Digging deep for a brighter future: Holistic development efforts get to the root of revenue issues

Greater Cincinnati is a collection of diverse communities, each with its own attributes and corresponding challenges. One theme that unites the longstanding bedroom communities and older First Suburbs is the growing need to find creative ways to drum up revenue. Within the preset physical margins of these localities, this can be accomplished by repurposing what’s on hand – encouraging new means of economic stimulation to take shape in various ways.

Beyond having fixed borders, each community faces a unique set of challenges based upon its particular demographics. One common tie for many jurisdictions is the issue of aging populations consuming public budgets. Additionally, cuts in government funding have hit area communities hard – large and small, rich and poor, alike.

“Literally, over the last 13 years, state government has stripped the local government fund, which is what most local municipalities survive off of other than their income tax base – by 50%. So one could imagine how difficult of a budgetary concern that creates for some cities and villages, especially the smaller ones, to try to survive,” says Ohio State Representative Jessica Miranda. “Wealthier communities have lost just as much as others have lost. The only difference is they have a wealthier tax base so that they can make that up in their income tax base. ”

Conscientious maneuvers made by local governments can spur upticks in revenue to offset growing expenses and fiscal drains – assuming these development efforts are well managed and unhindered by red tape. Dilapidated housing stuck in probate, empty lots and atrophied public buildings found in many areas can create either blight or opportunity – depending upon the strength of the ideas, and of the means, behind realizing and reworking their potential.

Those in charge of planning and making economic decisions for our local communities tend to take their roles quite seriously. Whether they are well-studied, well-paid experts, or longtime residents diligently serving on council after clocking out from their day jobs, they are invested in making their areas decent and sustainable places to live.

They understand that the general quality of life for those in the cities, villages, and townships they serve hinges on their ability to untangle complex, socioeconomic problems and remedy them from the root upwards. The work is not easy, but the rewards are more than gratifying. When thoughtful and diligent efforts finally begin to ease nagging community burdens, real growth and tangible results can be seen and felt within the set confines of a particular jurisdiction.

Case in point

There is a buzz of good news and a cause for celebration in the neighborhood of Lincoln Heights these days. The village has been designated as the recipient of the Reds Community Makeover for 2022 (sponsored by Reds, P&G, Cincinnati Zoo, Cincinnati Children’s and GE). Fanfare has also surrounded the unveiling of two brand new, upscale residences that are about to hit the market – exemplifying the hopeful visions of the community for the future of the Lincoln Heights neighborhood.

Council member Tonya Key is overjoyed, proud, and relieved with the completion of the homes and the anticipated forward push the makeover will spur in several existing community efforts that have been struggling to perform without adequate funding. The Community Makeover falls perfectly in line with the village’s current strategic plan, which has a central focus of spurring investment along the Lindy Avenue Corridor.

A sixth generation resident of the community, Key knows the history of the traditionally African American neighborhood both from her own careful research as well as from the perspective of her personal family narratives. She is keenly aware of the struggles inherent to the village due to its history, as well as their underlying causes.

Established in 1947, Lincoln Heights was the first self-governing African American community north of the Mason-Dixon line. During the process of its incorporation, various objections from neighboring jurisdictions squeezed the borders of the village, leaving little to no opportunities for building an economic framework.

The initially clear vision residents had conceived of a self-sustaining village was thus left fogged by the smoke pouring out of neighboring industry, which served to line the purses of the surrounding communities whilst sitting on land that had been widely considered part of Lincoln Heights previous to its official establishment as a village. Most notable of these was the placement of General Electric within the adjacent Village of Evendale.

After years of hard work and planning, Key now sees the clouds of years of stagnation beginning to lift and looks forward to flowers adorning the village as it enters a new age. She has done her part to nourish their soil, and happily anticipates support for their continued nurturing.

“The Cincinnati Zoo – it's a big deal for them with horticulture items, botanical items and things like that,” says Key, referring to the partnership with the Cincinnati Zoo that will enhance the aesthetics of the village as part of the makeover.

While this is one of the things that Lincoln Heights has been looking at doing for some time, the village now has a sustainable plan to revitalize its aesthetic, thanks in part to maintenance training from the zoo in addition to the supply of plants. “They’re going to be able to help with the planning and planting and training on how to take care of things.”

The eye-catching indoor and outdoor beautification and renovation of St. Monica’s Center, Memorial Field and other local institutions will complement the deeper work being done to remedy underlying sticking points in building sustainable revenue within the village.

Further greasing the wheels of progress through enhanced communication capabilities is the implementation of community-wide Wi-Fi, through a separate grant, according to Mayor Ruby Kinsey-Mumphrey. The mayor is also a lifelong resident of the village and recalls a time of population decline during her childhood, from which the village has never recovered.

“A renewal came through, and they built the business district. They built in more apartment living. So, with that, a lot of individuals moved out. They moved to Forest Park. That was the start of the decline in our residency, because at that time, it had to be about over 7,000 residents. That was back in ’76,” says Kinsey-Mumphrey.
This is not overnight work. Success looks like when the Village of Lincoln Heights becomes the City of Lincoln Heights again; when Lincoln Heights’ average income is not $24,000. Move that needle...where the average income is...$50,000.
- Village Manager Joyce Powdrill

Currently, Lincoln Heights has approximately 3,300 residents. The vast majority of these are economically disadvantaged. Women, children and seniors make up a considerable part of the population. However, Kinsey-Mumphrey points to growing interest from families who previously made the exodus to surrounding areas hoping to make a return to the village. The continuing development of new housing is essential to the economic survival of Lincoln Heights, and the return and reunion of its community members that fled the unlivable circumstances of the past.

“There's a large percentage of the population under 18. Then you add the seniors over 62. I think the statistic is 50% of your population is technically outside of wage earning. That's one of my challenges. Revenue generation – I need the earnings tax in the village and I need the real estate tax,” says Village Manager Joyce Powdrill, who developed the methodology that anchors the village’s strategic plan. She uses a holistic approach rather than the patchwork methods that she says have failed revitalization efforts in the past.

“This is not overnight work. Success looks like when the Village of Lincoln Heights becomes the City of Lincoln Heights again, when Lincoln Heights’ average income is not 24,000. Move that needle into a direction where the average income is to be 50,000,” says Powdrill.

“The Villas are doing a good job putting tons of money into the property that they have. We’ve had Habitat (for Humanity) come in. I think we’ve done our fair share!” Key emphatically explains when asked about the options for lower income residents after more homes are built to encourage higher income families to resettle in Lincoln Heights. “There's a misnomer, in my opinion, that says that Lincoln Heights has to have all affordable housing for everyone. And it's like, no, we have to look at what is sustainable for our community. We have to look at a comprehensive approach to developing, and redevelop and revitalize in our community. Yeah, we have to—we have to make hard decisions. We have to.”

Key also sees lack of individual financial planning by residents as a major block to generating and encouraging development in Lincoln Heights. Ingrained, systemic issues surrounding banking in general, but more specifically trusts and estate planning, have caused many older, uninhabited properties to sit in decay after succumbing to probate issues. This leaves them locked down, creating revenue dead zones. Key seeks to break down the barriers hindering the transfer of generational wealth that have plagued the community for many years.

“Economic development is more than just bringing in businesses or bringing in homes. It's about looking at that whole circle of the family component, the next generation component. St. Monica's Recreation Center is working with the seniors, and they are doing things about estate planning. So the bringing of that awareness is happening,” says Key.

As part of Powdrill’s holistic approach, the village is also undertaking a comprehensive land use study. The two new homes unveiled at the March 30th ribbon cutting are the completed portion of four homes developed through HURC (Homesteading & Urban Development Corporation), overseen by the Port. Key and her cohorts hope for more of the same, as well as a carefully planned influx of new business development.

“We will be having a community forum on April 23rd where the residents can come in and take a look at the zoning that is currently in the village. We're proposing that businesses can come put in small industrial sites,” says Key.

“We're inviting the residents to come out and talk about the land use because it's important that they are a part of the conversation of what they would like the village to look like, based on the studies that we've had done,” adds Kinsey-Mumphrey. “Whatever we do, we need it to be sustainable. We do identify that we need a better revenue string.”

Forest Park land banks to develop housing upgrades

In nearby Forest Park, the offspring of those that left Lincoln Heights for better accommodations can today be seen learning and thriving in brand new school facilities nestled within safe neighborhoods featuring mostly well-kept middle class housing.

While some of these families look forward to returning to their old stomping grounds of Lincoln Heights once conditions are more favorable, some longtime Forest Park residents have been awaiting an opportunity to upgrade their housing by making a move within the confines of their community.

Forest Park has faced its own holdups with housing development in recent years. But as conditions have slowly turned in a positive direction after the economic crisis of 2008, the city has finally been able to release several plots of land into the hands of developers due to a ripened market. Sixteen new single-family homes are now in various states of construction, or newly finished, in a development along Waycross Road.

“It was interesting to see that of the 16 houses, a number of them were purchased by longtime residents of the community. They were in a smaller house or an older house, and I think had been waiting on a move-up opportunity in the community. And it's been quite a while since we've had any new housing,” observes Chris Anderson, Community Development Director for Forest Park.

64 more residences are also in pending stages slated for construction in the area just behind and to the south of the Waycross development.

“The price point on the Waycross homes was something like, say, between $275 and $400,000,” says Anderson. “We're expecting this second development to probably be a little larger homes – probably a little higher price point on that.”

The burden faced by Forest Park of carrying this land for so many years seems to be worth the pending payoff for its residents and the community as a whole.

Forest Park Community Development Director Chris Anderson looks over plans for a new residential development, seen behind him, that has been many years in the making. “We don't want to own development land, but sometimes it is necessary. If you look at the land ownership in a community, the local government ideally should hold relatively little land. You want them to land in private hands because that's where you get your tax base, your population. And so it has to be a very considered decision to actually get involved in ownership of property that is not intended to be a park or intended for City Hall,” explains Anderson.

“There was no demand or capital, or developers even, with the liquidity to do that kind of development back in, say, 2011. So, fast forward 10 years and we've got much better conditions,” continues Anderson. “In terms of land banking, of waiting for these opportunities come about, it did allow for us to hold the property and wait for the development that would benefit the community.”

Representative Miranda is, herself, a longtime resident of Forest Park and represents the 28th district, which includes Forest Park as well as the Village of Evendale. She tries to see all sides of the various development challenges local communities face, both within or outside her jurisdiction, and encourages extending an olive branch across borders when possible, whether in the form of shared services or of resources.

“I represent Evendale, and I understand the history there, and that Lincoln Heights is a red-line community… And I didn't even know until I was educated on that,” she confesses. “We have actually been working with Joyce (Powdrill) a lot over this entire capital budget process because we are giving Lincoln Heights quite a few expat dollars to help bring them up to where all of the other suburbs are. Ohio cannot be an opportunity state if we do not embrace our diversity and strive towards greater equality for all.”

You can read earlier articles in the First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series here.

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.