PHOTOS: Custom-Designed Banners Installed Throughout Central Business District

The holiday season was another record-setting year for Downtown with tourists, shoppers, and general holiday revelers packing the center city. At the same time Downtown Cincinnati Inc. partnered with Resource/Ammirati to design and install custom street pole banners.

DCI leaders say that the concept is modeled off of the iconic I “heart” New York marketing campaign that has since been copied countless times around the world. In this rendition, Resource/Ammirati developed 10 original designs that play off local traditions and things that people enjoy doing downtown.

In addition to the 10 total designs, the spelling of Cincinnati is done with typography that is drawn from logos from some of the city’s most famous brands including the Reds, Christian Moerlein, Skyline Chili, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Bengals, Findlay Market, Know Theatre, and the Taft Museum of Art.

In total, DCI installed 42 of these street banners throughout the Central Business District. They will remain in place throughout 2015. There is no word as to what will happen with the campaign at that point, or if the campaign will be expanded to other mediums.

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EDITORIAL NOTE: All nine photographs in this gallery were taken by Eric Anspach for UrbanCincy in January 2015.

Mechanical Optimizers Aiming to Help Area Nonprofits Assess, Update Facilities

Local contracting companies, from air conditioners to electricians, have teamed up to form a group called Mechanical Optimizers to help local nonprofits with the upkeep of their operations.

The newly formed group creates, for the first time, a single point of contact for an audit of a nonprofit’s building’s situation and help with the budgeting and finding grants and funds for the project. All of this, remarkably, is done free of charge for the area’s churches, mosques and many other private institutions.

Jeff Wilmink, an executive at Century Mechanical Solutions since 2012, said that he noticed an acute need for long-term strategies for local nonprofits to maintain their buildings. He told UrbanCincy that he saw institutions were not spending money on proper upkeep and were repairing things that long needed to be replaced. With no master plan for how/what to fix, these nonprofits were putting band-aids on visible problems while invisible problems were compounding, thus creating crisis situations that cost much more money to fix.

With this in mind, he created Mechanical Optimizers to help local nonprofits be proactive and find funds to proactively tackle such projects. When I asked Jeff whether there was a light-bulb moment for this idea to come about, he told me of a call he received from the pastor at St. Louis Church downtown.

The pastor, he said, called because of a noise coming from the basement. After traversing an old, narrow stairway with limited access and even more limited use, Wilmink’s team found an ancient boiler that was leaking, and a basement covered in asbestos. The emergency fix needed for St. Louis Church ended up being much more costly than it would have otherwise been if fixed sooner.

There is not much blame to lay, either. Leaders of nonprofit organizations often do not know or understand the mechanical problems going on in their buildings and, therefore, do not know to fix it. In addition, technicians will often solve superficial problems that create short-term fixes, but neither party tends to think about what will need to be done in a year, five years or ten years.

Add this to the tight budgets of local nonprofits, and many cruise from emergency to emergency without ever fixing the underlying problems in their aging buildings.

“It’s irritating that we’ve allowed these buildings to get in the condition they’re in,” said Wilmink. He continued by saying that many institutions will spend thousands of dollars on cosmetic fixes while the mechanics of their building are literally rotting; or spend $25,000 every other year to fix a unit in order to save $75,000 upfront.

Mechanical Optimizers comes into the equation by offering to provide a free assessment of a nonprofit’s building. Then, after telling “the blunt truth” about what it will take to fix it right, Wilmink and his team will help locate grants and create a budget for fixing the problem and updating aged equipment.

The goal is to be smarter about maintaining a building’s mechanical systems so that high-priced emergency projects do not emerge later. Furthermore, Wilmink says that the very nature of these buildings – churches, mosques, markets, etc. – means finding funds can often be easier once the problem is identified, because someone is typically willing to step up and donate money to help out.

There is, as you might suspect, more to it for Mechanical Optimizers than the charitable work. Once they complete their free assessment, Wilmink says that they will often times submit a bid to perform the work like they would for any other project. Essentially, Mechanical Optimizers has found a way to combine charitable work with their daily business operations. At the same time, this “no agenda” charity is helping many local nonprofits save thousands of dollars.

One of the biggest savings that nonprofits typically receive comes from technology and equipment that can replace outdated systems with ultra-efficient units.

When asked about how government policies help or hinder his efforts, Wilmink pointed to a recent program in New Jersey where the state will pay 80% of the costs for upgrading systems and improving efficiency. The money for the program, he explained, comes from funds utility companies there are mandated to set aside for the state to use for such purposes.

In addition to St. Louis Catholic Church, Wilmink says that Mechanical Optimizers has worked on Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Findlay Market, the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, and a slew of other buildings throughout the region.

Pointing to the work’s importance, the contractors involved with the group say that they will do whatever it takes to offer up their help and get the project done.

“If you want our help, we’ll find a way to make it happen.”

Zipcar Holding Tight in Cincinnati While Making Changes Elsewhere

The car sharing economy came to Cincinnati in October 2011 when Zipcar launched their services at the University of Cincinnati, and expanded to Downtown and Over-the-Rhine in December 2012.

Since that time, however, peer-to-peer driving services, like Uber and Lyft, have emerged and begun challenging the more established business model of companies like Zipcar, which was acquired by Avis in January 2013 and boasts a global membership of more than 900,000.

In the case of Zipcar, the user is the driver, and must return the car to its starting point – a requirement limiting potential growth of Zipcar and other car sharing services. In order to stay competitive, Zipcar has recently launched new one-way services in its hometown of Boston.

“We are currently beta testing the service in Boston with our Boston members,” Jennifer Mathews, Public Relations Manager at Zipcar, told UrbanCincy. “Our plan is to roll out the service to additional markets once it’s ready.”

While one-way car sharing travel may soon be a reality in Boston, it appears to be further off for smaller markets like Cincinnati, as does the availability of cargo vans, which are presently available in a limited number of markets, but not Cincinnati. The desire for such vans, industry experts say, is so that they can be used for more utilitarian purposes like moving. For now, those participating in Cincinnati’s car sharing economy will continue to need to either use a traditional rental company, or borrow a friend’s truck for such purposes.

Since its debut in 2011, however, Zipcar officials say that they have made changes to their operations and 11-car fleet in Cincinnati in order to stay relevant.

“While the number of cars has remained somewhat consistent over the years, we have moved locations and updated our vehicles throughout the program,” Mathews explained. “Zipcar strives to place cars where our members want them. As we see pockets of members pop up in certain areas or neighborhoods we will move cars around to make sure that they are convenient as possible.”

Of course, Cincinnati’s Zipcar network is substantially smaller than other cities, thus reducing its usefulness to more than a small collection of users.

While there are no immediate plans for expansion, Mathews does say that the company will continue to monitor their two programs – University of Cincinnati and City of Cincinnati – over the course of 2015 to determine whether additional changes or expanded offerings are needed.

Those with memberships are able to use those in any of the hundreds of markets where Zipcar operates worldwide. Cincinnati’s 11 vehicles can be found at the northwest corner of Race Street and Garfield Place, Court Street in between Vine and Walnut, the southeast corner of Twelfth and Vine Streets; and on the University of Cincinnati’s main campus on McMicken Circle and just north of Daniels Residence Tower.

New Center City On-Street Parking Rates, Hours of Enforcement Now In Effect

New parking rates and hours of operation went into effect for the Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine on Friday. The changes come after Cincinnati City Council approved the matter in November 2014.

Under the arrangement, 500 new electronic parking meters have been installed throughout Over-the-Rhine to complement the existing set already in place in the Central Business District. Over the coming weeks, the City of Cincinnati will also be installing 1,000 additional electronic meters throughout the Clifton, Hyde Park, Mt. Lookout, Northside, O’Bryonville, Oakley, and Pleasant Ridge neighborhood business districts, as well as key locations throughout Uptown.

The electronic meters, officials say, are meant to replace the old ones with newer models that accept credit card payments and are compatible with future plans for pay-by-phone technology and dynamic pricing structures. Pay-by-phone capabilities are expected to be operational by the middle of 2015.

While nearly a dozen neighborhoods will benefit from the new technology, only Over-the-Rhine will see its on-street parking policies change across the board. As part of the new policy, parking rates in Over-the-Rhine will double to $1/hour; while rates will remain set at $.50/hour and $2/hour in the other neighborhoods and in the Central Business District, respectively.

As of today, parking meters in the Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine will now also be in effect from 9am to 9pm Monday through Saturday, and 2pm to 9pm on Sundays. Parking hours of enforcement in the remaining 50 neighborhoods, meanwhile, will remain unchanged.

The sweeping changes are meant to help improve the performance of the City’s broken parking system. While many small business owners in Over-the-Rhine have expressed their support for the changes, especially in light of ongoing vandalism of meters in Over-the-Rhine, some believe they have been singled out following the cancellation of a previous agreement that would have raised rates and increased enforcement city-wide.

“I’m not opposed to longer meter hours and higher rates, but what upsets me, as an OTR resident and business owner, is the fact that our neighborhood has been singled out,” Jean-Francois Flechet, owner of Taste of Belgium, wrote in a Facebook post. “The same hours and rates should apply to other neighborhoods.”

The original Parking Lease & Modernization Plan approved in early 2013 was, of course, cancelled by Mayor John Cranley (D) almost immediately upon his arrival at City Hall at the end of 2013. While the mayor and many members of City Council bemoaned the previous plan, a similar plan appears to be taking shape, but in a piece-by-piece approach.

As like the original plan, new electronic meters are being installed that accept credit card payments and utilize dynamic pricing models, meters are being upgraded city-wide, and a contract has been signed with Xerox.

The Cranley Administration has not yet commented on plans for new hours or rates in the city’s remaining neighborhood business districts, where on-street parking meters exist, but they do say that they intend to systematically create multi-space parking that will “produce more aesthetically clean public right-of-way areas in Over-the-Rhine.”

This means that the newly retrofitted parking meters in the historic neighborhood will eventually be removed to make way for multi-space equipment, similar to what has been used in the Central Business District in the past. The upgraded parking meters from Over-the-Rhine will then be shifted to other neighborhoods throughout the city. This process, officials say, could begin as soon as this spring.

In addition to the specific focus on center city neighborhoods, the new parking policy differs from the previously approved plan by creating Sunday hours of enforcement. While the new Sunday hours of enforcement are only in effect for the Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine, it crosses what was considered a red line in the previous public debate over proposed parking changes.

All of the changes are expected to bring confusion to those parking in the affected areas, including a large group of people who drove to Christ Church Cathedral for the Boar’s Head & Yule Log Festival on Sunday. According to Michelle Dillingham, Director of Education at the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, parking enforcement officers ticketed many cars parked on the street during the event.

“I walked out of the Boar’s Head event that was barely an hour long and almost every car had a parking ticket on their windshield…on a Sunday and in front of a church celebrating 75 years of a Cincinnati tradition,” Dillingham wrote. “I don’t know, but it just rubbed me wrong.”

The former Cincinnati City Council candidate went on to say that she had two separate conversations with people, who lived outside of the center city, that were very upset by the situation and would reconsider visiting downtown again due to the aggressive parking enforcement.

City officials acknowledge that there will be a bit of a learning curve, and say they are working to improve awareness of the new rates and hours of enforcement by distributing flyers and working with groups like Downtown Cincinnati Inc. and the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce to inform drivers of the changes.

DownTowne Listening Room Finding Its Niche inside the historic Shillito Building’s Club Room

The concept was new to Cincinnati: experience music in a quiet, intimate environment free of chatter, phones, and booze. DownTowne Listening Room, located in the historic Shillito’s Building at Seventh and Race Streets, hosted its first show back in June 2014. Presented in the building’s underutilized Club Room, the inaugural show attracted 50 people to the 60-person capacity room.

Founder Scott Skeabeck is an avid music lover who moved to Cincinnati from Philadelphia about five years ago. As a frequent concert-goer and listening room patron on the East Coast, he was determined to bring the experience to Cincinnati. With zero experience producing concerts, he booked his first act.

“I think this is an unmet need in Cincy. Perhaps some people don’t even know they’re missing,” Skeabeck told UrbanCincy back in May. His hypothesis proved true over the next six months. The music series hosted seven shows and wrapped up the year with a sold-out show in November.

While the Listening Room has exceeded its founder’s expectations, the endeavor has not been without its challenges. The Listening Room is slowly building a small community of followers, but the main hurdle, Skeabeck says, is finding its audience.

The concept is unique to Cincinnati and it has been a challenge for people to wrap their heads around a venue that falls somewhere between a coffee shop and a house concert. Similar venues exist, such as Schwartz Point Jazz Club and 213 Listening Room in Over-The-Rhine, though they cater to different genres or only occasionally host events. Skeabeck also says that it has been difficult finding people who are willing to pay $10 to $15 to hear relatively unknown artists when they can hear it a bar for free.

Another challenge is the time and money to produce each show, which occurs in Skeabeck’s spare time outside of his marketing job at Western & Southern.

Once a month he and his wife set up the signage, seating, tables, and sound equipment for the show, and then break it all down that same night so the room can operate as an apartment complex club room. Skeabeck pays for the marketing, promotion, food and security out of pocket since ticket sales go back toward the artists’ guarantee. He has even gone so far to offer up his loft when an artist needs room and board.

In spite of its hurdles, the time, energy and investment is worth it to Skeabeck, who has already booked shows into July 2015.

“Of course, it’s not for everyone; but so many more have thanked us for creating a refuge of solitude where they can really hear the artist and not the audience around them,” Skeabeck concluded.

DownTowne Listening Room will return January 17 with a free local singer-songwriter showcase featuring in-the-round sets by three Cincinnati artists. While the show is free, and already sold out, donations are appreciated and still accepted if you want to support the concept. A listing of upcoming artists at DownTowne Listening Room can be found on the venue’s website.