By John Byczkowski
Enquirer staff writer
What's in the numbers?
Whether it's a city's ranking for population growth, climate for doing business, the arts or the quality of its schools, an explosion of ratings in recent years has created a benchmark bonanza.
But along with the buzz they produce on talk radio, their varying methods of determining a city's pecking order have created more than marketing opportunities for image-stressed regions. As companies, political leaders and citizens look beyond simply the numbers, confusion sometimes follows.
This week Cincinnati found itself on the low end in a U.S. Census Bureau report on population growth. But recently the National Policy Research Council said Cincinnati was 16th best in the nation as a place to do business, and the popular Zagat travel guide ranked Northern Kentucky's Newport on the Levee as the top shopping mall for families in America and the Cincinnati Art Museum as the nation's top art mecca.
Each used a different method to calculate the ranking, sometimes using statistics and often using methods such as voting or polls. The numbers sometimes paint contradictory pictures, but communities trying to upgrade their image to lure people and business find them attractive for marketing and community self-esteem.
Listing an investment?
Just how import rankings can be is illustrated in the rating of Cincinnati by Partners for Livable Communities on its list of 30 "most livable" cities.
Honored to be selected by the Washington-based nonprofit, three local groups pooled together $10,000 to support a Web site devoted to publicizing the list, a requirement for cities included in the Top 30.
A letter from the organization mailed to cities before the formal selection stated the payments were a requirement to receive the award. In Cincinnati, $5,000 was paid by the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. Downtown Cincinnati Inc. and the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau paid $2,500 each.
The Cincinnati chamber supplied about three dozen pages of information and links for the Web site at www.mostlivable.org. The information was posted last week.
Nick Vehr, the chamber's vice president for economic development, said "it would be most unfortunate and from my perspective irresponsibly inaccurate for anyone to suggest that this was payment for an award."
Still, to many in economic development circles, making a watched list is a public relations plum.
The Washington-based National Policy Research Council found city and state officials nationally were so interested in rankings that the council compiled them into one book and added them up to produce average rankings. Combining dozens of rankings in 11 categories - including technology, education and government - the council found that Cincinnati had an average ranking of No. 44 out of 250 cities.
"In a goal-oriented society, knowing where you stand in relation to your peers is important," said Sean Byrne, a spokesman for the council. Rankings "are an easy thing to get your head around."
Rankings such as Fortune magazine's "best cities for business" the Places Rated Almanac command attention, "but I'm not sure the best city for chili and the best city for gym shoes really make any difference," said Joe Kramer, a former economic development executive at the Cincinnati chamber and now executive vice president with Henkle-Schueler Realtors in Lebanon.
"The danger of this whole business is you've got so many (rankings), picking between the quality ones that have some thing to say and the ones that do not has become more treacherous."
The National Policy Research Council's Byrne said that when money changes hands, it calls into question the objectivity of the ranking. Officials of Partners for Livable Communities did not respond to requests for interviews regarding the payments in their program.
City Councilman Jim Tarbell said he, too, is skeptical any time money changes hands for ratings. "I don't think it's a healthy way of doing business."
But Tarbell said he and his staff have begun taking a broader look into the rankings that Cincinnati is given to try to get a handle on what they really mean.
Which ratings should the city pay attention to and promote? Tarbell said he wants to know whether the circumstances of a rating are credible, "so that when ratings like this happen, we can brag with conviction that we really have our feet on the ground, and it doesn't come back to haunt us.
Some organizations that produce annual lists do charge fees for processing and examining data from cities that compete.
For example, the National Civic League, based in Denver, has given the All-American City awards for nearly 50 years, and does not charge a promotional fee to the cities who receive the award, said spokesman Gary Chandler.
"We charge a small fee to apply, but we don't charge a fee to win," he said. Cities pay $200 to $400 for consideration of their applications. About 50 cities applied this year, and 10 winners were announced last week, including Springfield, Ohio. Cincinnati has won the award three times, the last in 1980.
By the numbers
A sampling of Cincinnati rankings
Best arts destination: No. 5, ranked by AmericanStyle magazine.
Most livable city: One of 30 selected by Partners for Livable Communities.
Dirtiest air: No. 7, ranked by the American Lung Association.
Best zoo for children: Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden ranked No. 6 by Child Magazine.
Best cities for singles: No. 39 by Forbes magazine.
Cities that rock: No. 7, ranked by Esquire magazine.
Sweatiest city: No. 89, ranked by Procter & Gamble Co.
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