Along Ohio River, Big Data Lifts Cincinnati

Reconstructing Fountain Square in 2005 was essential to Cincinnati's development following the race riot in 2001. Photo/Keith Schneider
Reconstructing Fountain Square in 2005 was essential to Cincinnati’s development following the race riot in 2001. Photo/Keith Schneider

CINCINNATI – This 226-year-old Ohio River city came unglued in early April 2001, when three nights of riots and a plunge in the number of residents and businesses followed the death of an unarmed black man shot by the police.

Fourteen years later Cincinnati is climbing to the top of the heap of American midsize cities in real estate construction — a surge in investment and new buildings fostered not only by the hard work of social activists and human rights leaders, but also by scores of business starts, job growth, wage increases, public-private partnerships, and transit development that folowed. The city’s population, 297,517 in 2013 according to the US Census Bureau, grew over 600 residents, the first increase since 1950, when Cincinnati’s population peaked at 504,000 residents.

Cincinnati’s resurgence, based in large part on the development of a new big data industry and marketing analytics, is evidence of two powerful and promising trends reshaping the United States in the 21st century. The first is the pace of job growth in American cities, which now is faster than in the suburbs. (See my articles here in the New York Times.) The second is the recovery of the Rust Belt, and especially the strength of cities in the Ohio River Valley. In today’s New York Times I report on Cincinnati’s rise as a center of what city leaders call “consumer science.”

One measure of Cincinnati’s new relevance is the $85 million, 338,000-square-foot, 12-story office building that Atlanta-based Carter is building to house General Electric’s new Global Operations Center. Construction is due to be completed in 2016 in The Banks, an 18-acre Ohio riverfront development located between the city’s baseball and football stadiums. The building and the district will be served by a station stop on the 3.6 mile, $148 million Cincinnati streetcar line, scheduled to open the same year.

GE’s Operations Center, one of five the company is developing globally, contains first floor retail, parking on the second floor, 10 stories of conference and office space, and houses up to 2,000 GE professionals, 1,400 of them new to Cincinnati. The installation serves big development and manufacturing centers that GE operates in the U.S., including lighting and aviation manufacturing sites in two Ohio cities.

The center is being built with the help of $101 million in city, county, and state tax and investment incentives.  In exchange GE committed to employ at least 1,800 people in Cincinnati over the next 18 years, earning a total payroll of $142 million annually to start, or an average of $79,000 a year.

“Cincinnati was chosen due to GE’s long-standing presence in the state and southwest Ohio,” said Dominic McMullan, a GE spokesman, “as well as a pool of local talent and skills required for the roles in the Global Operations Center. In addition, the state, county and city provided a competitive incentive package to GE.”

The 18-acre The Banks in Cincinnati connects center city to the Ohio River. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 18-acre The Banks in Cincinnati connects center city to the Ohio River. Photo/Keith Schneider

Big Data Urban Economics
Another big project that is competing with GE for attention, and illustrates the Queen City’s powerful embrace of new market opportunities, is the dunnhumby Centre just a few blocks away. The $140 million, nine-story, 285,000-square-foot office building opens in the spring and will make the corner of Fifth and Race one of downtown’s most prominent addresses again.

Rising from a parcel that for more than a decade was a city-owned surface parking lot, the new building sits atop 29,000 square feet of ground floor retail space and a six-level, 527,000-square-foot parking deck. It is a joint project of dunnhumbyUSA and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, the city’s non-profit real estate development organization, known here as 3CDC. It houses the fast growing staff of a market analytics firm jointly owned by a small British-owned big data analysis company and The Kroger Company, the grocery store chain, which is based here.
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Gabrielle Gray Shifts Over to Weave A New Story in American Bluegrass Music

Gabrielle Gray, an icon in American bluegrass music and founder of the ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY., today turned over command of the International Bluegrass Music Museum to Carly Smith (r), who serves as interim director pending appointment of a new executive director. Photo/Keith Schneider
Gabrielle Gray, an icon in American bluegrass music and founder of the ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY., today turned over command of the International Bluegrass Music Museum to Carly Smith (r), who serves as interim director pending appointment of a new executive director. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — There was a big change today in American bluegrass music here in this Ohio River city, which over the last decade has established itself as a global center of the quintessential American music born in western Kentucky. The board of trustees of the International Bluegrass Music Museum announced that Gabrielle M. Gray,  the museum’s chief executive, ends her exceptional 12-year tenure as the museum’s capable and creative leader and steps down as executive director overseeing all museum campus operations.

Gabrielle retains her position as executive producer of ROMP, the signature bluegrass music festival she founded in 2004.  Gray also remains the museum’s grant writer. These two sources of income — ROMP proceeds and grant awards — produce most of the museum’s annual revenue, making it possible for the museum to preserve, exhibit, catalog and archive the artifacts and collections of bluegrass music internationally, as well as host many ambitious programs and events throughout the year.

Carly Smith, a staff member since May 2011 and the museum’s capable assistant director since 2014, steps into a new role as interim director. The museum’s board, chaired by Peter Salovey, the president of Yale University, is conducting a nationwide search for a new executive director. The new director is expected to be in place in the spring or summer of 2015.

Gabrielle Gray, great woman of Kentucky, will continue to lead ROMP, the bluegrass festival she founded in 2004 in Owensboro, KY. Photo/Keith Schneider
Gabrielle Gray, great woman of Kentucky, will continue to lead ROMP, the bluegrass festival she founded in 2004 in Owensboro, KY. Photo/Keith Schneider

The announcement was greeted as big news in this river city of 58,000 residents, in large part because Gabrielle, her staff, her board, and city and Daviess county officials collaborated over the last decade to establish bluegrass music as an economic and cultural priority. The city is working with the museum to build a $15.5 million Bluegrass Music Center on a choice downtown lot along the Ohio that was formerly the site of a state office building. The ROMP festival, held annually over the last weekend of June, now attracts the finest bands in bluegrass and over 20,000 attendees annually. In other words, bluegrass is as important to Owensboro as the blues are to Memphis and Chicago, country music is to Nashville, jazz is to New Orleans, and rock and roll is to Cleveland.

Ron Payne, Owensboro’s progressive Republican mayor, who’s led a $250 million downtown redevelopment campaign that includes the new Bluegrass Music Center, commended Gabrielle’s tenure. “I’m tickled to death that Gabrielle is going to stay on and help us with ROMP,” Payne told the Messenger-Inquirer, the city’s daily newspaper. “She’s done an outstanding job. Bluegrass is where it is today, partly because of the work she’s done.”
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Dream Big — Why Ohio River Valley Resurgence is Nationally and Globally Significant

After GE closed its factories, and put 6,000 people out of work in the late 20th century, Owensboro was forced to develop new economic ideas. The city is now the center of bluegrass music in the world. The 23 String Band performs at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in September 2014. Photo\Keith Schneider
After GE closed its factories, and put 6,000 people out of work in the late 20th century, Owensboro was forced to develop new economic ideas. The city is now the center of bluegrass music in the world. The 23 String Band performs at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in September 2014. Photo\Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — More than three years ago, while writing a study that suggested several new 21st century development ideas for this old river city, I discovered the mysteries of the Ohio River Valley.

The region’s natural beauty is immediately striking. The recovering economies of cities and counties, once described as the Rust Belt, impress me. The unexpected governing approaches — cities passing new taxes as a development tool, and seeking consolidation with their surrounding counties — is out of step with what I knew about a region that wholly embraces the no-new-taxes, era of austerity, big government-hating rhetoric of conservative dogma.

My thinking has evolved over the last several years and is now influenced by what I see during the global reporting I’m undertaking for Circle of Blue. What’s plain to me is that the six states of the Ohio River Valley are providing powerful lessons for the country — in local and state governance, energy use, demography, tax investments, business technology, and government\industry collaboration.

My research needs to be deeper on these points, and I’m gathering string for my first book. But my instinct is that a persuasive case can be made that the region that produced the 50-year (1940-1990) American era of industrial innovation and working man prosperity is again forming the foundations of a new and purely American era of economic well-being and ecological recovery.

The Ohio River in Newburgh, Indiana. Photo\KeithSchneider
The Ohio River in Newburgh, Indiana. Photo\KeithSchneider

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Surrounded By Water, Ohio River Valley Experiences Economic Resurgence

One of the centerpieces of Owensboro, Kentucky's Ohio River development is the exquisite fountain in the city's new shoreline park. Photo/Keith Schneider
One of the centerpieces of Owensboro, Kentucky’s Ohio River development is the exquisite fountain in the city’s new shoreline park. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY. — Randy Simes, an urban planner in Cincinnati with a keen sense of observation, founded UrbanCincy.com in 2007 to report on the transitional neighborhoods, evolving culture, and reviving post-industrial economy of his native Queen City of nearly 300,000 residents.

But it wasn’t until he posted before-and-after-pictures from Google Street View last May, comparing changes in well-known Cincinnati street corners from 2007 to 2013, that Simes’ neighbors and colleagues embraced his boosterish view that the third largest city on the Ohio River really was on an economic roll.

The comparative photographs illustrated how diminished, deteriorated, troubled, and low-functioning sections of the city had, over six years, sprouted new offices, new housing, new parks, and fresh opportunity.

“It’s the most popular page on the site by far,” Simes said in an interview. “In some places the difference was really jaw-dropping. These kind of changes have been going on here for awhile now. It’s really interesting because a lot of locals didn’t realize it was happening.”

By no means is Cincinnati’s slow awakening to economic promise and cultural transition unusual in the recovering cities in the six-state Ohio River Valley. It’s a story residents see unfold daily and ought to know.  But to really accept its authenticity will take somebody else to tell them.

And for good reason. 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 981-mile river corridor served essentially as a national economic sacrifice zone. Real work, the day-to-day toil and time that people invested in making things, and that defined for decades how communities viewed their relevance, disappeared seemingly overnight in the 1980s.

A region that in the middle years of the 20th century set world-class standards of income growth, manufacturing technology, working conditions, and middle class prosperity had by the end of century been driven by globalization, obsolescence, deindustrialization, and wage decline to the bottom of the national heap. In the 1990s just about the only new industrial installation constructed on the Ohio River was a hazardous waste incinerator built next door to an elementary school in East Liverpool, Ohio.

With the free fall in the Ohio River Valley states came a general weakness in America’s overall economy and disillusion in the national spirit.

A new century, and a lot of courageous collaborations by municipal leaders, business executives, and university administrators, has turned the page on the region’s prospects.

 Twenty big locks and dams, including this one near Evansville, Indiana, keep barge traffic moving that carries 225 million tons of cargo annually on the Ohio River, the busiet inland waterway in the United States. Photo/Keith Schneider

Twenty big locks and dams, including this one near Evansville, Indiana, keep barge traffic moving that carries 225 million tons of cargo annually on the Ohio River, the busiet inland waterway in the United States. Photo/Keith Schneider

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Olmsted Locks and Dam, Despite $Billions in Overruns, Keeps Rolling Along

The Olmsted Locks and Dam, 17 miles from where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, is the largest inland navigation project in U.S. history. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Olmsted Locks and Dam, 17 miles from where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, is the largest inland navigation project in U.S. history. Photo/Keith Schneider

OLMSTED, Ill. –- Engineers constructing the mammoth Olmsted Locks and Dam spent the summer of 2014 lowering colossal concrete blocks in place on the bottom of the Ohio River.

Submerging each piece, which form the base of a half-mile long dam that is largely underwater, is an exacting convergence of digital measurements, floating cranes, groaning towboats, and divers working in murky waters that takes over two weeks to complete.

Like everything else about the two locks and the dam that reaches from Illinois to Kentucky at one of the Ohio’s widest points, the 120-foot-long, 2,562-ton blocks are outsized. Completing Olmsted has involved solving wicked structural and assembly challenges prompted by its experimental design. It’s meant fabricating one-of-a-kind heavy lift cranes that crawl on land and float on a barge.

It’s also caused engineers and skilled craftsmen to candidly accept the criticism that comes with a steadily rising price tag that appears to have stabilized at $US 3.1 billion, and to endure a nearly 30-year construction schedule that no one anticipated.

Still, those are not the only distinguishing features of the Olmsted project, the largest and most expensive inland water navigation installation ever built in the United States. What sets the Olmsted project apart is its uncanny ability to attract consistent funding in an era when most of the other water infrastructure projects in the United States are so desperate for money they generally are not built or are years behind schedule. For example:

— The Army Corps of Engineers, which constructs and manages inland water transport infrastructure, including the Olmsted Project, has a $US 66 billion backlog of projects.

— The American Water Works Association, a trade organization, released a study in 2012 that found that due to deferred maintenance, replacing and modernizing the more than one million miles of water supply pipes in the United States will require an investment of $US 1 trillion over the next generation.

— The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged by federal law to safeguard the nation’s water quality, reports that “every year across the country, there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks. As many as 75,000 yearly sanitary sewer overflows discharge three to ten billion gallons of untreated wastewater, leading to some 5,500 illnesses due to exposures to contaminated recreational waters.”

My articles on the Olmsted Locks and Dam were published in August in the New York Times, and in September by Circle of Blue.
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