Downtown Cincinnati showing the riverfront and the two stadiums. Courtesy of Kevin D. Hartnell.

Overview:

What Southwest and Southside Virginia can learn from the Super Bowl cities. First of two parts.

I won’t tell you how to vote, but I do have some strong advice on who we should be rooting for in Sunday’s Super Bowl: Clearly, the Cincinnati Bengals.

This has nothing to do with Joe Burrow’s cool-under-pressure quarterbacking or Evan McPherson’s clutch kicking (when have we ever talked about a rookie kicker going into “the big game”?), and not even very much to do with the team’s underdog status. Instead, it has everything to do with the city’s underdog status.

Before every major sports championship, I like to look at the two cities represented to see what economic lessons we can learn that we can apply here to our part of Virginia. (Before the World Series last fall, I wrote about Atlanta and Houston.) In the upcoming Super Bowl, we have a contest representing two cities that could not be more diametrically opposed: glamorous Los Angeles from the trendy West Coast and not-so-glamorous Cincinnati from what we now call “the heartland.”

Clearly we in Southwest and Southside are going to find a lot more in common with Cincinnati, right? (That’s not a trick play: The answer is obviously yes.)

So just what lessons does Cincinnati have for us (other than the importance of scoring a star quarterback as your first-round draft pick)? Here are 10 of them:

  1. We shouldn’t obsess about the past. History is important but we shouldn’t let it get in the way of the present – or the future. Here’s what I mean by that: Cincinnati was glamorous once, a big riverfront city when rivers were the interstates of their day. In 1830, Cincinnati became the first Midwestern city to rank in the nation’s Top 10 biggest cities. For decades, Cincinnati and New Orleans were the only cities west of the Alleghenies to rank so high. Cincinnati stayed in the Top 10 all through the 1800s, rising as high as sixth, before finally dropping out altogether in 1910. It’s not that Cincinnati declined, but that the world around it changed. All around us, we have communities that, by certain measures, can claim to have once been something. In 1859, Lynchburg was said to be the second wealthiest city in the country, thanks to tobacco. Roanoke once was the Detroit of steam locomotives. The coal counties, Danville, Martinsville and lots of other places can all point to some rosy past. Here’s the thing, though: The past is gone. Time to move on, just like the Ohio River flowing past Cincinnati.
  2. Cincinnati has a diverse economy. No single business employs more than 3% of the workforce. That’s important for obvious reasons: The economy isn’t dependent on the ups and downs of any one company or even one sector. We have among us lots of communities that have felt the downside of being dependent on one company – often companies no longer here. Of course, saying a diverse economy is a good thing is easier than achieving it. Still, this is a useful thing to know.
  3. Sometimes things we think are liabilities are really assets. Cincinnati’s riverfront was an economic engine back in the 19th century before river traffic gave way to rail and roads. But then came a time in the ’80s and ’90s – we’re talking the 1980s and 1990s now – when Cincinnati’s riverfront was considered a liability. Cincinnati, like lots of Rust Belt cities, was in a state of decline. The city’s population peaked in 1950 and then started to drop. By the early 2000s, it was losing population at a faster rate than any other city greater than 100,000. Circle of Blue, a website that covers water issues, reports that city’s riverfront fell into the usual pattern of decline and decay. “For 40 years the narrative in the cities and shoreline counties served by the river was such a terrible tale of job losses, urban decay, and population decline that almost all of the 1,580-kilometer (981-mile) river corridor served essentially as a national economic sacrifice zone,” the website says. Now the riverfront is considered one of Cincinnati’s selling points and, since 2011, Cincinnati has been gaining in population again. This seems similar to the way a lot of cities have looked at their downtowns. In the 1970s, Roanoke’s downtown was an embarrassment – a “cancer,” one prominent business leader called it. Now Roanoke’s downtown is considered something of a jewel. We’ve seen similar downtown revivals happening elsewhere – in Lynchburg, in Danville. In Roanoke, the Roanoke River was for a long time considered a nuisance running through the city. Now it’s lined by greenways, and a former industrial brownfield near the river has been turned into the site for the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Danville, similarly, is repurposing the former site of the Dan River Mills as a casino. In Southwest Virginia, abandoned mine sites are now being looked at as sites for potential development, such as the big solar farm that was announced last fall. Elsewhere, old railbeds have been turned into hiking trails. It’s all just a matter of perspective, imagination and, yes, money. Speaking of that money …
  4. Government needs to play a role. Circle of Blue traces Cincinnati’s revival to the 1996 referendum where voters approved a half-cent increase in the sales tax. The revenue from that tax increase helped build the city’s baseball and football stadiums (the latter of which kept the Bengals in town). Public financing of sports stadiums is obviously controversial, but those venues did contribute mightily to the revival of the city’s waterfront, in much the same way that Camden Yards did for Baltimore. That wasn’t all the tax revenues did, though. “The tax increase also supported a $322 million highway modernization that narrowed the Fort Washington Way expressway between the river and the central business district,” Circle of Blue says. “Engineers shortened the overpasses over the sunken freeway, making it much easier for pedestrians to reach the river from downtown. A third use of the tax was the construction of a $120 million, 5,500-space underground parking garage that is designed to withstand the river’s periodic flooding. It serves as the out-of-the-floodplain dry pedestal on which more than $600 million in new private residential, retail, and recreational construction is perched. The new infrastructure includes a $120 million riverfront park.” Cincinnati didn’t just magically become a livable place again; government helped make that happen, with public investment in infrastructure and amenities spurring private investment.
  5. Cincinnati isn’t a tech city (but wants to be). So much of the economy is driven today by technology that it’s tempting to measure every city by whether it can be the next Silicon Valley or the next Research Triangle. Cincinnati, though, will not be mistaken for a technopolis. The single biggest sector of its economy is “trade, transportation and utilities,” which account for 20.5% of the metro area’s employment. For comparison purposes, that’s also the biggest sector in Lynchburg and the Roanoke Valley. In Lynchburg, “trade, transportation and utilities” accounts 19% of the workforce; in the Roanoke Valley, just under 21%. In that respect, the Queen City looks a lot like the Hill City and the Star City. On the other hand, Cincinnati obviously operates on a bigger scale. The city claims the nation’s fastest-growing air cargo hub and the nation’s biggest inland port. It’s no accident that Cincinnati used to turn up in a lot of train songs and truck-driving songs. (Exhibit A: “Pan American” by Dave Dudley. Exhibit B: “Cincinnati, Ohio” by Bill Anderson. Exhibit C: “Cincinnati Hit Parade” by Bill Franklin.) Nevertheless, Cincinnati is building a tech sector as, realistically, every community probably needs to, and seems to be succeeding. One website ranked Cincinnati as the nation’s second most underrated tech city.
  6. Ohio is investing heavily in Cincinnati as a tech center. Last year Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine – a Republican, if you’re curious about such things – announced the state would spend $100 million to help make the Cincinnati Innovation District “a national draw” and create 20,000 jobs. There’s a lot packed in that sentence. Yes, Cincinnati is one of the many cities designating an “innovation district,” a place intended to spur the development of tech-related jobs. The key anchors of that innovation district? The University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Children’s Medical Hospital. If that sounds familiar, it should: That’s essentially what’s happening in Roanoke, where there are great hopes that the confluence of Carilion Clinic, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, the Fralin Biomedical Institute and Carilion Radford University may lead to the growth of an entire life sciences cluster. (Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel recently wrote about that here.) Half of Ohio’s $100 million will go toward growing the number of University of Cincinnati graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (this sounds a lot like how Virginia promised to spend more money to grow certain tech fields as part of its Amazon bid); the other half will be split between the hospital and the university for research. None of this is unique, of course. This is what lots of places across the country – and around the world – are trying to do. Roanoke often looks to Chattanooga as a model for economic development (former railroad town, all that), but Chattanooga now looks to Cincinnati for guidance. In 2019, a delegation of 30 community leaders in Chattanooga traveled north to look at Cincinnati’s innovation district and, as the Chattanooga Times Free-Press put it, “10see in practice what for years has only been a vision for many Chattanoogans: a unified district dedicated to medicine, education and research.” The Chattanooga paper practically gushed over what the Tennessee visitors found in Ohio: “There, they saw what competing hospitals and institutions that historically strategized behind closed doors could accomplish for themselves and surrounding neighborhoods by working together. The effort attracted new development and talent, sparked growth and innovation, and fueled revitalization that benefited the entire community. After 15 years in the making, Cincinnati’s Uptown Innovation Corridor is considered a national model for specialized urban districts.” Late last year, a New York-based venture capital firm that specializes in biotech announced it will move its headquarters to Cincinnati to be closer to the action. Or, as the company Orange Grove Bio put it, “the increasingly robust Cincinnati biotech landscape.”

    All this underscores some points we already knew, but it’s always good to have more confirmation of three more lessons:
  7. Universities are growth engines.
  8. Hospitals are growth engines.
  9. State government matters. This is where there’s one key difference between us and Cincinnati. Cincinnati is Ohio’s third biggest metro (Cleveland and Columbus are bigger) and obviously operates at a major league level (at least in football and baseball). We don’t. Cincinnati doesn’t have to work as hard to get the attention of its governor as we do ours. Still, I have to wonder: I wrote recently about how the tech bills before Congress would designate a certain number of regional tech hubs and shower them with research funding, with a goal of “spreading the digital wealth” so not everything is concentrated in a handful of cities. What if Virginia did the same? Given that we now have a governor with a business background, and a governor who is politically indebted to this part of Virginia, now would be a good time for someone to make that case, eh?
  10. Cincinnati is importing talent. Cincinnati grapples with the same issues that we do – it worries about the loss of young adults to bigger cities. On the other hand, it seems to be winning the talent bidding. A survey of Cincinnati’s growing tech community found that 71% of the workers at tech startups had gone to college out of Ohio, “underscoring the local startup system’s national appeal.” Here is where this side of Virginia has a major advantage – we have an unusual concentration of college, particularly in the Lynchburg, Roanoke and New River valley metros. We don’t necessarily have to lure anyone; we just have to figure out how to keep more of those students here once they graduate. For the rural areas around Southwest and Southside, the challenges are somewhat different, but this also underscores the importance of the Tobacco Commission’s Talent Attraction Program (and the budget amendment from state Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William County, that would increase funding for it).

So there, 10 lessons from Cincinnati that every locality in Southwest and Southside can apply to their own circumstances. As for Los Angeles? Well, we’re a lot closer to Cincinnati – geographically, economically, culturally – but yes, even trendy, star-studded Los Angeles still has some lessons for us. I’ll look at those tomorrow.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.