Retooling Cincinnati’s Industrial Neighborhoods for the 21st Century

In the last few years, evidence has shown the possibility for a revival of manufacturing within the United States. Recent trends have seen the “reshoring” of factories – with polls showing more and more companies considering the move – and the expansion and opening of new factories as well.

Much of this reindustrialization has occurred in the South and, for the most part, outside major urban areas. For far too long cities, especially northern cities in the Rust Belt, have written off an economy based on manufacturing as something from a bygone era, never to come back.

Spring Grove Village
Once viable industrial neighborhoods like Spring Grove Village have made way for the proliferation of car dealerships and fast food restaurants. Could their future be something greater? Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

Cities from Cleveland to Flint have tried to reinvent themselves as a something like a Rust Belt version of Portland, Oregon, thus turning their back on any sort of industrial and economic policy in the hopes that gentrification and arts will revive their city.

While these sorts of developments have a place in economic policy for American cities, it is an unwise move for industrial cities such as Cincinnati to turn their backs on the opportunity to attract industry into the city once again.

Cincinnati is well-positioned to capitalize on a manufacturing renaissance in the nation. With incredible industrial infrastructure, an already heavy industrial sector in the region, and an incredible amount of vacant space, the city can create an economy where the bustling coffee shops and boutiques of Over-the-Rhine are only a short walk from the buzz of manufacturing (advanced and traditional alike) in Queensgate and the West End.

The days of entire cities being built upon industrial production have passed, that is without a doubt. But when urbanists discuss cities with mixed-use, diverse economies, manufacturing must be included.

These higher-than-average paying jobs could attract residents and revitalize neighborhoods. Through aggressive economic and industrial planning in the city, zoning that doesn’t ignore manufacturing, labor cooperation, and innovative education initiatives, Cincinnati could become a nationwide example of a city building a solid, diversified economic foundation on which to reclaim its storied past and prepare for a healthy future.

Editor’s Note: Jacob D. Fessler is a new member of the UrbanCincy team. He grew up in Northern Kentucky’s Erlanger community and went on to study International Relations and Latin American Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, and is currently studying International Affairs at the University of Cincinnati.

Jake will focus on urban economics and specifically examine policies that impact our region’s industrial – and thus economic – competitiveness. How and what can Cincinnati do to inject new life and jobs into the Mill Creek Valley? How should our community leaders be looking to improve earnings and the financial health and stability of our residents? These are the kinds of questions he will be exploring. Please join us in welcoming Jake to our team!

  • The timing seems to be right for small scale production right now with people wanting a more emotional connection to the things they buy. CNCY MADE is an example of a grass roots effort to bring manufacturing back to Cincinnati.

  • Mark Christol

    Cincinnati needs to sell itself to outsiders who want to invest in manufacturing, too. We can’t just expect people to come to us.

  • BillCollins45227

    Thanks to Urban Cincy for focusing more on manufacturing. This City has a lot of well-built, extant industrial buildings in it that are well-suited for small manufacturers. Plus, the Port Authority has the opportunity to acquire large tracts of land in the Lower Mill Creek Valley, as it is planning/hoping to do, to attract large-scale manufacturing and logistics firms to Queensgate and Cumminsville that will employ potentially thousands of people in good-paying jobs.

    This kind of industrial re-development will be the key to revitalizing the West Side of the City of Cincinnati (Price Hill and Westwood, in particular) and the western suburbs like Delhi that need a shot in the arm. It’s no secret that the transition in this City during the last 50 years from a transit orientation to an automobile orientation unleashed a geographic “splattering” of better-paying jobs out of the Lower MIll Creek Valley and into other geographic areas that are located farther away from the West Side. This made West Side residential neighborhoods less attractive to commuting workers, driving many middle-class and working-class people out of the West Side.

    To turn this around and stabilize key neighborhoods like Delhi, Price Hill and Westwood, this re-industrialization of the lower Mill Creek Valley is, I believe, the most critical task that the City and County leadership face here in this decade. Let’s hold their feet to the fire. If this reindustrialization is accomplished, it will be a major shot in the arm to the entire region, benefitting every community in the Tri-State region and stabilizing the budgets and public services of every local government in this region.

    Thanks to UrbanCincy for recognizing this, and moving on it.

    • Matt Jacob

      I agree with you that this wave of re-industrialization is a huge opportunity for the city and region right now, and that re-purposing the Mill Creek Valley to capture it needs more attention. Luckily the Port recognizes the opportunity in Queensgate and is working in this direction. If it could only find the funding to really get things going, I think we’d all be better off. More industrial jobs and businesses in the heart of our region and city are crucial to stabilizing budgets and diversifying the rebound that we’re already starting to experience.

      It’s true that industrial jobs have migrated to NKY and north towards TriCounty and farther up I-75, but the West Side still remains primarily residential and filled with middle/working-class people today. It’s still a great place to commute from to both of those industrial areas, and many do. Other than right around the river, Mill Creek Valley, and a few other sections like Crookshank, most of those neighborhoods you mention don’t have many industrial uses actually. While I don’t disagree with you that re-industrializing the Mill Creek Valley would have spillover affects there, I think you’ve mis-characterized why the West Side is struggling.

      The affordability of the housing stock, which historically was the basis for the middle/working-class people who’ve lived here, has recently attracted the low-income people who have been displaced from places like the West End, OTR, and other areas of the city that have been shaken up. Especially the eastern neighborhoods with the oldest/cheapest building stock have been hollowing out over time as many middle/working-class saw the writing on the wall and fled to the new builds in NKY and West Chester suburbs in the time of cheap credit. Some of the neighborhoods like Upper/Eastern Price Hill and the Incline District are coming back as they’ve worked through the problems with the help of organizations like Price Hill Will, but others like some sections of Westwood are as dangerous as ever.

      I don’t see bringing industry back to the the Mill Creek Valley as the answer to these West Side problems. It’s not that simple. Having closer access to these types of good-paying jobs could help lift up some of these new residents, but it could also make the prices rise and push them and other middle/working-class people elsewhere.

      Overall re-industrializing the Mill Creek Valley should be great for our region though; provided that we can add new types of manufacturing instead of just stealing them from other places in the region. We need to fill this hole by growing the pie, not just by stealing a share from the other established industrial areas. Luckily it seems that much of the growth in industrial is coming from abroad to America so this shouldn’t be as difficult as long as we have a place ready for them to go when they get here, which is why it is so crucial that the Port have the funding to get it ready. Glad attention is being brought to the issue so that we don’t let this opportunity pass us by.

    • BillCollins45227

      Thanks for your note, Matt. Your contribution to this discussion is very helpful.

      Yes, I realize that the primarily residential areas of the West Side that I mentioned such as Price Hill, Delhi and Westwood, there are few manufacturers now and never have been. The point I was trying to make is:
      (1) The employment base that made the residential growth in Price Hill, Delhi and Westwood possible in the early days (let’s say 1890 to 1960) was the large employment base in the Lower Mill Creek Valley that existed at that time.
      (2) That employment base shrunk after the construction of the Mill Creek Expressway in the 1950s. Also, simultaneously at the national level, there was the emergence in the 1940s and 1950s of economic policies that encouraged manufacturing jobs to leave traditional industrial cities in the Northeast and MIdwest for destinations in the Southern states and overseas.
      (3) As these events unfolded in Cincinnati, and in other cities located across the MIdwest and Northeast, some — but not all — neighborhoods in these cities were particularly hurt by this decline in manufacturing. In our region, the communities located near the traditional manufacturing valleys — in particular the lower portions of the Mill Creek Valley and the upper portions of the Great Miami Valley — were hit the hardest. Specifically, this means that the residential areas west of the lower Mill Creek — in contrast, for example, to the communities located near the largely non-industrial LIttle Miami River valley — were hit hard. So were towns like Middletown and Hamilton that are located on the Great Miami Valley.

      (4) These effects on residential communities did not always unfold immediately when the factories closed. But, over time, as those employment bases declined in the Lower Mill Creek and the Great Miami Valleys, young home buyers had fewer and fewer reasons to buy in those areas, and more reasons to guy in other areas that are located closer to where the new better-paying jobs have emerged during the last 50 years. Examples of these new locations where young middle-class home buyers have moved are communities like Blue Ash, Montgomery and Mason, which 50 years prior to the construction of I-275 and I-71 were insignificant little towns that nobody paid much attention to.

      – – – –

      You’re right that industrial redevelopment in the lower Mill Creek Valley should involve more than just stealing jobs away from Northern Kentucky, Butler County and Warren County. I’m sure the Port Authority recognizes that, and I’m sure that what they are working towards is more than the usual Kentucky-vs-Ohio game where one state raids an office building or capital for a residential tower away from the other side of the river.

      Because the international dynamics for the location of high-value manufacturing plants is now in flux again (China is not the magnet that it was even 5 years ago), it seems clear that we’ll see a measurable shift in high-value manufacturing to the USA. This should involve U.S. companies returning production here as well as foreign companies choosing to locate plants here as opposed to, for example, Canada or Eastern Europe.

      This will happen at the same time that the “logistics” industry — traditional trucking, traditional rail, along with the overnight services like FedEx, DHL and UPS, the distribution centers for on-line merchants like Amazon and Ingram Micro, as well as these new hybrids of, for example, remanufacturing operations located near FedEx and UPS hubs — will continue to grow.

      These economic and technology-driven trends provide traditional industrial cities like Cincinnati — especially cities like Cincinnati that area blessed with good rail, interstate freeway, air and river transport and a central location — with huge opportunities for growth of *new* high-wage employment that goes far beyond just raiding jobs from Warren County or Boone County. It seems obvious to many people that the best place to build infrastructure to attract these new opportunities is the Lower Mill Creek Valley. The location (near I-75, the rail lines and the river) is perfect, and today the land in the Lower Mill Creek Valley is relatively cheap.

      And, again, as the Lower Mill Creek Valley is redeveloped into a significant manufacturing/logistical center, good-paying jobs will be created and people who work in those jobs will start to take a 2nd look at the West Side neighborhoods like Price Hill, Delhi and Westwood.

      I say that from personal experience. Here on the East Side, in Madisonville where I live, the growth in high-wage employment from Uptown and along the I-71 corridor from Norwood to Blue Ash, Mason and Lebanon has caused young home-buyers to take another look at Madisonville. That’s why housing values have held up well here better than on the West Side. It’s simply a matter of proximity to good-paying jobs. That’s why I know that the same thing can happen on the West Side as and when the Lower Mill Creek Valley is redeveloped again into a major manufacturing/logistics center.

    • Matt Jacob

      Wow that was a lot (just seeing this now). A lot of good points there, but I think we’ll still have to agree to disagree on whether re-industrializing the Mill Creek Valley is enough to turn the tide on the West Side. Proximity to good-paying jobs will help, no question, but there are plenty of other issues to address as well. Again it’s not that simple. I don’t really want to dive into them all, but instead point out that the first bit of this re-industrialization is being marketed:

      What do you think?

      Personally I like the idea of whatever new gets built there being LEED certified. Reduce the footprint and hopefully the pollutants that might come with new industrial uses in the urban basin.

      In my head, I’m having a hard time picturing what types of industrial uses would fit best here. Thoughts?

    • I have a fear that we’re going to get the same single-use, light industrial stuff you find along highways out in the suburbs…it won’t relate to its context here in an urban environment.

      Many light industrial uses can actually work very well with residential. If they really want to get this right they should include some residential above these low-slung light industrial spaces, so that there is at least the opportunity for the workers to live nearby and rely on their car less.

      What would help struggling families on the west side is a good paying job, like those that will supposedly locate here. What will help even more is if they could go down to a one-car household and reduce their gas expenses. Talk about a total 180…families could grow their income while also reducing their expenses.

    • The Mill Creek Valley is incredibly under-utilized. Queensgate is almost entirely truck and auto-oriented, even though it is located next to the Ohio River and the second largest railyard in the Midwest.

      We need to start making real investments and taking real action to transform this area into one that houses a great deal of good paying jobs. We cannot simply sit back and expect the Eds/Meds industry to continue to create the jobs it has been for the indefinite future.

  • I think Camp Washington is well-poised to capture some of this activity. It’s already surprisingly busy during the working day, with very close proximity to many forms of transportation as well as residential and commercial neighborhoods needing revitalization. What helps is that as bustling and noisy as it can be during the day, it’s super quiet and calm at night (rail yard activity excepted). So one could have a live/work situation in close proximity without being completely bombarded by 24/7 noise and actually living in a real residential neighborhood while being within easy walking, biking, or driving distance of workshop space.

  • Eric Douglas

    Spring Grove is still a viable industrial area. To the east of the picture down Spring Grove Ave is a huge historic industrial area that other postindustrial cities would kill to have sustained.