The Queen City receives her CROWN

The Queen City has long struggled with its image. Once known as Porkopolis, and commonly viewed as overweight and unhealthy, Cincinnati is famed for piles of spaghetti topped with unconventional chili and mounds of cheese, and as being the home of all-too-often underdog sports teams. Outside of its low cost of living, the city has had issues regarding desirability as a place to live or visit for generations. Over time, notoriously polluted air and waterways and episodic discord due to racial unrest have also marred the nation’s collective view of the city.

The humble queen has undertaken some serious self-reflection and subsequent action in recent years. The results are evident in a once-again bustling downtown and riverfront district – as well as safer, happier, more inclusive communities surrounding its inner core.

Now, the heart of the city is pumping that momentum for change outward, circulating these renewed assets to the farthest corners of Cincinnati’s outermost and least served communities. Across county lines and jurisdictional barriers, different factions (often strange bedfellows) are working together to break through acquisitional stumbling blocks and financial barriers. Collectively, they are weaving a massive crown of green inclusivity to adorn the queen and elevate the possibilities of the surrounding area – in the form of an immense multiuse trail.

The final product has the potential to vastly improve residents’ quality of life in innumerable ways.  But the painstaking crafting of this crown is largely about making connections. Bridging the gap between public and private entities and linking various community gems, the aim is to share the wealth – drawing residents of all communities out of the shadows and into the light, together.

CROWN is a clever acronym for Cincinnati Riding Or Walking Network. Per the CROWN Cincinnati website: “Once complete, The CROWN will connect more than 356,000 people in 54 communities to major destinations like parks, schools, and centers for employment, retail, recreation and entertainment. This walkable, bikable loop will also be fully separated from roadway traffic, providing a safe and accessible option for all Cincinnatians to gather and be active outdoors.”

While many portions of the path have been in existence for some time, the current objective of CROWN is to finish vital connective segments in order to close the proposed 34-mile loop. Directing these efforts is a steering committee comprised of leadership from Cincinnati Parks, The City of Cincinnati, Great Parks of Hamilton County, Wasson Way Board and others. The committee determines the next logical steps for applications of grant money as it becomes available in order to smooth and expedite the entire process.

“So the plan is for a 34-mile loop around the city – link up the Wasson Way Trail, Little Miami Scenic Trail, the Ohio River Trail, and the Mill Creek Greenway,” explains Wade Johnston, Director of Tri-State Trails and member of the CROWN steering committee.

“When we launched our campaign, we had a focus for connecting 24 miles in the loop. It has already completed the Wasson Way Trail from Xavier to Ault Park and hooked up with a path that goes into Mariemont called the Murray Path,” continues Johnston. By 2026, Johnston hopes to see the initial 24-mile plan completed.

The entire 34-mile loop is on track to be fully connected within the next ten years. Wasson Way will be joined to Uptown via a link to Martin Luther King and Reading Road. Grant funding has already been designated for this portion via the steering committee.

“That's going to tie into Evanston, Avondale and touch Walnut Hills to reach some communities that have historically been left out of the trail network. And I'd say that's one of our proudest accomplishments,” asserts Johnston, who runs Tri-State Trails from under the wing of nonprofit Green Umbrella. “Originally the city planned to stop the trail at Xavier, and we, as a part of our fundraising campaign, convinced the city to make this segment a priority.”

Johnston also takes pride in having formed a public-private partnership creating the opportunity to utilize a rail corridor owned by SORTA Metro (Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority) that runs from Xavier to MLK, as well as the the connection of the Western Way corridor from Mariemont down to the Little Miami Scenic Trail.

It’s been a labor of love for avid trail user Johnston, who often bikes as far as he can near his east side home and then hops on the Metro with his bike in tow.

“Right now, Great Parks of Hamilton County is building a bridge over the Little Miami River at the end of the Little Miami trail to Lunken Airport. That is a huge, huge connection that will connect our region's longest trail to downtown Cincinnati,” says Johnston, who will personally benefit from this leg of the trail.

Lighting, safety and trail maintenance concerns are significant details that will need to be worked out to ensure the trails are a positive experience for residents regardless of the time of day or season. Increasing community awareness is key to generating support and involvement for the ongoing care that the trails will require as provisions for proper use.

But for now, while the funding is flowing in, the focus is on allocating it quickly and building the framework.

“We're at a very pivotal moment. We've got a lot of money that is coming down the pipeline from the federal government for infrastructure, and at the same time we have a lot of aging infrastructure in Cincinnati – crumbling roads. In my view, this is the moment to prioritize,” says Johnston.

With this new type of green infrastructure, the hope is to turn the focus away from repaving fractured roadways and to instead lessen their use by promoting walking and biking options. Decreased use of public roadways will slow their decay, as well as lower vehicle emissions.

“Cincinnati metro area currently ranks F for ozone particulates or ozone pollution,” laments Johnston. “That's a stat from the American Lung Association, and the number one contributor to ozone is vehicle emissions. And so, by connecting to these employment centers and places that people want to go, we hope that it will reduce the impact on our air.”

He looks forward to seeing underserved, highway-adjacent communities such as South Fairmont and Avondale (whose residents are struggling with widespread respiratory illnesses) benefitting from cleaner air, as well as increased access to healthy foods via trail connectivity to local grocery stores. Johnston hopes this will hinder the spread of diabetes in these areas, which are often “food deserts.”

In addition, increased employment opportunities for those living in underdeveloped areas due to enhanced transportation capabilities will be the icing on this large, green cake.

“People will be able to safely and comfortably ride their bikes from many different neighborhoods to get to our region's two largest employment hubs, uptown and downtown,” notes Johnston. “It's going to be a game changer.”

All Cincinnati communities, regardless of their situational or economic characteristics, could and will benefit from the ease of access to healthful activities the CROWN will provide.

Michele Gottschlich has a background in health care and works for the Red Cross. She has been heavily involved and invested in supporting local community trails, primarily the Triangle Trail, for many years. Gottschlich is now working to encourage all areas toward backing the development of the CROWN out of concern for Cincinnati’s collective health, as well as local economies.

“I worked in the hospital setting. I've got a PhD in nutrition, and I worked there for 25 years and became so frustrated with all the red tape. We weren't being successful with people's long term chronic health needs,” says Gottschlich. “Trails represent the perfect preventative medicine and intervention. With diabetes, cardiovascular, cancer and osteoporosis all being rampant – trails are a wonderful umbrella to reach everybody’s health.”

Gottschlich established the Connecting Active Communities Coalition to encourage locals to be more active outdoors pre-pandemic. She says that involvement mushroomed due to COVID limiting indoor activities.

“Now even more people realize the value of outdoor recreation, but what is much more challenging to me is trying to reach stakeholders about the value that trails bring for economics,” says Gottschlich.

“These communities that are economically disadvantaged are slower to jump on board because, while they appreciate it and they definitely value outdoor recreation, their mindset is so focused on their community development and funding. You look at Arlington Heights, Lockland, and Reading. They are the ones that I want to help the most. And they're like, ‘We understand, Michele, but we’ve got to figure out a way to bring business back to the community.’ They just don't see that's the link,” she says.

The link Gottschlich refers to is the enhanced opportunity for commerce within and between all communities along the CROWN’s path that increased trail access will provide. Retail, restaurant and other business developments will find an attractive traffic flow of weary travelers in need of respite or retail therapy while on a break from their trail excursions. Those from adjacent areas seeking different goods than what they can find in their own localities will also contribute to neighboring communities’ economies.

Gottschlich sites a personal example pertaining to an upcoming event called Canoes and Conversation which seeks to connect elected officials to the work being done and the resulting possibilities being offered by the revitalization of the Mill Creek watershed: “I was trying to get one of the local caterers for this Canoes and Conversation event, and he said, ‘Well, it'd be great if we could keep our employees, but they can't get to work.’ And we have the same situation in Evendale. In an industrial park, they can't get employees to work,” explains Gottschlich.

“Well, if we had a trail, they could certainly get to work. We’re working with ODOT and Through the Valley on the situation about abandoning the highway, northbound, so that they merge the two highways together south, down through Lockland. They want to provide grants, but will Lockland embrace this opportunity to build a trail there?” Gottschlich wonders.
Beyond those setbacks, Gottschlich also faces issues of fear and racial intolerance from more well off communities, even from their leadership.

“You’d think in this day and age that people are beyond bigotry. I gave a talk to these leaders in the community, and the chair had the audacity to say to me, ‘I love your vision. It’s fantastic. But I'm not going to support it if this is going to link Lincoln Heights to Evendale. I don't want that crime. I don't want those people coming this way.’ Can you believe that?” asks Gottschlich, baffled.

Evendale itself stands to benefit greatly from the connections being made as a part of the CROWN. A bond with nearby community treasure Sharon Woods is being constructed via a trail portion along an abandoned railway leading up the Mill Creek. 

“There used to be a rail line that went up Sharon Creek up through Sharon Hill, through what is now Sharon Woods that hadn't been used in decades and was abandoned. It took a while, but we negotiated to purchase that corridor,” says Dave Schmitt, Executive Director of the Mill Creek Alliance. “They're giving us a conservation easement on it and we're going to do all the stream restoration work which is going to stabilize the banks and the floodplains, which in turn provides the path.”

According to Schmitt, the trail is often what brings people to the stream. The action taken by the Mill Creek Alliance over the past two decades has created a vast local resource out of what was once designated the “most endangered urban river in North America” by conservation group American Rivers. Now the Mill Creek teems with fish and wildlife, and is safe for residents to explore. This is largely thanks to the work done over the years by the Mill Creek Alliance. Schmitt believes the trail is a natural extension of the creek.

“You want to provide access to these natural areas, and the trail does that. It brings people back to the stream, and connects these different wonderful parks like Sharon Woods and Winton Woods and Glendale Gardens,” says Schmitt.

Todd Gailar recently purchased a golf and mini golf facility on a multi-acre tract of land along the Mill Creek. He is encouraging utilization of the Mill Creek by his patrons as well as drumming up increased business via canoe goers along the stream. He has put in a nice pull off and launch for those drifting by to access The Acres as a rest stop, and added a restaurant to increase its appeal. With the coming expansion of the trail right alongside his property, he envisions increased future benefits for all involved.

In the summer of 2021, while Gailar was prospecting the location, he got in touch with Schmitt through the Mill Creek Alliance. Gailar was concerned about the water quality of the stream, and wondered if it would be an asset or a drawback for his business.

“I wouldn't just buy a golf driving range with a mini golf facility. To me, it had to have some component to connect to nature,” says Gailar. “This is like, you’re going there to do something else. But ‘Oh my gosh, there was a bald eagle!’ or ‘I saw a turtle!’ I think those are the things, to me, that are like the element of surprise. It’s the magic that suddenly you've now connected people to this piece of land.”
You can read earlier articles in the First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series here.

Gailar will continue to develop and tweak his business model while awaiting the upcoming trail connectivity. The entire process of connecting the CROWN could take awhile, but anticipation and excitement is building all around, with different developers, investors and communities making plans for the future.

“Our master plan told us that the community wants public space and green space—and communities connected with trails. And that's a top priority for us,” says Todd Palmeter, CEO of Great Parks of Hamilton County. “So, we are currently building the Beechmont Bridge, which is in the CROWN. The funding was all secured through Great Parks of Hamilton County—whether it was federal funds, state funds or our capital project funds.”

Also in the works, according to Palmeter, is a portion coming through Mariemont running east to Newtown called the Columbia Connector. Funding for that piece is to be generated this summer.

“Overwhelmingly, people want to live in communities that are walkable and bikable and safe. Cincinnati doesn’t have a coast with an ocean. We don't have a mountain range like Colorado. But we do have these beautiful river valleys and the scenic hillsides. That's where the topography lends itself to building a trail, and where we have had old, historic rail corridors that we've been able to repurpose,” says Johnston.

“On the west coast, there are water shortages and wildfires, but we are very water secure in Cincinnati,” adds Johnston. “We are building an amenity with the CROWN that is going to attract people to live here and make people want to stay 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.