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: