Rick Pender's series on social innovation in Over-the-Rhine — a number of new businesses purposefully hiring workers from the neighborhood — concludes with a look at the employee experiences of three long-time OTR residents. Part 1 is here.
DeShawn Ashley has lived in OTR for years. Walking with her employer Katie Willing, co-owner of Holtman’s Donuts, from the busy shop on Vine Street to its business office on Walnut, she asks, “What’s the address here?” When Willing tells her, Ashley smiles and says, “I lived here.”
The building no longer resembles the shabby rental property where Ashley’s family resided. It’s now sleek and serviceable space for new entrepreneurs. And it’s symbolic of the positive impact of change for people like Ashley.
Living near Washington Park for years — today at 13th and Republic just east of the park — Ashley formerly worked for Servatti’s downtown and at a coffee shop in the Kroger headquarters building.
“I did that for a long time, and that’s how I know so many people,” she points out.
Residents’ familiarity with OTR is a big plus for business owners. MiCa 12/v, the small gift shop and gallery at 12th and Vine, needs just a few employees. But co-owner Carolyn Deininger says, “When we have an opening, if I’m choosing between two potential employees with similar experience and enthusiasm and one lives in the neighborhood, of course I’m going to choose the neighborhood resident. We spend a lot of time talking to customers and answering questions about the neighborhood, so it’s great when our employees know OTR even better than we do.”
Willing agrees, recalling that when the donut shop opened, “We made a conscious effort to hire people who lived here and were working here.”
The personable Ashley, already working for 3CDC and living nearby, was an ideal hire. She continues to be a seasonal employee at Washington Park, working on concessions and as a play-worker monitoring children in the playground.
Proximity is an added benefit for Ashley. Neighborhood residents don’t have to find parking, an expensive add-on for workers from elsewhere.
“It’s meant a lot to me to find a job where I live,” Ashley says. “I don’t worry about bus fare or bad weather. I walk everywhere around here and everybody knows me! People call me ‘Holtman’s Donuts’ and ‘3CDC’ when they see me walking.”
She is enthusiastic about the difference 3CDC has made at Washington Park and in the neighborhood.
“They’re not putting people out of the neighborhood, they’re making the neighborhood better,” she says. “I was down here for the rough times, and now it’s the good times. That park made a big difference for kids. They got somewhere to play, not out on the corners. I love it!”
A cleaning maniac
Kevin Palmer saw his life change for the better with employment in the neighborhood, too. Lauren Altman, who handles hiring and training for Thunderdome’s trio of restaurants (Bakersfield, The Eagle and Krueger’s Tavern), has been committed to using local residents since Bakersfield opened in 2012.
Palmer, a longtime OTR resident, had had periods of homelessness, spending time at the Drop Inn Center. More recently living in an apartment near Findlay Market, he was working part-time at a fast food restaurant in Covington but could barely make ends meet. With no car, getting to and from work was tough.
He thought Bakersfield would be a good place to work and persisted in landing a job there.
“I saw that they had a lot of businesses in Over-the-Rhine,” Palmer says. “I came to Bakersfield maybe three times before I got hired. I told them I’m a cleaning maniac.”
He now cleans Thunderdome’s restaurants and offices.
“They gave me a good opportunity and helped me keep a roof over my head,” Palmer says. “One time I mentioned I didn’t have any food at home, and they gave me some to take home.”
Palmer says changes have improved the neighborhood.
“It’s a better neighborhood to live in,” he says. “Crime has gone down. A lot of people like myself are off the streets. There’s still chances for people with low incomes. You gotta get off your fanny and go get it, take some initiative. I used to be struggling, but now I can afford to pay my rent.”
The outgoing Palmer encourages others.
“I’ve told them to come here to work,” he says. “I’ve got a few people hired on. They are good people to work for. If you want to work, they will work with you.”
Joining a family
Carolyn McClure, another lifelong OTR resident, is Ashley’s neighbor. She appreciates the family feeling she’s found working for 3CDC.
“I do a lot,” she says. “I can fit in anywhere, put up tents, skating rinks, the playground.”
Previously she served customers at Great American Ball Park but yearned to work closer to home because she loved spending time in Washington Park.
“I said to myself, ‘I need a job here,’” McClure says.
Like Palmer, she persisted, and now she’s a go-to member of 3CDC’s operations team at the park and Fountain Square.
“I don’t really mind what I do just so long as it’s something to help out,” she says.
One of the special appeals of her job, McClure says, is that she’s treated in a supportive, personal way. Following the deaths of two relatives, she recalls, “They just pulled me in like I was family instead of pushing me away.”
She believes neighborhood residents who want work can find it: “There’s a lot of opportunity out there for people who are willing to do anything. They think everything should come to them, but it don’t. You have to go out there and get it.”
McClure loves the time she spends in Washington Park, especially as a play-worker, saying, “I love meeting lots of different people and cultures. The park has lots to offer to kids.”
In fact, her grandchildren love playing there.
Ashley acknowledges real change in the neighborhood and is excited.
“We don’t just see people from the suburbs,” she says. “We also see people from the neighborhood. This place is changing.”
Describing the thriving Holtman’s, she says, “People heard there’s a donut place down here, and it stays busy. I never worked for a donut shop that stays this busy.”
There’s no denying that things are busy in many parts of Over-the-Rhine, including the donut shop, stores, restaurants and Washington Park. Other neighborhood residents are finding gainful employment at Horseshoe Casino, in the constant renovation and construction throughout OTR and readying for the streetcar.
For those willing to get on board, that means opportunity and better lives. For the businesses willing to give them a chance, it means a better bottom line and a better community.