last year.  Now, downtown and Over-the-Rhine dog lovers get their first dog park this year at the East end of downtown in a triangle shaped piece of land donated by the city. Slated for completion this spring, the park's existence is due to the efforts of project manager Craig Beachler, the Downtown Residents' council, and a big gift from Procter & Gamble to fund the effort.  Work has also already begun on Washington Park's redevelopment which also includes a dog park. Slated for opening in Spring 2012, Over-the-Rhine's largest greenspace will grow from 6-8 dog loving acres.

Parking problem to watch: Casino could become an alternative transportation inspiration.

We know now that a partnership with Caesars Entertainment and Rock Gaming has created a new joint venture that will manage Cincinnati's first casino. Initial work has begun on the $400 million project, designed by Cincinnati based KZF Design, but the actual casino won't be open until 2012. In the past year we noted how city/non-profit partnerships like Bridging Broadway and Pendleton Community Council have also started work on garnering community input and establishing important relationships to maximize the Casino's positive impact on the surrounding Over-the-Rhine and downtown communities. This year we'll be watching how the county and city respond to the crunch of reduced parking for downtown workers and Pendleton residents who are losing 1,400 spaces on the Casino site at Broadway Commons and contemplating how to handle neighborhood overflow parking.  Current plans call for some shared garage space at the casino once it's constructed, but more out-of-the-yellow-lines thinking might include ditching gas guzzlers altogether and consider partnerships that promote car sharing, a cycling hub at or near the new development, additional racks, and an extension of the original street car line running east to the Casino and west to Cincinnati Museum Center. The good news is Casino leadership has already indicated an interest in bridging the three blocks between the streetcar's planned journey up Main Street and the casino's location at Broadway Commons, and the city is already allocating up to a quarter of the $20 million a year Cincinnati expects to receive from casino revenue to operate the streetcar. 

Local Leadership to watch

While Soapbox doesn't get in the business of political endorsements, we can't help but notice how the make-up of potential Cincinnati City Council candidates this November is leaning towards young, engaged, diverse professionals.  Offering up the potential for great future leadership, new names who have already thrown their hats into this year's election include Jason Riveiro, Chris Seelbach, PG Sittenfeld, and Yvette Simpson.

Riveiro earned Citybeat's  Person of the year in 2007 for leading the Hispanic community's charge against WLW's ill-executed "Big Juan" campaign.  He's also the Director of Ohio's LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens)'s chapter and a recent appointee to SORTA's board. Seelbach is no stranger to politics having worked as CFO and VP of the Seidewitz Group.  A longtime OTR resident, Seelbach helped lead the successful effort to repeal Article XII, the city's anti-gay law. Sittenfeld, a community engager, and Simpson, a lawyer, are both new to politics but not to their communities. Youth and experience are no longer diametrically opposed concepts, and having these kind of voices engaged in the political process can always be seen as a positive.

What people, places and things are you watching in 2011? Tell us on Facebook!

Photography by Scott Beseler.
The Banks construction
Streetcar rendering
Caribou at Midpoint 2010
Flying pig at CVG Airport
Buddy the hound at Grammer's bar
PG Sittenfeld
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