Photos by Tim Fitzwater
The following post was written for publication on the website "The Akronist." The Akronist is a source for compelling stories about greater Akron. It has local videos, photos, podcasts, articles, and blogs produced by the community. I wrote this piece as a recap of a recent trip taken with a group of fellow Akronites in the young leadership group known as Torchbearers.
There was no question that the working minds of Torchbearers of Akron had arrived, and they were eager to learn about the southwest Ohio city nearly four hours away from home. Creative juices were flowing, and notepads were at the ready to catch inspiration during the group’s two-day excursion to the Queen City.
In early 2015, Torchbearers received its largest single grant ($65,000) from the John S. and James L Knight Foundation. This grant sponsored two trips, the first being to Detroit in May 2015, and the second being the most recent trip to Cincinnati on June 5 and 6 of this year.
It was the goal of Torchbearers to travel to Cincinnati in order to learn about the city’s efforts in arts and culture, neighborhood revitalization and economic development, with the hopes of bringing back these ideas for programs in Akron. In addition, the trip was an opportunity for Torchbearers to share with those in Cincinnati all the innovative things Akron is doing to revitalize and grow.
Despite being found within the same state, it was clear to Torchbearers that Akron and Cincinnati are incredibly different cities with much to learn from one another. This was evident when the group first disembarked at the bustling Findlay Market, Ohio’s oldest public market, dating back to 1852.
Even on a Sunday afternoon, the Findlay Market was booming with activity. Red picnic tables were overflowing with folks eating lunch, drinking local craft brews and enjoying live music in the beer garden. Hundreds of people were perusing food and retail vendors located in both indoor and outdoor booths.
There are over 40 full-time vendors, and an additional 50 pop-up vendors on the weekends, offering a mix of grocery, prepared foods and related goods. This is where local restaurants come to get their meats, local breweries come to get their spices and the general public come to stock their pantries.
With 1.2 million visitors a year, the Findlay Market is the fifth most visited place in Cincinnati. It is also known to be the most diverse spot in the city as far as careers, income and background of vendors and patrons alike.
The Findlay Market has served as the launching pad for larger success stories, including Taste of Belgium, an eatery offering waffles and other Belgian inspired dishes that started at Findlay Market in 2007, and has since expanded to four additional locations (including one in Columbus). Urbana Coffee is another example of a business that began in Findlay Market and has grown over the years.
To coincide with touring the Findlay Market, the Torchbearers were also given a tour of the nearby Findlay Kitchen, an innovative food business incubator that opened its doors just two months ago, directly down the street from the Market. The building includes 8,000 square feet of shared-use kitchen space, complete with commercial grade equipment, storage and smaller kitchen areas available for rent hourly or monthly.
This $2 million project was an idea conceptualized over 30 years ago, but was only recently made possible by a feasibility study, adequate donations and robust fundraising efforts.
“The Findlay Kitchen is a place people were looking for whether or not they knew it,” said Kelly Lanser, Promotion and Events Manager at Findlay Market. She said that the idea was to bring new businesses to the Findlay Market by providing resources that help to increase their production, enable growth and create jobs, all while bringing healthy, locally grown and produced foods to the region.
A place like Findlay Kitchen helps to alleviate the burden of expensive brick-and-mortars small businesses would encounter on their own. Since its inception, there are approximately 36 members of the Kitchen, including various startups specializing in things like cupcakes and hot sauce.
Not only is the area known for being progressive and foodie-friendly, but Over-the-Rhine is a neighborhood growing in virtually all areas. Since 2006, more than 100 new businesses have opened in the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood through the Main Street, Central Vine Street and Findlay Market business districts. Part of this is due to the reintroduction of the streetcar to the area, as well as the landbanking concept, which helps with the purchasing and maintaining of vacant buildings and properties to prevent future deterioration.
The Torchbearers were given a comprehensive walking tour of OTR, starting with Washington Park, a civic green space that has seen recent improvements thanks to a partnership with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC).
The initiative brought forth incredible revitalization to the area, complete with new landscaping, parking, a performance stage, fountains (which were ideal on a hot June day), playgrounds and dog park, all of which opened to the public in 2011.
Jackson mentioned that the $49 million Washington Park project was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to what 3CDC is doing in Cincinnati. Thanks primarily to an influx of private investment funds, the organization has also been able to improve downtown’s Fountain Square, Vine Street (known as the “spine of downtown”) and other areas by bringing in a series of commercial tenants. They like to avoid using too many large chain stores, adding to the eclectic and local vibe of the area.“The key to successfully revitalizing Over-the-Rhine is making it more approachable,” said Kevin Jackson, Development Officer at 3CDC, and our tour guide for the afternoon.
Torchbearers’ second day of exploring Cincinnati began with a visit to Union Hall, which serves as an accelerator for startup businesses, housing The Brandery, CincyTech, Cintrifuse and Flywheel Social Enterprise Hub. Combining the forces of these companies helps facilitate rapid growth for businesses while remaining hyper-focused on creating entrepreneurial success in Southwest Ohio.
“#StartupCincy began as a hashtag and has become a movement,” said Christina Misali of Cintrifuse, who acted as a moderator for a panel of speakers from each of the organizations at Union Hall. “We want our companies to feel like they can grow here,” she said.
The panel said that being collaborative and creating cross-sector connections is the key to their success. They leverage the assets of Cincinnati in order to attract new entrepreneurs. This includes the fact that the cost of living is better in Cincinnati than it is in many other metropolitan areas. They also mentioned that the state of Ohio has innovative programs, such as Third Frontier, which helps to provide funding to small businesses.
Union Hall itself had been renovated to suit its new tenants, and includes several elements that add to a stress-free and friendlier work environment. This includes a rooftop work area (with morning yoga sessions and a great view), inspirational quotes on the wall and the ability to bring your dog to the workplace.
The remainder of the trip primarily consisted of a series of “Do-It-Yourself” visits to various organizations throughout the city. These locations included People’s Liberty, Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, Local Initiatives Support Coalition, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, REDI Cincinnati and STRIVE Partnership.
Members of Torchbearers chose which of the breakaway sessions they wanted to partake in, and shared takeaways with the entire group at dinner that evening.
Many takeaways came from Peoples Liberty, where they introduce experimental grant-making to the community, awarding individuals with ideas rather than organizations or entities. This led the Torchbearers to ponder what it would be like if Akron was more experimental with its own grant-making. Also emphasized was the importance of being willing to work with anyone, and again the significance of collaboration – large, small, profit, non-profit, private, public.
When time came to depart Cincinnati and head back to Akron, Torchbearers were energized and exhausted, but ultimately inspired to take what they learned in Cincinnati and share it with the greater Akron community, and hope that those within Cincinnati can do the same with what they learned about progress in Akron. The trip provided renewed energy to not only see the possibilities of what could come to Akron, but also to appreciate all the great things we already have here in Akron.