Sunday, March 11, 2001

Great cities test


How does Cincinnati stack up to its regional rivals?

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        Once upon a time, Cincinnati was a shining star on the Ohio River. So how are we doing now?

        To find out, our Great Cities Test, designed and researched by Enquirer Editorial Writer Tony Lang, will rate our metropolitan area on a 10-scale against four Midwest rivals: Columbus, Cleveland, Louisville and Indianapolis. We'll also test our metro against “gazelle” cities such as Portland and Charlotte.

        Today and for the next nine Sundays in our Forum section, we will ask how we are doing in nine categories: livability/identity, housing, education; work/industry, transportation, governance, economic development, police/courts and environment.

        On the 10th Sunday, we will crunch the numbers for a final grade for 2001. Next year we'll do it again to see what changed.

What makes a great city?

        It's not size, although some critical mass is necessary. A great city should be the healthy hub in its region. Its population and commerce should be growing. It should be well-governed and organized to act fast when it sees opportunity. It ought to be a place people are drawn to visit and live in. Great cities have an unmistakable character, a sense of their own identity.

        Our goal is to find out how Cincinnati measures up.

        Cincinnati ranks high on lists of the “most livable cities,” but the quality of life that makes our region so friendly to families remains one of our best-kept secrets. We outscore rival cities in arts, sports, cost of living and other categories, but they do a better job of showing off what they have while Cincinnati hides its shining lights under a blanket of complacency.

        The grades: On a 10-point scale for livability, we rank metro Cincinnati at 8, Cleveland at 8, Columbus at 7, Indianapolis at 7 and Louisville at 6 (see Criteria box for research sources).

        How we compare: Places Rated Almanac 2000 ranks of 354 metropolitan areas. Cincinnati is 11th, up from 19th in 1997. Salt Lake City is first. Louisville came in 14th, Indianapolis 23rd, metro Cleveland 28th and Columbus 47th.

        Other fast-growing cities: Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., 6th; Phoenix-Mesa 10th; Austin-San Marcos 20th; Portland-Vancouver, 26th; Charlotte, 55th. Last year, Money Magazine named Portland its No. 1 “most livable.” Partners for Livable Communities included Cleveland and Charlotte in the “four most livable cities of the decade.”

TEST 1: LIVABILITY
Cincinnati — 8
   
Family-friendly neighborhoods, nationally ranked attractions, school choices, acclaimed river views, top airport, architectural gems, new riverfronts, inept marketing

Cleveland — 8
   
Revived downtown, lakefront, great attractions, ethnic neighborhoods, world-class med centers, more of everything, including problem schools, rust-belt zones, tough winters, a HUD "doubly burdened city'

Columbus — 7
   
High-growth, vibrant arts, under-40 civic leaders, newer housing, strong job growth, Wexner Center, capital-city advantage, new Center of Science and Industry, boring cityscape

Indianapolis — 7
   
Revitalized center, unified strategy, sports center, retail spinoffs, UniGov, innovative programs, capital-city advantage, largest children's museum, Circle Center Mall, bland cityscape

Louisville — 6
   
Cost of living bargain, health care center, theater festival, charming Old Louisville, Churchill Downs, UPS airport hub, reviving waterfront

        National ratings are often based on attendance figures, dollars spent and number of events rather than quality. Numbers don't tell the whole story, although market size does have its impact:

        Metro Cleveland's population tops 2.9 million (nine counties). It has a superb orchestra, theaters and museums.

        Metro Cincinnati's population is second of the five cities at 1.9 million (13 counties, three states).

        Indianapolis at 1.5 million (nine counties) matches Columbus at 1.47 million (six counties).

        Louisville's population is 1 million (seven counties, two states).

        Attractions: Places Rated ranked us behind Cleveland and Indianapolis. But its count of Cincinnati attractions and pro sports teams did not include the new Newport Aquarium or Kentucky Speedway. Playhouse in the Park is the region's best theater, but our lack of a mid-size theater like the Emery detours top performers to Louisville, Dayton and Columbus.

        Only Cleveland can challenge Cincinnati's beauty. Our walkable cityscape, hills, architecture and riverbanks still show why Churchill in 1933 called Cincinnati the “most beautiful” of America's inland cities.

        We have a zoo ranked in the top five nationally; Paramount Kings Island is a top 10 amusement park. Only Cleveland matches Cincinnati's two pro sports teams. And for those who prefer books to baseball, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County ranks third in the nation in circulation.

RESOURCES
    This series comparing cities is a mix of hard data and subjective, unscientific judgments. The grades are Enquirer opinion, but based on many sources, including:
  • The U.S. Census
  • HUD State of the Cities 2000
  • Places Rated Almanac 2000
  • Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and other chambers:
      Cincinnati
      Columbus
      Cleveland
      Indianapolis
      Louisville
      Charlotte
      Portland
      Austin
      Phoenix
  • Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission
  • Money Magazine
  • Bestplaces.net
  • National Association of Realtors
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • Gallis Report
  • Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey
  • The Citizens League Research Institute of Cleveland
  • National League of Cities
  • Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation
    Others here also are seeking indicators that can rate how Cincinnati is doing against its competition. In September 1994, the Cincinnatus Association started developing “benchmarks” for metro Cincinnati. Others have joined the hunt, including Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, other planning boards, Metropolitan Growth Alliance, League of Women Voters, Sustainable Cincinnati, Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
    You can contribute: Tell us how you rate the cities in any of the nine categories or overall. Write to us: Great Cities Test, Enquirer Editorial Page, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45202. Or E-mail to letters@enquirer.com.
        Recreation: Places Rated ranked us last among the five cities. Yet Citizens League Research Institute of Cleveland rated Cincinnati even with Cleveland in government spending on parks and recreation (at 2 percent of total budget) and ahead of Indianapolis. Both Fortune Magazine and Employment Review and Outlook rated Cincinnati in their top 20 places to live and work.

        Cost of living: In 2000, a composite of 60 to 70 items including housing and grocery prices sets the national average at 100: Louisville has the lowest costs at 97.3; Cincinnati is second at 98.3. Indianapolis is 100.9, Columbus is 103 and Cleveland is 109.8. And here's a surprise for disgruntled taxpayers: Bestplaces.net lists property taxes per $1,000 valuation, and Cincinnati is lowest at $12.40, followed by Indianapolis ($14.10), Louisville ($14.59), Columbus ($15.70) and Cleveland ($19.89).

        Schools: Cleveland has one of the worst public school systems anywhere. Cincinnati's are becoming a national model of reform, and our region has more educational choices at private, parochial and charter schools.

        Giving: Indianapolis' Lilly Endowment is the nation's largest foundation, providing a huge boost to local causes. Cincinnati's top foundations: Procter & Gamble, Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Federated Department Stores Foundation, Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati and Cinergy Foundation. The United Way here ranks fifth in per capita giving, far above our ranking by size. Cincinnati's Fine Arts Fund is among the top three in the country for total dollars raised.

        Neighborhoods: We are blessed with many strong, loyal neighborhoods — a strength in stability but a drawback in governing. Our downtown is safer and healthier than most, with a gathering place other cities envy, Fountain Square.

        Health care: Places Rated ranked Cincinnati fourth in health care out of the five cities, ahead of Columbus. Yet Cleveland's Research Institute ranks Cincinnati better than Indianapolis and Cleveland on infant mortality.

        Dining: We're proud of Mobil's five-star love affair with the Maisonette. But our menu of ethnic restaurants is bland.

        Religion: Metro Cincinnati has more than 1,000 places of worship, yet a new national survey on social engagement by Greater Cincinnati Foundation reports only a third of us attend services weekly. Our region is jeweled with historic churches that go largely unnoticed.

        Civility: Please? Our city is famous for good manners. But on the quotient for interracial trust, Cincinnati ranked under the national average at 95, still ahead of Cleveland (91). Half of us cite personal hang-ups to becoming more involved in the community. Yet Cincinnati is still the small-town sort of place where people stop to help if your car breaks down. This city invents huge public festivals as if we can't get enough of each other.

        At Procter & Gamble, they say the second hardest thing is to get good people to move here. The hardest is to get them to leave once they settle in.

        Identity: Newcomers, minorities and gays find it tough to gain acceptance. But once accepted, many make friends for life. Procter is renowned as a tough but principled corporation, and that rock-ribbed decency pervades our city. It should be a source of pride.

        Ken Griffey Jr. forfeited earning power to come home — a story that is remarkably typical of our city. Tycoons and pro athletes who could live anywhere choose Cincinnati.

        We have been inept at telling the world why. So the bungling Bengals or Jerry Springer are stamped on our national passport.

        Both Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have trouble hyping themselves. Cincinnati's dated “Blue Chip City” nickname is being replaced with “Let the spirit move you.” To where?

        Cincinnati files more patents per year than any of its regional rivals or the entire state of Kentucky combined. But we can't invent a good slogan that captures our personality.

        Why it matters: The Internet and global economy have made it possible for high-tech talent and companies to live and work anywhere. Businesses follow talent. Cities that cease to attract top talent end up second-tier. This is not just about tourists.

        What others are doing: Indianapolis adopted a plan to become a world center for amateur sports. It paid off in shopping malls, restaurants, business development and city pride. Portland has a five-year plan for neighborhoods, but “Cincinnati doesn't even have a five-month plan,” according to Councilman Phil Heimlich. We need a regional strategy.

        Columbus Arts Council has enlivened all its arts. Cincinnati is the only one of the regional five without an arts council.

        Indianapolis Front Porch Alliance, founded in 1997 by innovative former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, links city government, churches and neighborhood groups for community building.

        One reason it's so hard to identify a Cincinnati nickname, motto, attitude, humor, regional flavor is that we are not united behind a common goal, other than stability. That makes for a content city, not a great city.

        A proposed riverfront neighborhood, The Banks, offering entertainment, housing and retail on the riverfront, is our best shot to revitalize Cincinnati.

        A test: Cincinnati's defining asset is being a great place to raise a family. That can't be measured by the lack of sleazy adult sin strips or the intangible Midwestern values that go deep as bedrock. But our strength — satisfaction — is also our weakness — complacency.

        Cincinnati's family-first ethic is a powerful magnet that holds our region together. But we need to find a way to claim that identity and harness it to build a better future, or the high-scoring livability we enjoy now could evaporate.
       

        Tony Lang is an Enquirer editorial writer and member of the Editorial Board. You can call him at (513) 768-8528 or E-mail at: tlang@enquirer.com.
       

       



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