In New York Times, Louisville’s New Growth Sector

 

Along the Ohio River, a new center of job growth, a towboat hauls steel upriver. Photo by Keith Schneider

A new geography of economic growth is unfolding in places that few people anticipated even a decade ago. In my work on energy development, I’ve seen how the northern Great Plains quickly became a center of oil and gas development. The entire Great Plains has generated low unemployment numbers as a result of energy production and rising farm commodity prices.

I’ve also followed the trend into the Ohio River Valley, which is among the national leaders in job growth now. The rust is being scrubbed from the belt. I was in Paducah, Ky. earlier this month for the New York Times and will be writing here about what I found out about the region’s fast-modernizing economy from the pilot house of an Ohio River towboat.

Today, the paper published my article on Louisville, an entrepreneurial city, the largest along the 981-mile Ohio River, which has always been adept at understanding how geography, resources, and new markets can be turned into business opportunities.

Good grass strengthened thoroughbreds that have competed at the springtime Kentucky Derby since 1875. Ample labor at competitive cost made Louisville a manufacturing center, led by Ford, which has kept big assembly plants open here since 1916. And the city’s location along the Ohio River, and near the continental center, turned Louisville into a transport hub, currently reflected in United Parcel Service’s state-of-the art package sorting and distribution center at Louisville International Airport.

Now an eight-story, 200,000 square-foot commercial office and laboratory building nearing completion in Louisville’s central business district signals the steady expansion of the city’s biggest new economic sector, devoted to what local development specialists call “lifelong wellness and aging care.”

See the article here.

— Keith Schneider

 

Chengdu’s Modern Beauty — Bustling, Not Bursting

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CHENGDU, China — Sichuan University, one of China’s best, held its graduation today. The campus, which is green and shady and is woven into this giant city’s central business district, much the way NYU’s campus is sewed into lower Manhattan, was abuzz with young energy.

Not far away, the Fuann River (see pix below) flows through the city, contained in an engineered channel bordered on each side by river-length walkways, parks, and shade trees. At night, the city’s many tall and modern office buildings are lit with LED colors that cascade and swirl, defining the edges of some buildings in thin reds and blues, and bursting upon others in electric purple and yellow and orange.

Thousands of people stroll the riverside walks. The parks are full of dancers, women line dancing to Chinese rock, part of their daily exercise. The young men moonwalking to Chinese and American rap.

One of the irrefutable personal measures of a great city is how well it treats runners. I pack running shoes and shorts on my trips and exercise almost daily with a good run. In the United States, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Portland, and Seattle rank high by this measure. All have incorporated trails and parks and safe running routes into their recreational infrastructure and quality of life.

Overseas, Sidney, Barcelona, and Copenhagen rank high in my running index.

China’s big cities don’t generally measure up as running meccas. The air is usually terrible. The traffic is heavy and dangerous. On the other hand, there’s always interesting stuff going on to keep your mind busy. And drivers are so aggressive that it’s really easy to get hit if you’re not vigilant. Beijing is big and traffic-choked and its linear parks are either too distant or crowded to run in. Running on the streets of Harbin and Shenfang in northeast China was similar. Parks were few and busy streets kept my mind alert. Tianjin also was dusty and paved to excess.

Still, there are three cities that meet the Keith index for a good city run. Qingdao, a coastal city, is beautiful and has a 40-km walking/biking trail that skirts the rocky Pacific shoreline. A riverfront walkway lines both sides of the Huangpu River in Shanghai’s Bund business district.

And the third is here in Chengdu, where parks are more numerous, the Fuann River walk is first rate, and the shaded campus of Sichuan University a treat to run through. Near downtown is the Quanzhi Lanes (see pix below) a neighborhood of narrow pedestrian-only streets full of good restaurants and interesting shops.

This my second visit in a year to Chengdu. It’s pretty clear to me that this orderly, impressive, and prosperous city will soon join Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong as a must-see destination for travelers to China.

— Keith Schneider

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Qingdao, A Beautiful Pacific Coast City, Beckons To Be China’s Cleanest

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QINGDAO, China — The Pacific Ocean tugs at the rocky shoreline on this city’s eastern boundary. Rugged claw-peaked mountains are sentinels to the north and west. Qingdao lays out on a plain of flat ground and rolling hills between the natural barriers, a just-built urban center of high rise office and apartment towers, 10-lane boulevards, and a goal of achieving stature as a model Chinese “eco-city.”

I am spending a couple of days in this city of more than 8 million residents, the second largest in coastal Shandong Province, to conduct the initial research on urban environmental progress, energy efficiency, and water conservation that Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center are doing in collaboration with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. It’s a quick Qingdao hello (pronounced Ching-tow, the last rhymes with how) to meet contacts and get a feel for the more intensive research I’ll complete when I return in early August.

In the context of China’s smoggy cities, choked with traffic, hampered by a flood of chemical and biological emissions of every sort into the air and water, Qingdao is doing pretty well. Much of the household fuel switching from air-polluting coal to cleaner natural gas for cooking and heating was completed within the last decade. Qian Yi, a professor and dean of the Qingdao University of Science and Technology, told me that city officials shut down 100 to 120 old and polluting industrial plants from 2006 to 2010, including a number of really dirty metal plating factories.

Big investments in water treatment plants also are being made. A new subway network is under construction. And Qian, and two of his university colleagues that I met, insisted that the principles of environmental protection were steadily becoming cultural values in a seaside metropolis that is replacing heavy industry with travel and tourism as its primary economic sector (see pix second below.)

“Things are getting better,” he said.

But considering the gains in air and water quality, parks modernization, recreational infrastructure, energy efficiency, and quality of life in American cities, Qingdao has a long way to go. In America’s big cities, we have blue skies now and water clean enough to attract housing and parks back to shorelines that 35 years ago stunk to high heaven.

The same is possible here and in other Chinese cities. But it’s going to take a lot of work. Even on the air quality days that Qingdao authorities consider “good,” the sky is dirty grey and you see what you’re breathing. The surface freshwater resources — rivers and lakes — are all polluted well beyond the American standard of “fishable and swimmable.” This city, like others I’ve visited in China, has the unmistakable scent of raw sewage in the air.

Thousands of hectares of cropland around the city are contaminated with heavy metals because for decades rice and vegetable farmers irrigated with industrial waste water from the city’s chemical and metal fabricating plants. Qian Yi tells me he’s helping to lead a big project here to scrub the metals out of the dirt, but it’s slow work involving planting and harvesting non-food grasses and woody plants that suck up the contaminants.

Another big problem is aquaculture. Shandong’s coast is lined with big fin fish farms (see pix below). The aquaculture producers, he says, treat the dozens of species of farmed fish with growth hormones, antibiotics, and other compounds to speed their development and protect against some diseases.

Moreover, so many floating farms produce so much seafood that the seawater is contaminated with the wastes of tens of millions of finned creatures, though shellfish production is much cleaner, he says.  Even the tides are not sufficient to carry the filth away. Since 2008, coastal waters north of Qingdao in the Bohai Sea have been inundated with dangerous toxic algae blooms.

When I return I’ll try to determine the levels of heavy metals in the city’s food crops, and seek data on the contaminants in the aquaculture products. Qingdao has an office of food safety that Qian says is charged with making periodic assessments and issuing warnings.

“We’ve ignored the balance between the environment and the economy,” he says. “We need to do better.”

— Keith Schneider

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In New York Times, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Revival

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CINCINNATI – The shoreline of this Ohio River city, which thrived in the 19th century with 30 steamboat visits a day and then died in the 20th as pollution and industrial disinvestment pushed people and businesses inland, is emerging again as a new hub of civic and economic vitality.

The New York Times published my article on Cincinnati’s riverfront development, more evidence of the Ohio River Valley’s new upward economic vector. The Times piece is a shorter version of this draft.

Last year, Great American Insurance Corp. opened a $322 million, 800,000-square-foot office tower close to the river that now rules the city’s skyline. Two blocks in front of the 41-story building, the city and Hamilton County are constructing a $120 million riverfront park. It steps up from the shoreline in successive tiers of grass and stone to meet The Banks, a $600 million, 18-acre mixed-use retail, residential, and entertainment development.

In addition, Rock Gaming is building a $400 million, 354,000-square-foot casino downtown that is scheduled to open in early 2013. And in February this year the city started construction on a $112 million, 2.6-mile streetcar line that will link Cincinnati’s business center, and historic Over-the-Rhine residential and entertainment district, to the new riverside park and The Banks.

“We’re seeing a new Cincinnati coming from all of this,” said Mayor Mark Mallory, a two-term Democrat elected in 2005.  “We have a new set of activities, new places to live, new places to work. We are investing in things that grow a city.”

Market Trends
Cincinnati’s economy and its capacity to attract new residents and jobs reflects several converging market trends. The University of Cincinnati, the city’s big public university, has significantly rebuilt its campus in recent years, attracting more students and national attention, and serving as the foundation of an expanding medical research and health services industry. A growing number of independent and innovative marketing and branding companies, many focused on online markets, are developing with the help and through various collaborations and partnerships with Procter and Gamble, the city’s consumer products mainstay. And upriver from Cincinnati, billions are being invested by the energy industry to develop deep shale gas and shale oil reserves, reviving the state’s steel industry, generating a new petrochemical sector, producing thousands of new jobs, and strengthening urban economies from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati.

Digging out from decades of disinvestment is no small goal for a river city that from its founding as a western frontier outpost in 1788 grew by 1950 into an industrial powerhouse of nearly 504,000 residents. But since 1960, as the metropolitan region expanded to more than 2 million people, and globalization drained manufacturing jobs, Cincinnati, which endured three days of riots in 2001, has been losing an average of 4,000 residents annually and median household incomes are well below the state and national averages.

Still, with 80,000 downtown jobs, Cincinnati’s business core is thriving. And with nearly 300,000 residents, 10,000 of them living downtown and now on the waterfront, Cincinnati remains the third largest city along the six-state, 981-mile Ohio River, behind Louisville and Pittsburgh. Like its bigger neighbors, and several smaller Ohio River cities including Marietta, Ohio, Owensboro, Ky., and Evansville, Ind., Cincinnati is experiencing a strong revival in urban core business and residential growth, much of it prompted by development along a scenic river that state and federal water quality data shows is cleaner and more ecologically vital.

On a bright blue afternoon, just the sort of day that prompted Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 to describe this part of the Ohio River as “one of the most magnificent valleys in which man has made his stay, ” the full sweep of Cincinnati’s new development, clearly designed as the city’s gateway, comes into full view.

Construction workers laid stone walkways and new sod in the shoreline park. Alongside, on the upriver end of an 18-acre expanse of grass, walkways, new streets, and pocket parks are the first two buildings of The Banks that opened last year. They are sleek six-story brick and glass buildings, built at a cost of $82 million, that encompass 80,000 square feet of ground floor restaurant and retail space below 300 rental apartments.

The $78 million second phase of The Banks, which is being built by Carter, an Atlanta-based real estate investment firm, is set to begin construction next year. It consists of one more mixed-use building of similar size, a $25 million expansion of an underground parking garage, and the announcement this month that Yard House, a Los Angeles company, will construct a separate 11,000-square-foot restaurant.

Piece by piece, a new neighborhood is taking shape. It combines an old riverfront economic concept based on housing, entertainment, travel, and tourism with a new 21st century focus on the value of professional sports.

Located between the two phases of The Banks is the $110 million, 158,000-square-foot National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened in 2004 and was visited in February by First Lady Michelle Obama. Flanking the entire development, to the east and west, are Cincinnati’s professional sports stadiums – the Cincinnati Bengal’s $455 million Paul Brown football stadium that opened in 2000, and the $337 million Great American Ballpark for the Cincinnati Reds that opened in 2003.

Tax To Support Investment
The construction of The Banks and the 45-acre shoreline park follows more than a decade of significant infrastructure investment along Cincinnati’s riverfront, much of it financed by a one-half cent sales tax approved by the city and Hamilton County voters in 1997. Revenue from the tax supported a $322 million highway modernization that narrowed the Fort Washington Way expressway between the river and the central business district. Engineers shortened the overpasses over the sunken freeway, making it much easier for pedestrians to reach the river from downtown.

The tax also supported the new football and baseball stadiums, and the construction of a $120 million, 5,500-space underground parking garage that is designed to withstand the river’s periodic flooding and serves as the out-of-the-floodplain dry pedestal on which all of the new construction is perched.

“There was some pretty sophisticated engineering, and a lot of new structural work that had to happen in a known floodplain before we could do anything with that part of the city,” said Michael Moore, Cincinnati’s director of transportation and engineering. “These are the sort of changes that take a city a generation to plan and complete.”

Laura Swadel, a vice president at Carter, explained in an interview that putting so many built assets together along an impressive river is proving to be very attractive to businesses and residents. She said the development’s retail space is 92 percent leased, and there is a 66-person waiting list for the one- and two-bedroom market rate apartments, which rent for $1,600 to $1,700 a month.

When it’s fully built out, which will take most of this decade, The Banks will consist of 1.5 million square feet and 1,200 residential units, 400,000 square feet of retail space, and 400 hotel rooms. The cost of construction, she said, was estimated at $600 million. “We’ve found that people want to live here and spend their time in this kind of environment,” she said.

This, of course, is not a new role for the Ohio River, a source of water, resources, and transport for the population growth, jobs, and industrialization that built 20th century America. It’s just that during most of the last two generations the Ohio River Valley was warped by deindustrialization, disinvestment, depopulation, and all manner of economic and environmental deterioration. By the early 1990s one of the rare new industrial facilities under construction along the entire river was a toxic waste incinerator next door to an elementary school that was built upriver in East Liverpool, Ohio.

Those decades of decay are steadily giving way to a new era of dynamism in the Ohio River’s big cities. Unemployment in March in Cincinnati was 7.6 percent, lower than the national average.

Indeed, on April 5, the Cincinnati Reds’ opening day, the city and The Banks held a block party that attracted a crowd estimated by city officials to number 140,000 fans, most of them clad in the team’s signature red and white jerseys, caps, and jackets. People crowded the new streets outside the Great American Ballpark and stood shoulder to shoulder in the district’s new bars and restaurants.

“We’d never seen anything like that in Cincinnati,” said Greg Hartmann, the president of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. “It was almost like we were in a different city.”

— Keith Schneider

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Cleaner Water, Cooler Ohio River Cities

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One of the interesting small towns I’ve visited in the United States in recent month is Marietta, Ohio, home of Marietta College, and basecamp for Jennifer Garrison, a lawyer helping working people negotiate lucrative mineral leases with big oil and natural gas production companies. I’m working on articles for The New York Times and Circle of Blue about potentially momentous oil and gas production joining improving trends in water quality that are pushing the Ohio River Valley’s economic prospects upwards.

Marietta is an apt place to find this story of American resurgence, following decades of economic dismemberment that engulfed almost all of the six-state, 1,000-mile, 72-county river valley, which starts in Pittsburgh and extends to the Mississippi River. Marietta was founded in 1788 by some of the pioneers and scholars that wrote the 1787 Northwest Territories Ordinance, which among other notable features banned slave holding in states north of the Ohio. The city erected monuments along one of its major boulevards that celebrate the influence of law and government to improve the life of the nation and its inhabitants. And while a noticeable number of its clerks and waitresses and shopkeepers are elderly and still working, the town is starting to hold more of its young adults, in part because the riverfront is cleaner and strolling there at dusk and dawn is a treat.

More later.

— Keith Schneider

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