Most local residents are familiar with the saying “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.” Variously attributed to Mark Twain or Will Rogers, things have changed a bit since the days of typewriters and railroads. But it’s not nearly enough, say some critics.
We’re working on it. And, hey, The New York Times even told us last year that we have “an artsy swagger.”
So what’s missing?
According to a local grassroots political action committee, Cincinnatians for Progress, it’s our contentment with being stagnant — being OK with the status quo. If we’re indeed behind the times, we have been for a while.
Cincinnatians for Progress (CFP) formed last year in response to Issue 9, a ballot initiative that was often referred to publicly as the “anti-rail, anti-progress” campaign. The issue, had it passed, would have amended the city charter (Cincinnati’s version of the Constitution), requiring any new transportation initiatives using taxpayer money to first undergo a public vote.
CFP was concerned the amendment would be a major hindrance toward advancing plans for a proposed streetcar system and President Obama’s 3-C passenger rail initiative, which would connect Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. The group said the new charter wording would have been confusing and an obstruction to long-range planning by elected officials.
Many groups that supported Issue 9 — including the NAACP’s local chapter and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes — alleged CFP didn’t believe in the power of voters to make the best decisions for the community. CFP Co-Chair Rob Richardson sharply denies that claim, adding that Issue 9 had nothing to do with the intelligence of voters.
“We absolutely do believe voters need to make their own decisions, but first we need to make sure the public is adequately informed,” Richardson says. “People need to understand what they’re voting for before they actually vote.”
To the surprise of many, results from November’s election showed that CFP accomplished its goal. Smart grassroots campaigning and a broad public awareness effort sparked a resounding turnaround in the polls: Although Issue 9 was ahead by double digits in the summer, by November voters rejected the item by a 56-44 margin.
CityBeat recently lauded CFP in its Best of Cincinnati issue, naming the group as the “Best Organizing by Forward-Thinkers.”
To CFP, forward thinking means working to make Cincinnati globally competitive, not just county-to-county competitive, Richardson says.
The group revolves around promoting three tenets: job expansion, economic growth and public transportation. Mass transit naysayers who cite the sharp decline during the last year in Metro bus usage don’t comprehend the big picture, Richardson says. Passenger rail projects are about more than moving people from Point A to Point B; they’re about the perception of accepting and welcoming progress as well as promoting development.
CFP leaders agree that one of the biggest hindrances for Cincinnati — and other struggling cities — is an aversion to change or new ideas.
With about 6,000 members, the group is ready to move forward.
“I think that one cool thing about Cincinnatians for Progress is how broad our membership is,” notes Candace Klein, another CFP co-chair (pictured). “Some of our members are only 9 or 10 years old and others have been retired for nine or 10 years. We have supporters who are Democrats, Republicans and independents.”
Organizations endorsing CFP represent a variety of socio-political backgrounds, including the League of Women Voters, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, American Institute of Architects, Ohio Environmental Council, Downtown Residents Council and several prominent labor unions.
Thanks to a hefty $400 million in federal stimulus funds, Ohio has momentum to move forward with the 3-C passenger rail line. The prospect of having a multi-city connector would have a greater impact than just making the journey more convenient for passengers, Richardson says.
“Think of the rail system like the development of interstate highways,” he says. “Connecting Ohio’s major hubs would lead to more economic opportunities and more jobs. The rail cars would travel up to 110 mph, making commuting less of a hassle than it might be on clogged highways.
“More people would be connected to our city, and it would be easier to live here. We want to give Cincinnati a sense of vitality to draw in young people. … I think that once people could see it, touch it and use it, they would be a lot more convinced.”
Public apprehension can be eased by examining the successes of other city rail models, including those in Portland and Seattle, CFP states. The development of rail systems in these cities, Richardson notes, led to significant increases in city wealth, economic activity and urban redevelopment.
Through May 4, CFP’s main focus is spreading awareness about the importance of the passage of Issue 1, a statewide ballot item that would reissue Ohio Third Frontier’s bonds until 2016.
First approved by voters in 2005, the Ohio Third Frontier program was designed to assist small businesses and startup companies. Since that time, it’s helped create 48,000 new jobs, launch 571 new businesses and encourage entrepreneurs. If renewed, Issue 1 will sponsor another $700 billion to fund its economic development program.
To gear up for the May election, CFP is holding educational events citywide to inform voters about Issue 1. On April 19, CFP members will be teaming up with CincyPac and CincyTech for a rally at downtown’s Mainstay Rock Bar, where speakers will outline the basics of Third Frontier funding and how it will affect the general public, not just startup companies and small business owners.
“People need to know it’s not a tax,” Klein says. “Right now our call to action is encouraging supporters to vote early. We want people (that can’t vote on Election Day) to be sure to request absentee ballots and get them in,” which she says could be a key to achieving a narrow victory.
UPDATES: Click here for more information on Issue 1, to be decided by Ohio voters on May 4. Click here for an update on Cincinnati City Council's next steps in funding the streetcar project.