Sunday, February 1, 2004

Cincinnati Tomorrow stretches legs, influence

Group marks a year of working to keep smart, talented young people in the area

By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Cincinnati Tomorrow put on an After5 Walk event that attracted 40 young people to explore high spots of Oakley. John Vollbracht of Anderson Township (from left), Michael Altman of Hyde Park and Adam Kocher of East Walnut Hills had a discussion at Habit's Cafe.
(Meggan Booker photo)
OAKLEY - It's a blustery Thursday night. Forty new friends share pizza at Dewey's, sample the flavors at Aglamesis Bros. Ice Cream, peruse the albums at Wizard's CDs and share long, spirited conversations at Habit's Cafe.

It's a close, personal look at what one Greater Cincinnati neighborhood offers.

This time it was Oakley. Once it was Covington; another time it was Northside. All are Cincinnati Tomorrow's After5 Walks, an initiative launched in January 2003, shortly after the group was conceived.

The idea behind Cincinnati Tomorrow - now celebrating its one-year anniversary - is to keep smart, talented young people in the area by showing off its gems and making necessary improvements.

Folks inside and out say it's working.

"Frankly, they're a real resource for us," says Cincinnati City Councilman David Pepper. "The kinds of things they think would be good for the city is precisely what (local government) needs to be listening to."

Cincinnati Tomorrow - which sends weekly e-mails on initiatives and events to 1,600 people - developed a comprehensive plan for the city, launched popular social events, has drawn several hundred people to several community issue dialogues, and has garnered national attention.

Its founder, Nicholas Spencer, even ran for City Council.

All in one year.

The need was dire. A Cincinnati Enquirer analysis of census data showed that more than 7,200 people born between 1966 and 1975 left Hamilton County in the 1990s, a nearly 6 percent loss. Only nine of the country's 75 largest metro counties lost people at higher rates.

A year ago, Cincinnati didn't have an organization specifically addressing the exodus of the young and creative.

The Urbanists, a group devoted to helping the urban core of this region, were focused on a section of Over-the-Rhine. Give Back Cincinnati, an organization of young professionals, makes substantial contributions to the community, but its focus is volunteer work.

"One of the strengths of the organization is the openness of the members to new people. I started coming to (After5) Walks about a year ago and found myself welcomed by the people there. Cincinnati oftentimes gets a bad rap as a closed city, and I think (Cincinnati Tomorrow) represents a definite contradiction to that general idea."
- Shawn Mummert, 30, Columbia Tusculum

"I was on the first After5 Walk. You had this great cross-section of people who had never experienced some of these things before. . . . I think what they've continued is a neat forum for people who want to go out and explore."
- Sid D'Souza, 25, Walnut Hills

"Cincinnati Tomorrow really works well. It's a great symbol of people in the city who want to improve the city they live in. I see so many people moving out, moving away or just complaining about where they live. What makes Cincinnati Tomorrow different is that they're actually trying to do something about it. They're proactive."
- Jay Kalagayan, 30, Walnut Hills

What should be the next steps for Cincinnati Tomorrow? What recommendations would you suggest they follow to help keep and attract young professionals? Take our poll.
June 2002: Cincinnati Tomorrow founding member James Czar attends seminar by Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, on creativity as the key to a city's success. He spreads the word to Barry Gee, now executive director.
November 2002: Czar and Gee, disappointed in the defeat of school levies and a light rail initiative in local elections, brainstorm ways to make positive changes. Xavier University student Nicholas Spencer forms Cincinnati Tomorrow to address the city's inability to hold on to talented young people.
Dec. 9, 2002: More than 50 people attend group's first official event, the City Summit. Gee and Czar attend, join forces with Spencer.
January 2003: The three, joined by Stacey Recht, write the Creative City Plan, highlighting what the city does right and ways it can improve.
January 2003: Introduces After5 Walks, bringing people to different neighborhoods.
Feb. 20, 2003: Unveils the Creative City Plan to the mayor, city council and public.
June 5, 2003: Hosts Call to Action meeting, 150 people attend.
July 2003: Kicks off Local Music and Art in the Public Eye initiatives.
September 2003: Cincinnati Tomorrow board appointed.
October 2003: Launches tours of forgotten Cincinnati subway.
January 2004: Starts online column, "Beyond the Box," on finding solutions to local problems by looking to other cities.
Enter Spencer. The 25-year-old downtown resident had a vision that was part love story for a city, part action.

"A lot of the folks I started school with were moving on and going to other cities," says the Xavier University student. "Nobody was stepping up in any organized way and doing something about it."

A common vision

Spencer, a native of Northern Kentucky, did not win a seat on City Council in November - he placed 21st in a field of 26 candidates.

But he garnered more than 7,000 votes and, today, continues to argue that the area has three major problems:

• Community relations. "Not just race relations, but community relations in general. People in this town have a bad tendency to do things in an adversarial way."

• Lack of clear vision. "I don't think we have strong leadership as a city. There's no shared vision of the future."

• People and businesses leaving. "A lot of folks are throwing in the towel."

Spencer wanted to start something, but wasn't sure how. "I just randomly called people, trying to get something together," Spencer recalls.

He eventually met Barry Gee, 44, of Hyde Park, and James Czar, 29, of downtown, two others concerned about the state of Cincinnati.

Disappointed by the November 2002 elections, in which school levies and a light-rail initiative failed, Gee and Czar wanted action. In Spencer, they discovered a common vision. "Why duplicate efforts?" Czar explains.

Spencer chose the name, Cincinnati Tomorrow, because it focuses on the future. That's the point.

Its first meeting, at the 20th Century Theater in Oakley, was a City Summit, designed to dissect Cincinnati's strengths and weaknesses. Shortly after, the core group of Spencer, Gee and Czar - along with Stacey Recht, 25, of downtown - drew up a plan of action.

Their successes

Cincinnati Tomorrow's first accomplishment was its 42-page Creative City Plan, a comprehensive, detailed analysis of what Cincinnati needs to do to improve.

The plan includes recommendations that include marketing the city as an open place and establishing an all-night transportation system to connect nightlife and cultural venues. The document also highlights what this city does right - like the Midpoint Music Festival, the YPCincy network through the Chamber of Commerce and Enjoy the Arts, which offers theater, music events and other cultural experiences to young people at a discount.

The plan was presented to Mayor Charlie Luken, City Council and the public on Feb. 20 at Plush Lounge.

It didn't exactly land with a thud. In fact, Luken says he's had very little direct contact with the group since that night. Still, he says, the plan has had a "lasting impact."

"Look at the accomplishments we've made in the arts, setting aside $2 million a year," Luken says. "I consider that part and parcel of the creative class."

At the same time it was launching the Creative City Plan, Cincinnati Tomorrow established After5 Walks, a popular social event. Each Thursday, the group explores about four destinations in a neighborhood, all within walking distance. The goal is to discover Cincinnati treasures, experience culture and art, and patronize local businesses.

The events are informal with an average of 30 people attending. Supporters say they go places they wouldn't have ventured before, and they unearth fun places to go while meeting new people.

"As a woman in Cincinnati, there are a lot of places I would have been scared to go by myself," says Sharon Kierein, 37, of Covington. "It's given me a level of familiarity with some very neat places I might not otherwise have discovered."

Cincinnati Tomorrow also offers lectures on the area's brewery history, and its popular subway tours have taken more than 250 people into the city's abandoned, underground subway since October.

What people are saying

There are few naysayers. In fact, feedback has been decidedly positive.

Luken's only complaint is that Cincinnati Tomorrow has become political at times - many members supported Spencer's City Council campaign - and has largely confined its efforts to young professionals.

"I consider myself part of the creative class," Luken explains. "They're all 20-somethings, but I'll take the 30-, 40-, 50- and 60-somethings, too. People my age are moving back downtown, too."

Councilman Pepper, who is 32, calls the group's first year "phenomenal."

"That kind of energy, bringing young professionals together committed to the city, is exactly what we need. And socially what they're doing is great," he says.

Jason Bruffy, 26, has used Cincinnati Tomorrow's help in starting the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, a 12-day downtown festival to showcase innovative, cutting-edge arts.

"It's an amazing feat for an organization to start out so small and gain so much steam," he says. "The group has made enough of a mark on this city that people are paying attention to their causes. ... They're reaching out to other organizations and helping them thrive, because it all revolves around making this city a better place."

The recent Oakley walk was the first Cincinnati Tomorrow function for University of Cincinnati student Wes Flynn, 30. He says the group is needed to help people connect.

"In an era where we spend so much time isolated from other people, this is a chance to reignite the community," Flynn says. "They're a social outlet as well as a positive force."

Even other young professional groups are flattering.

"Cincinnati has always had a shortage of people who will stand up for something," says Sid D'Souza, 25, who is on the board of trustees for the Chamber of Commerce and heads up the Cincy Ivy Young Alumni Club.

"But if you can create something that reaches out to five or 10 more people, that's worthwhile, you've accomplished something," he adds. "Five new minds are better than none."

Recently, people from Seattle visited Cincinnati young professional organizations to figure out what's clicking here.

"We were particularly impressed with Cincinnati's huge list of young professional groups and impressed with the young city council," says Linnea Noreen, program director at the Seattle YMCA. "We wondered 'Was there a movement going on? How did that happen in Cincinnati?' "

Tomorrow's future

Late last year, Cincinnati Tomorrow launched several new programs: Local Music and Art in the Public Eye.

The arts initiative aims to fill vacant storefronts with artwork, paint Metro buses and commission artists to create trashcans, benches and sidewalk murals in Over-the-Rhine and other neighborhoods.

The Local Music initiative entails setting up a Web site to stream recordings of local music concerts, replacing elevator music with Cincinnati bands, marketing the Midpoint Music Festival, and setting up outdoor sound systems to play local sounds.

Coming this year: Launch, a program that offers quick connections to young professionals new to town. Through local employers and real estate agencies, Launch will locate new residents who fall into the creative class. That person will receive a questionnaire about his likes and dislikes - nightlife, arts, music.

That way, someone who wants an urban lifestyle where he can walk everywhere won't end up in West Chester.

Convergys will be the first company to try Launch.

Cincinnati Today is also under new leadership. In late 2003, the board of directors was solidified and Gee became executive director.

Gregory Korte contributed. E-mail

Cincinnati Tomorrow stretches legs, influence
Ambitious scholars, insufficient dollars
Common mistakes in the college aid game
Early worrying saved financial scurry
Sacrifices produce rewards
Package of aid puts student through school

Read-In spotlights black authors
Pipes burst as temps plunge to record low
Cholesterol drugs studied
Kings schools study levy, layoffs
Miami U. confronts rumors, myths
Serving others, nun reaches 100
City connects with citizens
Trustee wants remarks first
Tour, talks give students positive view of Cincinnati
Neighborhood briefs

Bronson: March Madness weeks away, but I'm already mad
Radel: USS Indianapolis will always haunt their memories, dreams
Indiana woman to celebrate 106

Gerald Mullins had ad agency
George Nassauer was P&G executive

Measure would permit 10-day student leaves
Legislators spar over arena
500 could be part of suit against Ky. diocese