Creating a warm business climate is key to Mt. Airy’s growth

For a community to be labeled "resilient", its story arc has invariably followed a challenging path that’s far from a fairytale. Every story of a community’s struggles has its own unique aspects, but many earmarks are familiar: a decrease in population; surging crime. The roadblocks to prosperity are often imposed by those who lack a stake in its success and fail to consider the long-term impact of pivotal financial decisions and events.

The resilience that forms amid the crucible of adversity can also foment a more cohesive community that’s focused on solutions and eager to embrace innovative ideas. Throughout its evolution, the Mt. Airy community has benefitted from leaders, organizations, and everyday citizens invested in their neighborhood and collaborating to address community concerns. They view their community as more than the sum total of its average home resale value and the car counts on its main traffic artery.

When Soapbox launched the Mt. Airy Resilient Neighborhoods series, it held a kickoff listening session with a group of neighborhood stakeholders. It would have been ideal to hold the gathering at a Mt. Airy establishment. Unfortunately, it was necessary to gather down the hill at a Northside venue, because Mt. Airy lacked a gathering place. This lack of a social hub around which complementary businesses fulfilling residents’ day-to-day needs can establish themselves is at the root of Mt. Airy’s challenges.

Diligent efforts have been made, particularly in the last few years, to facilitate economic growth. However, solutions to a multifaceted problem aren’t brainstormed and executed overnight, and snags have inevitably emerged. Members of Mt. Airy CURE, a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to the neighborhood’s economic development, as well as other City of Cincinnati and nonprofit representatives engaged to help the community, discuss Mt. Airy’s possibilities, opportunities, and challenges.

Mt. Airy CURE was founded in 2012 in response to the Social Areas of Cincinnati report whose findings indicated that the community had suffered greater decline than any other Cincinnati neighborhood from 1970 to 2010.

READ MORE: The first Resilient Communities story in this series outlines the decline in detail.

Scott Hand, an architect, and entrepreneur who is co-owner of Northside’s Urban Artifact craft brewery, was appointed its executive director in September 2022.

He's tasked with shepherding the organization through achieving the goals of the Mt. Airy’s economic-development plan, which Cincinnati Council approved on March 29 of this year. The plan was developed through a collaborative effort by Mt. Airy CURE, the Mt. Airy Town Council, and the Mt. Airy Civic Club, with input from additional groups. The plan addresses a vast array of needs that feed into one common thread: the importance of making Mt. Airy more amenable to business growth and economic development.

Several of the plan’s statistics outline some of Mt. Airy’s inherent challenges:
  • Mt. Airy’s median income is $27,920, in comparison to Cincinnati’s city-wide median of $42,663.
  • Approximately 23% of Mt. Airy’s residents don’t own a car.
  • Roughly 28% of the community lives below the poverty level.
  • Nearly half of those living in Mt. Airy are housing burdened, which means 30% or more of their income is spent on their dwelling’s rent or mortgage.
Salons and hair-care shops are abundant in Mt. Airy.

Given this backdrop of chronic economic distress, it’s a clear priority to have retailers, restaurants, and other essential businesses exist nearby to better serve a populace with limited means and mobility. However, Hand noted Mt. Airy’s commercial business district doesn’t currently meet these needs.

“Right now, our business district is just a pass-through along Colerain Avenue,” he said. “There are gas stations, a car wash, a wireless store, and places to get your hair done. There are no anchor businesses that attract people and persuade them to stay longer.”

Mt. Airy CURE’s aspiration to remake its commercial district relies heavily on its plans for a 2.5-acre tract of land at the intersection of Colerain Avenue and North Bend Road. Most of the buildings within this zone are vacant. At the corner is a Warsaw Wireless mobile-phone store. Mark Menkhaus, a Mt. Airy CURE member, noted that, based on conversations with the store’s manager, sales at the store were negligible, limited mainly to purchasing minutes for burner phones and inexpensive accessories. The owner had previously reneged on selling the property, but is now under contract to sell, with plans to close the sale by year’s end. A $600,000 capital grant awarded by the city in 2016 has been reserved to contribute to covering the transaction’s pricetag.

Hand said that, ideally, demolition of the building would be completed within the next six months, but an ordinance approving the process is still pending. He noted that the planning department was waiting on sign-off from the city’s legal division (there’s currently no timetable for resolution, Hand said). There isn’t a developer currently enlisted to manage the build for the revitalized property as they await a greenlight on razing the current structures. And, although he couldn’t disclose specifics, Hand said there’s been outreach to small-storefront retailers and eateries to occupy the revitalized property. Menkhaus said that a financial institution’s representative had approached Mt. Airy CURE to fund the project.

Funding the Mt. Airy Neighborhood Plan

The Colerain-North Bend project will be completed in several phases and based on early estimates, the project’s ultimate cost is likely to range from $4-10 million, Hand said. He’s optimistic that the first construction phases will be completed within three years.

One of the community’s most significant victories was Mt. Airy CURE’s receipt of a $350,000 grant to raze a decrepit building and install a free parking lot on Colerain Avenue with a handsome entry sign and landscaping that make it more desirable, entitling the site "Mt. Airy Commons." Hand said, “Without enough parking, it’s very difficult to support a business district.”

To complement the sense of place Mt. Airy Commons helps provide, a $50,000 city award disbursed in 2022 is being used to collaborate with the Department of Transportation (DOT) for entry and placemaking signage for the business district. One round of design has been completed to date, and a second round will be shared with the Mt. Airy community by year’s end.

Revitalizing Mt. Airy will entail a years-long effort to procure grant funding from city, state (Hand noted that it’s fortuitous that Colerain Ave. is a state route, thus opening eligibility to Ohio funds) and federal grants and earmarks. He is currently collaborating with Congressman Greg Landsman’s office to obtain a $850,000 earmark for funding community-improvement projects.

Hand notes Mt. Airy Forest’s importance to the community and expressed hope that the community’s business district would one day offer shops that would appeal to outdoor enthusiasts that frequent the Forest, such as bike shops, an outdoor-gear outfitter, or athletic-training facility, which could also be destinations for community residents.

Based on listening sessions and surveys conducted with Mt. Airy residents, a coffee shop has been frequently mentioned as a desired business. Considering how integral java shops are as gathering spaces, and how much most crave caffeination’s energy boost, it’s only natural that Mt. Airy residents would want such a business in their neighborhood.

Resources to transform neighborhoods

Cincinnati’s Department of Community and Economic Development and HomeBase, a community-development nonprofit that provides funding and resources to help economically challenged neighborhoods, are organizations that have assisted Mt. Airy’s revitalization. Gerald Fortson, a senior development analyst with the city and a 17-year employee, noted that Mt. Airy has “built momentum with several strategic economic-development projects and property acquisitions in recent years.”

This has included the aforementioned Mt. Airy Commons grant, as well as four additional awards since 2016, which have totaled an additional $125,000, through the Neighborhood Business District Improvement Program. Additional city funding opportunities available to Mt. Airy CURE going forward include the Voluntary Tax Incentive Contribution Agreement (VTICA) and the Neighborhood Catalytic Capital Investment Program (NCCIP). VTICA which allocates 15% of a development’s tax-incentive value back to a community to subsidize quality-of-life projects or affordable housing. NCCIP assists communities by supporting specified projects within both early-stage planning and later-state construction. For reference, a March 2023 city-issued press release noted $1.84 million in recommended grants for 13 city-wide projects (Mt. Airy wasn’t among this year’s slate of projects), which ranged in scope from $20,000 to $500,000.

A branch of Dohn Community High School, which operates eight campuses and two administrative facilities across Greater Cincinnati, and serves high school and adult learners, was a welcome additional to Mt. Airy.

HomeBase, formerly known as the Community Development Corporations Assn. of Greater Cincinnati, has provided funding to Queen City communities for more than 40 years. Rosa Christophel, HomeBase’s executive director who was appointed in April, said that, until recently, the local nonprofit had largely existed as a pass-through organization that was a liaison for federal and city funding and community-development organizations.

Under Christophel’s leadership, HomeBase now takes a more hands-on role in helping community-development corporations (CDCs) expand their operational capacity and reach community goals through providing small grants, fundraising, management expertise, or community engagement projects. 
HomeBase is engaged with over 30 neighborhood groups as a catalyst in creating resident-driven community improvements. It’s maintained longstanding relationships with 18 neighborhood organizations led by paid staff or volunteer leaders, and since Christophel assumed her role, the organization has made inroads with more than a dozen additional community-based organizations.

For the 2022-2023 fiscal and 2023 calendar years, HomeBase will have allocated over $4.8 million to neighborhoods that’s provided via HUD and ARPA funding, city-appropriated funds, and locally raised grant dollars that have supported affordable housing creation, quality of life enhancements, economic development and small business support, and housing down payment assistance for low to moderate income residents, among other initiatives.

In 2024, HomeBase will also be disbursing long-awaited neighborhood-focused VTICA funds to eligible community organizations. 
Christophel said that HomeBase staff lend assistance and expertise to organizations that are in the first two of three stages: incubation, transitional, and established CDCs. She designated that Mt. Airy CURE was in the incubation stage reflective of an organization that recently completed a neighborhood strategic plan. 

According to Christophel, essential priorities for community-development groups at Mt. Airy CURE’s stage include community engagement and raising awareness, research on predevelopment of real estate projects, and quality of life projects for the neighborhood, including traffic safety and beautification projects such as public art and landscaping.

Altering perceptions about Mt. Airy is a significant roadblock to potential growth. When a news report recounts a single act of violence in the neighborhood, it taints the entire community’s reputation. When a TV reporter thoughtlessly refers to Mt. Airy as a “dying community”, it doesn’t encourage future investment.

To bolster Mt. Airy’s marketing, Mt. Airy CURE member Tom Wurzelbacher is developing a newsletter, called the CUREator. Its inaugural edition will include a discussion of traffic calming efforts in the community; an update on the Mt. Airy Water Tanks renovation; and an article about the Mt. Airy Civic Club, which has existed since 1913.

“We’ve had difficulty getting people to attend meetings and events, so it’s important to tell the story of what’s going on in Mt. Airy,” Menkhaus said.

This Resilient Neighborhoods series presents stories that focus on leaders, organizations, and everyday people who, in large and small ways, help a community regain a positive identity by collaborating to overcome its struggles. 

You can read earlier articles in the Resilient Neighborhoods – Mt. Airy series here.

The Mt. Airy series has been made possible with support from the City of Cincinnati and Homebase, the leading resource for community development, focused on sharing resources, funding, and expertise that helps transform neighborhoods and improve the quality of life for the residents of Greater Cincinnati.
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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.