Can Cincinnati Keep NIOSH?

What costs the city of Cincinnati more: keeping large employers or losing them? That's been the question since city council last year gave Convergys an incentive package worth $52 million, followed

Jan 14, 2004 at 2:06 pm

What costs the city of Cincinnati more: keeping large employers or losing them?

That's been the question since city council last year gave Convergys an incentive package worth $52 million, followed by a deal to build a $12 million dollar garage for Kroger.

Now the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is considering consolidating its two Cincinnati locations. One site under consideration is in Milford.

NIOSH is a federal agency that conducts research and makes recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness. It operates under the larger umbrella of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Nearly 600 NIOSH employees work at the two local sites, one on Ridge Road and another on Columbia Parkway.

Fred Blosser, a NIOSH public affairs officer, confirms discussion of a Milford site, but stresses that NIOSH is in the very early stages of looking at potential locations. A move is still five to 10 years away, says Jenise Brassell, President of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3840 at NIOSH in Cincinnati.

She and NIOSH management have met with city officials, according to Brassell.

She also says they've been contacted by the University of Cincinnati, which already houses a NIOSH-sponsored educational research center.

Last spring concerned NIOSH employees also contacted the office of City Councilman David Crowley, chair of the Community Development, Education and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, about a possible move outside the city.

Crowley's office then connected NIOSH to Scott Stiles in the city manager's office, who says he's "just started the process of looking at some locations they might consider."

Brassell says subsidies such as those the city cobbled together for Convergys and Kroger aren't an option for NIOSH.

"Being the federal government, we're not allowed to take money," she says. "We don't have the advantage of the private sector."

"My guess is there are always ways" for the city to help, Crowley says, if only through increased cooperation.

"Our position is, we would hate like hell for an employer like NIOSH to pull out of the city," he says.

Sentiment among employees tends toward staying within the city, according to several sources. First, of course, most employees don't want a longer commute. Then there are the implications of being removed from other research communities, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, UC and other universities, says Barbara Jenkins, who has worked as a public health analyst at the Ridge Road site for 15 years.

"Those who are vocal see the advantages of being in a dynamic environment that is supportive of and conducive to research," she says. "It's very important that we are placed in a way that enables people to do the best research and service for occupational safety and health and emergency preparedness work that we do."

There's concern about the impact of a move on diversity in NIOSH's workplace, especially if public transportation becomes less accessible or convenient, Jenkins says.

"We have a new emphasis on Hispanic outreach to conduct research and bring services to occupational settings that are largely Spanish speaking," she says.

NIOSH has been working with the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce for the past six weeks, according to John Fonner, the Chamber's director of technology adoption. The Chamber doesn't express site preferences to new companies, but once they're settled, it prefers they stay put.

"When companies move from one taxing jurisdiction to another, then there are winners and losers within a region," Fonner says.

What can an already financially strapped city do to make NIOSH and other employers stay, and what will be the impact on minorities and Cincinnati's economy if they go?

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.