Christmas Came Early for Southwest Ohio Developers, Historic Preservationists

The Ohio Development Services Agency provided developers and historic preservationists around the state with an early Christmas present when they announced 18 projects that would receive Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credits.

In total, the tax credits are worth $22.8 million and are expected to spur $225.6 million in private investment.

“A community’s historic buildings make it unique,” said David Goodman, director of the ODSA. “Giving a building new life honors the history of the building, while creating construction jobs in the short-term and opportunity for economic activity in the future.”

In recent years southwest Ohio had fared extremely well in the competitive bid process for the funds, and this round proved to be much of the same. This group of winning applicants includes five from Cincinnati, one from Hamilton, and two from the Dayton area.

One of the Dayton projects was the winner of one of the state’s two prestigious $5 million awards. That money will go toward the $46 million United Brethren Building project in downtown Dayton, which will transform the long-vacant, 112-year-old building into 164 apartments.

While the Cincinnati-region had the most number of awarded projects, most of the tax credits were small in size. Four projects, three located in Over-the-Rhine and one in Hamilton, received amounts ranging from $150,000 to $250,000. While small in scope, the projects will save numerous historic structures from demolition, while also creating dozens of residential units and commercial space.

The long-debated Freeport Row project, located at Liberty and Elm Streets, received a sizable $1,358,772 tax credit to help restore five historic structures as part of the overall $25 million development. Once complete, the project is expected to yield 110 apartments, 17,000 square feet of retail, and a total of 100,000 square feet of new construction on the vacant lots surrounding the historic structures.

Just blocks north of Freeport Row, along the Cincinnati Bell Connector, is another project that took home the largest tax credit in Cincinnati. Market Square III was awarded with $1,690,000 in tax credits and push forward the latest phase of Model Group’s massive redevelopment efforts surrounding Findlay Market.

Market Square III will renovate eight historic structures, most of which are currently vacant, to include street-level commercial space with 38 apartments in the upper floors.

Roughly 39% of Hamilton County’s Workforce Commutes From Outside of County

Of the 490,222 workers in Hamilton County, 39% of them are commuters from outside the county. This is according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Compared to other similarly sized metropolitan areas, this is a larger than normal percentage. In Cuyahoga County, home of Cleveland, for example, only 28% of the almost 700,000 workers commute from outside the county; and in Allegheny County, PA – the center of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area – that number is 22% of more than 680,000 workers.

The difference, some say, may be attributable to the fact that the Cincinnati region’s job center sits directly on a state line, and borders three counties in Northern Kentucky.

However, in Jefferson County, KY, with a similar amount of workers in the county as Hamilton County, only 26% of employees commute from outside Jefferson County. This is in spite of the fact that Louisville sits directly on the Ohio River, like Cincinnati, with commuters crossing the state line from Indiana each day.

Perhaps further explaining the matter is the merging of Cincinnati and Dayton’s economic activities, which increasingly promote cross commuting between Cincinnati’s northern, and Dayton’s southern counties.

Such commuting patterns complicate transportation management for regional planners. Not only does it mean heavy rush hour commutes, but also more unpredictable reverse commutes.

While Hamilton County was a bit of an outlier, it was joined by Davidson County, TN (Nashville), and St. Louis County, MO (St. Louis) with similar complex commuting patterns.

Despite Progress, Cincinnati Not Viewed for Policy Leadership Across America

After surveying 89 mayors from around the United States, Boston University’s Initiative on Cities found that the chief concern amongst those surveyed was an increasing worry about maintaining and funding new infrastructure.

The analysis surveyed mayors from cities of varying sizes, including Cincinnati, and attempted to find the most pressing issues facing American cities.

With roads, mass transportation, and stormwater and wastewater management were the biggest concerns, the mayors specifically alluded to their historic reliance on the federal government as a partner in tackling these big-ticket issues. But more and more mayors around America have lost faith in both federal and state leaders in being reliable partners on large infrastructure projects.

In fact, a recent report authored by Aaron Renn at the Manhattan Institute looks at the issue many cities are facing when it comes to fixing combined sewer overflow problems. In the past, these infrastructure fixes were largely funded by the federal government, but have since become unfunded federal mandates that have led to enormous rate increases across the country, particularly in older cities.

Not all of the infrastructure issues were big ticket items. One such example was the support for bicycle infrastructure. Increasingly popular among America’s mayors, some 70% of those surveyed expressed their support for bike-friendly initiatives.

“Everyone understands that if you want to attract Millennials, you have to have biking infrastructure,” noted one of the surveyed mayors, who are allowed to remain anonymous, in the report. “And if you have bike infrastructure, you are going to upset people.”

Aside from infrastructure, major national news stories from 2015 seemed to factor into other concerns expressed throughout the country.

Those surveyed shared overwhelming support for reforms in policing, regardless of political party. Workforce development programs, initiatives to control rising housing costs, and policies focused on addressing poverty and inequality were all major issues of concern.

While housing prices were an area of major concern for those surveyed, there are large differences in opinion on how to tackle the issue. Some mayors expressed a willingness to emphasize affordable housing mandates even if it stymies development, while mayors of less prosperous cities were less likely to focus on affordable housing.

An area of potential concern for Cincinnati is that while it has gained national attention in recent years for its positive gains, many other mayors from around the country are not looking to the Queen City for policy guidance. Of those surveyed, Cincinnati was mentioned by less than 5% of them as a place they have looked at for inspiration.

EXCLUSIVE: ODOT Expected to Announce Major Shift to ‘Fix-it-First’ Policy

While Ohio’s gas taxes and population have remained flat over the past decade, the Ohio Department of Transportation has continued to add capacity to roadways across the state – in some cases even building entirely new roadways to add to the state’s existing infrastructure. This may all soon be ready to change in what is being called a “major” policy shift in Columbus.

According to employees at ODOT who were briefed at an internal meeting on the matter recently, the nation’s seventh-largest state is poised to announce in the coming months that the days of roadway expansion are over. Instead they say that ODOT will embrace a future focused on maintenance and preservation of its existing network of more than 43,000 miles of roads and 14,000 bridges.

While officials say the move is economically driven, it also comes at a time as activists around the country – including numerous cities throughout Ohio – are increasingly calling for governments to embrace a “fix-it-first” policy.

An increasing number of states have been adopting such policies, with Michigan being one of the first when it enacted its Preserve First program in 2003, and California being the largest when it joined the fray last year.

The forthcoming announcement from ODOT, however, goes a step further than that.

In addition to focusing funds on maintenance and preservation, ODOT officials also say that they will abandon their “worst first” approach to fixing existing roadways. In doing so they say that the new program, called the Transportation Asset Management Plan, can save the state an estimated $300 million over the next six years – money that can then be redirected to other preservation activities like cleaning, sweeping, sealing and micro-surfacing.

The idea here, similar to healthcare or household maintenance, is that it is often much more economical to make steady improvements rather than waiting to make repairs until the asset is too far gone.

“It’s finally sinking in that we cannot continue on this unsustainable pace of highway expansion,” said an ODOT employee who spoke to UrbanCincy on the conditions of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

According to ODOT’s own internal estimates, current funds will not be enough to maintain Ohio’s existing system by 2019 – the time when the Ohio Turnpike bonds are gone. Thus, without a major new source of revenue like a gas tax increase, ODOT intends to completely get out of the highway expansion business, and shift all funds to maintenance and rehabilitation.

“Most projects will occur before a road becomes severely compromised, and will be based around maximizing the service life of a particular road,” the ODOT staffer continued. “Long story short, ODOT isn’t going to waste its money on patching up a road as a temporary fix that will simply deteriorate again quickly because of major structural problems.”

There is no clear idea as to whether highway expansion projects currently on the drawing board will be impacted by this, but it appears likely that they will unless they receive capital funding through TRAC prior to 2019.

Such news could be damning for projects like the recently proposed Eastern Bypass or what is left of the Eastern Corridor project. At the same time, it could be the positive jolt needed for projects like the Western Hills Viaduct, which is in desperate need of an estimated $280 million fix.

Federal Reserve Finds Cincinnati Out-Performing Many Of Its Regional, National Peers

The Vice President and Senior Regional Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland‘s Cincinnati Branch, LaVaughn Henry, says that the Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical Area continues to show positive signs in recovering from the Great Recession, and is moving toward a position of long-term growth.

At approximately 2% higher than its pre-recession level, Henry says that per capita GDP in the Cincinnati area is out-performing other nearby metropolitan areas, along with the rest of Ohio.

Likewise, the unemployment rate is lower in Cincinnati than other metropolitan areas nearby. It is currently 4.1%, the lowest level in a decade. However, employment is still nearly 2% below its pre-recession level in the Cincinnati region.

The construction industry has seen large employment gains in the area, driven by increased home sales but also by Cincinnati’s ongoing center city construction boom.

Henry reports that the region’s manufacturing is also growing healthily, surpassing the growth seen both nationally and state-wide. This growth, he says, reflects increased demand from the aviation and automobile sectors of the U.S. economy. These two sectors, however, only account for 4% and 10% of the metropolitan GDP, respectively.

Larger sectors like transportation and utilities, while still seeing growth, are increasing at a slower pace.