Northern Kentucky planning leaders turn their vision skyward

Anniversaries and milestones are natural times to look back while looking ahead, to consider how far you’ve come while also realizing what remains to be done. Northern Kentucky community planning leaders find themselves at that crucial point in time this summer.

Vision 2015 was launched 10 years ago to “inspire great ideas and great accomplishments” throughout the nine-county Northern Kentucky region, and the resulting list of economic, education, government and livability initiatives is impressive. It traces its collective visioning efforts back to 1981, when Corporex CEO Bill Butler helped organize the first coordinated approach to treating Northern Kentucky’s cities and counties as a cohesive community and economic powerhouse.

As the name suggests, Vision 2015 was winding down its 10-year mission, but leaders knew they had to keep pushing the coordinated planning process. Would they simply add another five years to their time horizon and assume the catchy name of Vision 2020? Or was it time for a new approach and completely new identity?

Vision 2015 President William Scheyer and his board of influential Northern Kentucky leaders chose the latter, leading to the launch of Skyward in early June. The new name reflects an aspirational tone for the region that actually resulted from an intense community engagement process, which in turn led to the five-year “myNKY” plan for achieving long-term prosperity in the nine counties.

“We could have chosen Vision 2020 to implement this next five-year plan, but we didn’t want to get trapped into continuous name updates and changes,” Scheyer says in the Vision 2015/Skyward offices on the Covington riverfront. “We had an intuitive response to the name Skyward because of the feelings around ‘elevating’ the community and ‘looking up’ to the future. It’s aspirational and yet practical — exactly how we see the myNKY plan.”

The name change and plan are being introduced to Northern Kentucky business leaders and citizens throughout the summer. The next public event is July 28, hosted by Northern Kentucky Forum at NKU’s Griffin Hall Digitorium.

How 15,000 ideas became one plan

Last year, Scheyer and his leadership team — headed by retired NKU President James Votruba and entrepreneur/investor A.J. Schaeffer — embarked on a wide-ranging conversation with Northern Kentuckians. It was unlike anything the group had tried before.

“We wanted the process to be intentional and deep,” Scheyer says. “We wanted the ideas to be representative of all ages and demographics and all nine counties. And we wanted to use multiple channels — websites, face-to-face meetings, focus groups — in order to reach people who normally don’t participate in surveys.”

The outreach included traditional media (TV, radio, newspaper interviews); social media polling and promotion (email blasts, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube); community presentations; promotional events; and an online myNKY game that asked participants to rank community priorities.

The campaign ended up generating 15,000 distinct ideas in six months, well more than Scheyer and his team anticipated. The effort won a first place award from the Public Relations Society of America’s Cincinnati chapter for best nonprofit public relations campaign in 2014.

Nine working groups were established to discuss and prioritize the public input, organized around arts, culture and tourism; diversity and inclusion; education; governance; health; housing; jobs; sustainability; and transportation. More than 200 individuals served on the working groups and eventually whittled down the priorities into myNKY’s focus areas.

The new plan’s vision for Northern Kentucky is that all children are prepared for kindergarten, all residents lead healthy lives, all businesses have the talent and tools they need to succeed and all neighborhoods are vibrant, inclusive, creative and connected. Votruba’s successor as NKU President, Geoffrey Mearns, and Fort Mitchell City Administrator Sharmili Reddy co-chair the implementation roll-out.

The myNKY plan focuses on four specific goals:

• Jobs: Increase the Northern Kentucky Labor Market Index by 5 percent. The index measures the number of jobs, the unemployment rate, the average annual wage per job and the size of the civilian labor force against the overall U.S. labor market. The goal is for the Northern Kentucky labor market to outperform the national job creation numbers by 5 percent over the next five years.

• Education: Prepare 1,000 more children for kindergarten. Providing children with high-quality pre-K enrichment helps them learn, grow and develop and also leads to economic returns of $4-$9 for every public dollar invested in child education before the age of 5. Approximately 53 percent (2,840) of children in Northern Kentucky currently are prepared for kindergarten success, so the goal is to increase that number by more than one-third.

• Health: Move an additional 20,000 adults into “excellent” or “very good” health status. Kentucky is ranked 47th out of 50 states in overall health, so Skyward leaders feel it’s critical to promote healthy behaviors such as active lifestyles, proper nutrition and smoking cessation. Currently half of Northern Kentucky adults rate their health status as “excellent” or “very good,” and the goal is to increase those categories by 9 percent.

• Vibrancy: Assemble $5 million to foster inclusive, creative and connected communities. By using public art and public spaces, myNKY is betting that creative placemaking will ensure an ever-evolving region and contribute to a more robust economy by creating jobs supported by the arts. Skyward will lead efforts to design and fund a high-profile new public space in a Northern Kentucky location to be determined.

“What I’m happiest about is you can trace our focus areas directly back to the public’s priorities expressed in those 15,000 ideas and also trace them to what the local planning experts had been suggesting,” Scheyer says. “So I’m confident we’re all on the same page with myNKY. It was one of the best information-gathering processes I’ve ever seen.”

Building the future on strong foundations

Scheyer is proud of what Vision 2015 accomplished in its window of opportunity, pointing to successes in boosting Northern Kentucky’s economic competitiveness, education options and urban renaissance. He says that, in essence, Vision 2015 tackled the larger issues of cooperation among local governments and businesses and set the stage for Skyward to focus on specific community challenges.

He points to Vision 2015’s formation of the Catalytic Fund in 2008 as a game-changing moment. The new private nonprofit organization raised $10 million to develop housing, office and retail real estate projects in Northern Kentucky’s urban cities, an investment that Scheyer says has resulted in more than $400 million in economic activity.

“It’s been a homerun,” he says. “The Catalytic Fund is our 3CDC on a smaller scale. It’s not a government agency — it's run by people who know how to get development deals done.”

The Catalytic Fund took the lead in launching UpTech, Northern Kentucky's startup business accelerator, in 2012 and tackles difficult redevelopment projects that have sat on drawing boards for years.

“Jeanne Schroer (Catalytic Fund president) found UpTech their space on Pike Street and helped put that entire organization together,” Scheyer says. “She got the Mutual Building project going on Madison Avenue. I would drive by that empty building every day, wondering when someone was going to fix it up. It’s right in the middle of a critical area of downtown Covington, and its rebirth will be a truly catalytic space for the entire city.”

Scheyer says Vision 2015 was equally successful in helping coordinate innovative approaches to education throughout the region.

The Northern Kentucky Education Council was formed in 2008 by merging three organizations into one to address education duplication and resource allocation across 18 different school districts. Years of focusing on high school graduation rates through new metrics and programs, Scheyer says, helped extend budgets and leverage national grants that individual districts couldn’t do on their own.

“Gallup piloted its Student Poll here in Northern Kentucky to measure feelings of hope, engagement and well-being among students ages 6 to 12,” he says. “Because of that early grant, we’ve been able to measure our students over three years and have seen an overall improvement in the scores.”

Another tangible program developed by Vision 2015 is the Regional Indicators Report, a collaborative effort with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s Agenda 360 planning organization launched in 2010. The goal was to gather unbiased data on 15 key indicators that would allow for direct comparison of Greater Cincinnati to 11 competing peer markets. Those markets — Austin, Charlotte, Cleveland, Columbus, Denver, Indianapolis, Louisville, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Raleigh and St. Louis — were selected based on their similarities in geography, population size or demographics to Greater Cincinnati and because they often compete with the Tristate for people and jobs.

In the original 2010 report, Cincinnati received an overall ranking of 10th out of the 12 regions. The 2014 update showed some improvement, as Cincinnati is now #9 of 12. Denver is #1, while Charlotte, Cleveland and Louisville rank below Cincinnati.

“The Regional Indicators Report puts some numbers to facts we thought we knew about this region,” Scheyer says. “Our population is steady but not growing, and it’s getting older. We fell from #3 to #5 in the poverty indicator, meaning we’re getting worse when it comes to poverty in the population. We’re not producing as many venture capital jobs or as much venture capital investment as our peer cities. But we are improving in general, and we know what we need to focus on.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by John Fox.

John Fox is an experienced freelance writer and editor who served as managing editor of Soapbox from December 2014 to August 2016.