There are no shortages of proposals around how Cincinnati should use the ~$291M in American Rescue Plan(ARP) funds. I have myself suggested that we leverage it to invest in the Affording Housing Trust Fund and Capital Projects such as parks, Western Hills Viaduct, and biking infrastructure. But before we get into the weeds on how we should spend it, I think we’re missing a few steps including setting holistic, bold goals for what we should accomplish with it.
Business and government are of course different, but one thing should be consistent: spending choices should be grounded in clear objectives, goals and strategies behind them — it’s what 16 years at P&G and 3 years as an entrepreneur taught me. The below is not a list of spending plans, but a framework for how I think we should be approach spending it. We’re at a moment in time when we need an even keel, methodical approach on this issue.
What type of city do we want to be
The ARP funds are designed to help cities address immediate challenges that stem from the pandemic, but it’s also an opportunity to use it to advance a bigger vision for the type of city we want to be. For me that is a:
Cincinnati that is growing and vibrant. A city where people help each other to achieve their full potential, and where regardless of whether you’re born the child of a Fortune 500 executive or on food stamps you have an equal opportunity to succeed with hard work. It’s a city where we are not afraid to tackle our biggest challenges head-on.
We are a growing and increasingly vibrant city. But let’s face reality: with 26,000 children living in poverty (2x higher than the national average), 25% of the population in poverty (top 5 among cities in the country), an infrastructure in desperate need of investment, and 28,000 units short on affordable housing, Cincinnati falls short of living up to that vision of a city where everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential. And these structural issues will hold us back from unleashing further potential growth and vibrancy in the future if we don’t address them.
So what should our objectives be for ARP funding?
To advance that vision, objectives for ARP funding should include the following:
- Help those in immediate need of assistance most impacted by the pandemic who have not received help to get back on their feet.
- Invest in fixing long-term issues to make a step change in the Cincinnati’s trajectory including: dramatically reducing childhood poverty, decreasing overall poverty, closing the affordable housing gap, and reducing the backlog in capital projects.
But those are very high level and not specific. We need to set specific goals.
Using ARA Funds to be a Catalyst for Setting Bold Goals
In addition to a goal of helping those organizations and people most impacted by the pandemic recover (including arts organizations and small businesses particularly minority owned businesses who have been disproportionally impacted), ARP funding is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be bold in the goals we set. These should include:
- Cut the childhood poverty rates in half in the next five years.
- Train 10,000+ people on jobs needed to attract investment and high wage jobs including computer science, coding, and the building trades.
- Grow Cincinnati’s population by 5% in 5 years as a means to grow our tax base and prosper in the future.
- Cut the affordable housing gap in partnership with the county by half in the next 10 years.
- Continue to make Cincinnati the greenest city (a city in a park) — with a top rated park system and eliminate the 10 degree F difference in temperature difference between neighborhoods caused by lack of tree canopy coverage.
- Rebuild our infrastructure including the Western Hills Viaduct.
- Build a “15-minute city” where you can meet your most essential needs by bike or walking within 15 minutes. That means a building a connected, and robust bike infrastructure that also makes it safer for pedestrians.
I’m not naïve to think that ARP funds alone will achieve these goals, but it should help accelerate progress when paired with other resources including private dollars. There certainly are other goals and we can/should discuss whether the above are too ambitious or not ambitious enough. Let’s talk about them and set them. At least then we’ll have a North Star toward which our plans are moving.
Strategies for ARP funding
Strategies are of course choices one makes to achieve goals. Some of the strategies in this case I believe should include:
- Triage for those most immediately impacted by the pandemic. This is of course the intent of the ARP, but there also have been other sources of aid for small businesses and others impacted by the pandemic (e.g. PPP loans, eviction assistance, etc). Even with those other forms of assistance, there are gaps (particularly in the arts and with minority owned small business), and we should “plug those gaps” to ensure that those most impacted by the pandemic have the assistance they need to get back on their feet.
- Invest in proven tools to advance solutions to structural issues. We know that some investments are proven to be effective e.g. we know that bike infrastructure is a catalyst for further investment and improved health, investment in parks and expansion of tree canopy yields an 8:1 ROI as well as improved health, and we have some significant deferred maintenance on infrastructure capital projects (e.g. Western Hills Viaduct, in our parks, etc) which we know will help solve longer-term structural issues.
- Pilot new approaches to address long-term problems. We should have an innovation czar at City Hall in charge of developing multiple pilots on potential solutions for issues ranging from reducing childhood poverty and step-changing job training to accelerating small business growth and closing the affordable housing gap. Some pilots will fail; others will succeed and maybe not be scalable while others will be successful and scalable. But we won’t know unless we try. Fail small and quickly is the mantra in the entrepreneur community. This new pilot approach can/should be aided by a strong partnership with Cintrifuse and other innovation hubs, applying lean innovation principles.
- Leverage ARP funds as a catalyst for additional dollars whether they be private investments and/or additional government funds. There are multiple projects where ARP funds could be a match e.g. Western Hills Viaduct or building out the rest of the CROWN bike network assuming the final federal rules permit those matches. Similarly, with the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, we should seek matching federal and private dollars to invest in expanding programs like the Cincinnati Scholar House in Walnut Hills as a model. Just like the Museum Center raised $69M already for its $85M capital campaign, for solutions that have been proven to work, the generosity of our city is significant.
The last two strategies are not parts of the current discussion, but should be. Running pilots and using ARP dollars for seed funding to make it go further are smart strategies. It’s the type of innovation that we need.
The discussion on City Council has already begun on specific funding priorities, and we’re still waiting on guidance from the federal government on how ARP dollars can be spent. As we wait for that guidance, we should be having a discussion on what bold goals we want to set as a city and specific strategies we should be exploring.
This is a unique moment in time when City Council now (and next year when the next round of funding is released) has the ability to push for bold goals and strategies first before getting into the weeds of funding specific projects. Let’s set those goals and strategies now so we make sure we’re intentional about the most pressing problems that we’re solving for in our neighborhoods.