Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Cincinnati: The Urge to Merge, Or Learning to Love Your Urban Geography

Last week the Cincinnati Enquirer did a series on the potential merger of the Cincinnati and Dayton metro areas after the results from the 2010 census are in. This has been a talk of some local obsession for a while. One of the big reasons is that if the two regions were combined into a single metro area, it would catapult Cincinnati’s metro population to over 3 million, and move it up the league tables.

Much of this talk has been driven by increasing suburbanization in Warren and Bulter Counties. Areas like West Chester and Mason have become the region’s high growth zones, and focus of most new high end development. Because Cincinnati and Dayton are so close together, and this rapidly urbanizing area lies between them, the idea is that development will soon fill in along I-75, linking the cities into a Dallas-Ft. Worth style metroplex. The main article is “Cinton? Daynati? We’re all one city now:”

A furious rush to the middle during the last two decades has transformed the land between Cincinnati and Dayton. Fleeing income taxes and the problems of established cities, and seeking the suburban dream, people and then businesses flocked to Butler and Warren counties, attracted as if by magnetic force to the expanses of available land around what has become the region’s Main Street, Interstate 75…..Travel between Cincinnati and Dayton is no longer marked by farm fields, but by a long stretch of nearly unbroken suburban development. Official recognition of Cincinnati and Dayton as one entity may happen around 2013….The resulting 19-county Cincinnati-Dayton area would have a population estimated at approximately 3 million, making it the 15th highest population center in the nation…..Such a change could alter perceptions of the region to those outside of it, and within.

There’s also concern about suburban sprawl, however:

At the center of this possible Cincinnati-Dayton giant is West Chester Township and its glittery new main drag, Union Centre Boulevard – marked by a giant overpass with grillwork that proclaims “UC.”

A hulking suburb straddling I-75, the township boasts regional draws such as an Ikea store, close proximity to the first hospitals built in the Cincinnati area in the last 30 years and, in nearby Monroe, a shopper’s mecca of outlet stores as an alternative to Prime Outlets in Jeffersonville, near Columbus. A career college and a luxury hotel soar over the highway, with a multiplex cinema and a dining smorgasbord nearby.

In 1990, West Chester’s population was 36,894. In 2008, the Census Bureau estimated that 57,960 live in the township, meaning it is jockeying with Colerain Township in Hamilton County for the highest township population in Ohio.

This got me thinking more broadly about the nature of Cincinnati’s urban geography, which has many unique aspects. Cities generate sustainable competitive advantage by creating a unique environment that is difficult to replicate and which serves attractive residential and business market segments better than other cities. Urban geography is often unique and difficult to change. Given that, it is clearly an area to study to understand how to leverage it as a competitive asset. Cities located in high natural amenity regions tend to do this by default. Midwest cities, by contrast, have often viewed their position as a negative. It’s time to change that.

With that in mind, I will identify some of the aspects of Cincinnati’s geography that merit further consideration by local leaders. I won’t necessarily have all the answers in terms of what to do with them, but Cincinnati should consider all of these various facets of their region and try to answer the question: How could we convert this more or less fixed fact into a source of value? In fact, every city should be asking themselves that question.

1. Cincinnati-Dayton Axis. I might as well start with this one. Cincy and Dayton are 50 miles apart. By contrast, Dallas and Ft. Worth are 33 miles apart and Minneapolis and St. Paul only 10 miles apart. Still, that’s pretty close.

One of the implications of this is the possibility of the metro areas merging. I don’t think this would affect much from a practical perspective. The idea that businesses will somehow change their perception of this region because of that seems dubious. This assumes a degree of unsophistication that I don’t believe is warranted. Also, for every statistical positive that comes with size comes a negative (from the standpoint of Cincinnati) of having its figures merged in with a metro that is underperforming.

On the other hand, the region could market itself as a metro area of 3 million. There’s got to be some value in that and it is hard to see any downside from a marketing and civic pride perspective.

The question is, how can you take advantage of this geography? I would hypothesize that it only makes the Butler/Warren County area even more attractive. Businesses that locate there can draw from a bigger labor force and customer base. The fact that this region is located along I-75, the heaviest north-south freight route in the country, only makes it more attractive.

That might imply a greater force towards sprawl in Cincinnati. I haven’t studied the matter, but I don’t see any indication that the growth in West Chester and places like that is particularly unique right now though. Most similar sized metros can tell a similar tale. Kansas City has Overland Park, Indianapolis has Carmel, and Nashville the Cool Springs area. All of these regions face the same challenge of having their premier new office location migrating away from the core county.

But if Cincinnati and Dayton really look at ways to collaborate, there could be some benefits. The cities are largely separate today in many ways. They have their own media markets, their own airports, their own arts groups, etc. There are some exceptions like the Cincinnati sports teams. If they could somehow combine forces in some of these areas, it might save money and help create stronger institutions.

The practical challenge is that this probably implies a loss of some distinctiveness and prestige in Dayton. That’s a tough sell. But practically speaking Dayton has huge challenges and isn’t well positioned to go it alone. And if the region could really find a way to bring the scale of three million people to bear, that could have benefits for everyone.

2. River. Another obvious feature is the river geography. This creates a great natural amenity for Cincinnati, with spectacular skyline and river views from the hills, parks and recreation areas, etc. Of course, it is also a barrier that implies significant costs to overcome, such as the $3 billion Brent Spence Bridge replacement project, which will suck up a huge portion of regional transportation dollars.

3. Tri-State Geography. There aren’t that many tri-state regions. Generally bi-state and tri-state areas mean lots of bickering. But how can you make it into an advantage? Indiana obviously figured out how, by putting casinos in the region. But there have to be more useful ways to put this to work.

Three states implies three different tax and regulatory frameworks. This can be used for poaching businesses within the region, but could also potentially lead to a greater pool of businesses overall as you can optimize different states for different things. Ohio might be attractive to set of businesses A, Kentucky set B, and Indiana set C. If these were non-overlapping enough, potentially this helps for economic development. I saw a presentation recently that listed Cincinnati as the most diverse economy of any region in the US. I wonder if this might have a role to play?

4. Urban Ohio. Ohio is interesting in that is has three cities with over one million in metro area population, plus several others like Toledo and Dayton that are sizable as well. This gives Ohio an urban feel, but also means the cities are in competition with each other for state attention and money. This is very different from places like Georgia or Colorado, with one dominant city.

5. Megaregional Positioning. Cincinnati is located at focal point of a group of cities including Louisville, Lexington, Indianapolis, Dayton, and Columbus, all about 100 miles or less away. Cincinnati is also the largest of those metros, and was historically the most important. This gives Cincinnati some ability to position itself as a mega-regional destination. We already see this with things like Kings Island and the IKEA store that draw from an expanded regional geography. Are there other things like this Cincinnati could develop?

One thing I noticed growing up near Louisville is that residents there viewed Cincinnati differently. Cincinnati was like a big brother, someone Louisville didn’t mind deferring to in some ways. Louisville takes a very competitive attitude towards Indianapolis, Nashville, and Lexington, but Cincinnati was always sort of different, almost like Louisville’s nearest “big city” destination. I don’t know to what extent this attitude still exists or whether it is shared in other similarly situated cities, but it might be a basis for tourism or various cooperative ventures.

6. Political Fragmentation. The Cincinnati region is very politically fragmented. Hamilton County has numerous independent towns just by itself. This is often viewed as a source of weakness, but as a couple of forthcoming posts will illustrate, it is actually a potential source of strength from a community development perspective.

7. Cincinnati As a Standalone Region. Cincinnati is a bit of an oddity from a regional standpoint. It’s in Ohio, but isn’t like a traditional Midwest city in many respects. In his book about the Midwest, Richard Longworth didn’t include Cincinnati in his definition. But it’s not really a Southern city either. Some previously suggested a Mid-Atlantic feel. Cincinnati definitely has a very strong local and regional identity of the type you don’t often see today. It is to some extent a cultural isolate. Cincinnati is sort of just off in the corner of Ohio by itself. What do you do with this? Cincinnati itself seems to have tried to play off this by marketing itself as “Cincinnati, USA”. I’m not sure that’s the right way to go, but the uniqueness of Cincinnati here clearly needs to be recognized and leveraged.

8. Centrality. Cincinnati is an interior city in the eastern time zone. It lies on a major north-south interstate, but not a major east-west one.

These are some of the aspects of Cincinnati’s geography. Many of them are very unique and clearly in combination they aren’t replicated elsewhere. How can this uniqueness be exploited to civic benefit? That is the question that needs to be asked for each of these elements. Other cities would benefit from a similar exercise of examination.

Here are more articles in the Enquirer series on Cincinnati-Dayton blending together:

Connecting the dots: cities can when region grows
I-75, the new Main Street
West Chester’s the center of it all

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Regionalism, Strategic Planning, Transportation
Cities: Cincinnati

12 Responses to “Cincinnati: The Urge to Merge, Or Learning to Love Your Urban Geography”

  1. Wad says:

    It would be a hard trick for Dayton to pull off, but it should figure out a way to position itself as the Orange County (Ca.) of Ohio.

    I don’t mean in the pop culture sense. I mean in the sense of how Orange County itself benefitted by being the “New Jersey” of Southern California.

    In other words, accrue the value by being on the same block in between two really good neighbors.

    New Jersey had the asset of being adjacent to the New York and Philadelphia areas, and are able to skim off some advantages for the state.

    Orange County grew from a main agricultural hinterland in Southern California to first, the bedroom suburbs of Los Angeles County (and a beachside exurb for San Diego County), then slowly urbanizing by becoming a major employment area itself.

    Dayton has the position of being a large city roughly halfway between two other even bigger cities, Cincinnati and Columbus.

    This doesn’t mean Cincinnati and Columbus can or will shrivel up and meet halfway. Dayton’s problem is that as it is depopulating, it’s in a worse position as people can just flee to the other bigger cities.

    What it can do is use sprawl to fight sprawl. If Middletown can be oriented to being primarily a labor shed for Cincinnati and Springfield for Columbus, Dayton can try to use these shed areas and shore up its position as a central metropolitan area.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    The merger with an underperforming metro area doesn’t actually matter beyond the pride in statistics. Several of the existing multicore metro areas in the US have a booming core alongside a poor, stagnant core, with neither core affecting the performance of the other: San Francisco/Oakland, Seattle/Tacoma, Boston/Providence.

    I think a lot of the other strengths you mention for a merged Cincinnati/Dayton region are really just accidents. For examples:

    – Tri-state metro Cincinnati may have a diverse economy, but tri-state metro New York and quad-state metro Washington do not.

    – Fragmentation mostly means big businesses can play localities against one another. It’s small businesses that can’t relocate and have to live with whatever their local government foists on them.

    – Centrality is essentially a commodity issue. Cincinnati has no advantage there over Memphis or Birmingham.

    – The intra-state competition issue goes both ways. Georgia’s French-style urban geography – one big city and lots of rural provinces – leads to centralization, but also to rural resentment. On the other hand, Colorado does not have the same issues, partly because of the lack of historical racism as in Georgia.

    – Even the river is partly a commodity thing. Yes, having a big river with bluffs on the side boosts the view. But every city between Minneapolis and Memphis and between Pittsburgh and Cairo has this river system; and Portland, New York, and Harrisburg have not only wide rivers but also highlands rising 45 degrees from the water line to view the rivers from.

  3. It’s not enough to be defined as a single metro by the census. To be perceived as a twin-city metro, you need a national brand as such.

    Perhaps what matters is the airport. For MSP and DFW (and also Raleigh-Durham, RDU) the key to the brand may be the shared major airport more or less between the two cities. It’s the repetition of the shared airport name, as a part of the regional brand, that causes people nationwide to remember Minneapolis – St. Paul as a pair, and Dallas – Fort Worth, and Raleigh – Durham). If Dallas and Fort Worth had separate airports, like San Francisco and Oakland do, the pairing wouldn’t be a national brand.

    Paired-city airport names also keep a city on the national map that might otherwise fall off. Witness “SeaTac”, the local short name for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Tacoma is easily forgotten because it’s much smaller than Seattle, and it’s absent from the IATA code, SEA. But if it were just “Seattle International Airport,” a lot fewer people would ever have heard of Tacoma.

  4. varangianguard says:

    I read that article and unfortunately came away thinking that the \merging\ was more of Metropolitan Statistical Area in nature, rather than a real political merger. I suppose this is because I can only see the minefields of such an endeavor, and think that the chances of political merger to be slim.

    Effectively, the dual suburbanization movements of both metropolitan areas are close to meeting in Butler and Warren counties, with Cincinnati seemingly the driving force with the explosive outward development.

    And that is one major problem with any proposals for political merger, with any other entity. Currently, Cincinnati’s population seems to be migrating away from the old City core, whether north towards Dayton, south into northern Kentucky or west into southeastern Indiana. Cincinnati politicians have dropped the ball when it comes to redeveloping the core of the City for so long, that their current efforts might be too little, too late. And, what could possibly entice the suburbs, or Dayton for that matter, to want to rejoin with a polity that (for some) they have clearly turned their backs to? For my part, that is the question I would like answered.

  5. John Morris says:

    “- Fragmentation mostly means big businesses can play localities against one another. It’s small businesses that can’t relocate and have to live with whatever their local government foists on them.”

    Boy, do we have that in Pittsburgh. You have some tiny towns that can be pushed around by a Family Dollar store.

  6. Cartophiliac says:

    You say there has been lots of talk of this Cincinnati-Dayton merger… I live in Dayton, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard such a thing.

    Yes, of course we all note the growth along the I-75 corridor, but no one has suggested any sort of political merge. The slim discussions of Dayton/Montgomery County cooperation (let alone mergers) have been met with ho-hum silence.

  7. Thanks for the comments. No, this is not a political merger, but a merger of the metro areas.

    Jarrett, good insights on the airport. Unfortunately this isn’t likely to happen in this case. Both cities already have airports and Cincinnati’s is actually located to the south, in Kentucky, so is on the wrong side of the city. CVG is dominated by Delta and has the highest fares in the nation, so a lot of people do make the drive to Dayton to fly.

    Branding is an interesting point. Could the cities co-brand themselves and even save money by pooling expenses on it? With this, as with everything, the two cities are currently very separate.

  8. Bill says:

    One area that has done a masterful job of city planning is the Cool Springs TN area, just south of Nashville. It’s actually made up of the cities of Franklin and Brentwood but the area is know as “Cool Springs”. Frequently compared to Buckhead in Atlanta or Malibu California.

  9. John Morris says:

    The Battle Of Franklin.

  10. This sounds like the kind of thing that the 3-C passenger rail corridor will help. There was a push to include Dayton in the route, rather than a direct shot between Cincinnati and Columbus. Having Cincinnati and Dayton connected by rail would help strengthen both the physical and perceptual connection of each city.

    Considering the distances involved though, I’m not sure how much the metro areas will actually be merged in reality. We’re facing a future of increased scarcity of resources, more expensive fuel and transportation costs, and less generous financial markets. These things hit such completely exurban areas especially hard, and it may simply not be possible for the sprawl to fill in.

    Even if the whole I-75 corridor does get built out, I don’t think there’s really much of a perception that this area is even part of Cincinnati or Dayton. Monroe, Middletown, Franklin, and Springboro are far enough between Cincinnati and Dayton that they feel like they’re just places unto themselves.

    There’s also a big cultural divide that’s really hard to put a finger on. Dayton has a much more typical midwestern feel than Cincinnati, and despite its problems it feels a lot more progressive in some ways. This is evident in their built environment, with some fun murals as part of their I-75 rebuilding, a lot more “experimental” modern architecture from the 1970s and 80s, and heck, they have trolleybuses! There’s also a sense of order and tidiness, a care towards making the place look a little better, that Cincinnati is sorely lacking compared to a lot of other cities. I think it was here at where the comment was made that Cincinnati does so little with so much, and Indianapolis does so much with so little. I’d put Dayton in that same category as Indianapolis.

    So aside from census designations and advertising PR, I doubt much actual merging would happen, and even if it does it would probably be perceived more as a third area than as some Cincinnati/Dayton metroplex. On the other hand, the passenger rail connection and even the widening of I-75 between the two cities seems like they will better connect Cincinnati and Dayton, even if they remain rather independent.

  11. George Mattei says:

    My experience tells me that merging two or more metro areas does change the dynamic quite a bit. Growing up in a small city (New Haven, CT) near much larger metros (New York, Hartford), there are certain characteristics to those places. The Cincinnati-Dayton corridor has, to a lesser extent, some of the same features. Now living in Columbus, I find that an “isolated” city has a different vibe and characteristics to it, unless it’s very large. It’s intangible, but it has a profound affect in several ways:

    1. Having two cities close together creates strong development forces between the two. Just the fact that one spouse may work in Cincinnati and the other in Dayton causes some people to move to the center. Then you have the fact that a home between the two has two markets to pull from, rather than one, unlike a home in northern Kentucky. Then retail and jobs follow the people, and also move to the center to take advantage of the dual markets. It really stretches out a Metro, which leads to…
    2. The feel of a place is different. In Columbus, as in Indianapolis, Louisville, and other “isolated” cities, you find that you can drive 20 minutes to ½ hour and be more or less out of town. Dayton may be smaller than all of these metros, but if you drive south on I-75, you run into Cinci, and so you get a sense that there’s something else around the corner. You feel a bit less confined to that one place, like you’re part of something bigger. In Columbus, you need to drive a couple of hours to hit another good-sized city. It gives Columbus a bit more of a provincial feel, despite the bigger size.
    3. Speaking of provincial, the loyalties of an “isolated” city are clearer than in merged metros, resulting in less confusion in some cases. For example, growing up near New Haven, CT many people commuted to Hartford, New York, Bridgeport and Stamford, all cities that were within a 2 hour drive, and a short train ride in most cases. Well, if you live in a suburb that serves two or even three or four cities, which one are you really “from”? It strikes me how people from Connecticut almost NEVER say “I’m from New Haven” or “I’m from Hartford” when traveling. It’s “I’m from Hamden” (my actual hometown), even if you were 2 feet from the New Haven border. When Columbus area residents travel, they say, “I’m from Columbus” even if they live in Reynoldsburg. People feel more linked to an “isolated” city, because the direct impact of what happens in that city is much clearer. I wager that folks in Columbus suburbs, by and large, would feel more threatened if the city started nose-diving than they did when Hartford started to nose dive.
    4. Finally, you get this period where you have this strange melding. It’s sort of like watching two stars colliding in space. It takes a while, but in the end the results are dramatic. However there is this funky middle point where first you are your own stand-alone city, and then you notice changes. Traffic increases. They economic dynamic shifts. The cultures start to merge. And suddenly, you’re looking back 20 years later and realizing just how much things changed. I witnessed this first hand in New Haven, which was being more strongly assimilated into the northeast seaboard megaopolis as I was growing up. Suddenly in the late 80’s or early 90’s, the dynamic just changed. And EVERYONE noticed it and talked about it. I bet that Cincinnati and Dayton are just on the front end of this. It may be less dramatic, because the northeast still has a much higher population density than southern Ohio, but I wager that 20 years hence folks living in that area will be commenting on how different it was 20 years ago.

  12. Aaron,

    As a native “Buckeye” I must say that this is a very fascinating article. Let’s see how these merger talks evolve.

    It is interesting to note that Dallas-Fort Worth residents are VERY adamant about their separate identities. Use of these two cities in the same breath can be a death knell for someone visiting locally.

    Michael Scott

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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