Jim McGraw, an economic development lawyer for the Cincinnati firm of Keating Muething & Klekamp, has handled development deals in 120 cities in more than 30 states over three decades.
“I don’t want to go too crazy on this, but I’ll tell you what,” he said, “the silver bullet for the city of Hamilton is one thing: Joshua Smith.”
Smith, Hamilton’s city manager, recently passed his 10th anniversary in the position he took when Hamilton was a city that had seen large factories and other employers close down, with others yet to depart. Earlier that summer of 2010, Ohio Casualty insurance workers moved to Liberty Mutual Group offices in Fairfield, leaving empty the downtown buildings where 1,000 had been employed. The former Elder-Beerman building downtown was dormant.
The city started focusing on safety and attractiveness in the area officials now refer to as "Walgreens to Walgreens — from the store at High Street and Ohio 4 to the one on Main Street and Eaton Avenue. That was the area, filled with vacant business buildings and storefronts, where officials decided was their best bet to create new development.
In the years since, Smith, who turns 47 this week, has won praise for his work in bringing businesses to Hamilton and improving quality of life while working through the numerous challenges any city faces.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody as good as him,” McGraw said.
“... Without Joshua’s energy, his drive, his creativity, his speed to get things done, his being able to convince council that the city could succeed, could turn itself around, I’m telling you, the guy is phenomenal. The No. 1 priority of council needs to be to find a way to keep him there, because we’re all replaceable. But I’ll tell you what. Replacing that guy would be a huge challenge.”
Starting a change
His first week on the job, Smith had lunch with Claude Davis, then the president and CEO of First Financial Bancorp, who Smith said “hammered me” about the state of High Street, because bank executives visiting the city by way of Interstate 75 and Ohio 129 saw the weeds and unattractiveness along High Street and before reaching the railroad underpass said they didn’t want to be in Hamilton..
The streets were upgraded, trees planted, trash picked up more regularly and businesses added, with companies like StarTek Inc. opening a call center in the Elder-Beerman building at 150 High St. Another jobs victory came when Barclaycard, a credit card-servicing division of Barclays Bank, opened a call center on Knightsbridge Drive.
The CORE (Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment Efforts) Fund began rehabbing empty buildings, storefronts and apartments that have been filling along the High-and-Main corridor. And biggest of all, a city gamble to buy the former Champion Paper mill site about eight years ago for $400,000 to keep in under city control paid off when developer Sam Beiler of Pennsylvania decided to build an immense $144 million indoor sports complex there.
Credit: Nicholas S. Graham
Credit: Nicholas S. Graham
Other companies have been moving in, many of them noticing a transformation in the appearance downtown and along Main Street. A Cincinnati high-tech-agriculture company called 80 Acres Farms, which has a European cousin Infinite Acres, placed its headquarters in Hamilton’s city building. Another company, Darana Hybrid, also moved operations from Memphis to a long-vacant Lindenwald-neighborhood factory after first operating from the city building.
The city, helped by many enthusiastic volunteers, started a highly successful concert series at the RiversEdge amphitheater, and the family of Joseph and Sarah Marcum donated $3.5 million to create Marcum Park in that immediate area. Events like Operation Pumpkin, created by former citizens of the year Jason and Tammy Snyder, brought more people downtown.
Since the October 2018, groundbreaking for Spooky Nook, which is to open in December of 2021 and is to be the largest of its type in North America, and accompanied by a convention center, numerous companies have bought into the city, some building projects before they had locked in tenants.
Under Smith, a variety of programs have been started either by the city, or with the city’s help. Smith created a fellowship program for recent college graduates who have become key staffers for city government. The Hamilton Community Foundation won national attention when it created “Talent Attraction Program” scholarships that help pay student-loan debt for college graduates who move to the city.
And fostered by then-City Councilwoman Kathleen Klink, the city’s 17Strong program of building up neighborhoods has helped energize some areas of the city. Still, city officials admit, many vacant houses and commercial buildings remain empty, creating blight around them, among other issues.
“The fellowship program has brought some very well-skilled people to Hamilton who have stayed here, raised a family here,” said Mayor Pat Moeller. “He has had so many successes in so many areas, we would not be where we are now without him. Period.
“Clearly, he’s the right person to be our city manager. I know it back then, and sure now.”
Smith, meanwhile, deflected credit.
“If I had to say one thing about our success, it’s the people that I inherited, but also, people that have been hired since 2010, and that fellowship program certainly was a talent pipeline for us,” he said.
Why has Hamilton seen some of its recent successes?
Dan Bates, president and CEO of the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, said Smith’s optimism and energy have spread throughout the city.
“I think the we-just-have-to-make-it-happen attitude is infectious,” Bates said. “We don’t look at ‘We can’t do this because....' we look at ‘How do we make it happen?’”
“And I think that most of the leadership in Hamilton is on board with that, whether you’re talking to the hospital or the Fitton Center, the chamber or the city, everybody has that attitude of ‘We’re all in this together,' and it’s about ‘What do we have to do to make it happen?’ as opposed to, ‘This is a barrier we can’t overcome.'”
Other places nationwide, like Liberty Center, are trying to replicate the kind of architecture that Hamilton and other cities have, city officials recently observed.
The city also has seen benefits from its Marcum Park, which has become Hamilton’s “backyard,” and where RiversEdge amphitheater evening concerts add life to the downtown.
“When it’s all said and done, he could be a college professor teaching how to build up a city, make it stronger, make the citizens more proud of their city,” Moeller said. “He could teach a course at Harvard. No doubt in my mind.”
Tourism? In Hamilton?
Hamilton has been seeing some unfamiliar things lately. Such as tourism.
“Ten years ago, I would have laughed if you had said to me Hamilton will be a recreation/tourism area, and it certainly is,” said Council Member Susan Vaughn. "A year ago, I was sitting at the Marriott, at the bar area there, with some friends, and there were two (young) women next to us.
“They were talking, and they had a map out. They said, ‘Excuse me, are you from Hamilton? Can you help us with our map?’ I about fell out of my chair, because they had a map of Hamilton, and they were here from Columbus, two women, on a girls' weekend, to do the doughnut trail. And they wanted to see some of the historic areas."
There’s lots of work remaining, city leaders and residents alike note. Among big issues still facing Hamilton are vacant houses and commercial buildings that create blight in their neighborhoods. Also, residents of other neighborhoods, like the Second Ward (also known as Riverview), Lindenwald, North End and Jefferson (also known as the Fourth Ward) are hoping to see empty storefronts filled with businesses.
Key decisions will be made in coming months, Smith recently predicted at a city council retreat.
“The steps that we make in the next 24 months, in my mind, are going to dictate the next decade for us,” he recently told city council.
Why have companies been choosing Hamilton?
Businesses have frequently said they decided to locate in Hamilton because of the attention they have felt from city officials.
“It’s a community that wanted us here,” Mike Zelkind, CEO, and co-founder of 80 Acres Farms, explained this year.
Now that his cutting-edge agriculture company, which grows crops completely indoors, became a media darling, with an exhibit at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, “everyone wants a piece of us,” he said.
“But two or three years ago, Joshua and that team, they had a vision, and they wanted a cool business that would invest in Hamilton, would bring money, and they wanted to revive Hamilton,” Zelkind said.
The city-owned utilities, including electric and gas, have been a tremendous asset in attracting companies, especially those that want to be able to say they use green energy from the city’s hydroelectric plants.
Plus, the city continues to benefit from another tremendous asset, Ohio 129, which was built in the 1990s and gave the city a high-quality highway link to Interstate 75, officials say.
“Except for the Marcum family, he could be the greatest thing that ever happened to Hamilton,” McGraw said about the family that donated $3.5 million for the city’s new downtown “backyard,” Marcum Park. “Everything that has been done in Hamilton in 10 years has been because of him, with a very supportive council, with a very good economic director in Jody (Gunderson) and a fantastic guy at the Hamilton Community Foundation,” in John Guidugli.