Big Thinkers: Eric Avner

Eric Avner

Waiting for the elevator to the 11th floor of the US Bank Building on my way to visit Eric Avner, Vice President of the Haile Foundation, I didn’t know what to expect.  On the one hand, he’d been the Associate Director of the Cincinnati Business Committee prior to his current job – an organization not exactly known for its wild and crazy thinking.  But Eric is also the guy who saved the street car last December, putting together an eleventh-hour coalition to cover any shortfall in operating funds and get construction going again.  He was the first person I thought of when I decided to explore different visions for the built future of our city.

Located in what Eric describes as a “nondescript office tower,” I nevertheless picked up on several important clues that all is not philanthropy-as-usual as soon as I took a seat in the Foundation’s reception area.  For instance, the “Innovation must be disruptive” poster taped to the sidelight of the entry.  And a stack of over-sized postcards on the coffee table with the message “Investing in place by investing in people” in a sleek, black font. When I spotted the newspaper flyer, its entire front page devoted to a quote by Daniel Burnham, architect and early 20th century urban designer, I knew for sure I had come to the right spot. “To love one’s city and have a part in its advancement and improvement, is the highest privilege and duty of a citizen.”

It was a crazy morning at the Foundation, the final deadline for the first-ever Haile Fellowships, $100,000 grants awarded to “innovators who have identified a local challenge and have an ambitious plan for addressing it.”  The air was buzzing with infinite possibility as attractive young talent popped from behind one conference room door only to disappear behind another, cellphones glued to their ears, a slightly crazed look in their eyes.

A few minutes later, Eric rounded the corner in his trademark bow tie, hand out-stretched. Let’s face it.  A man who wears a bow tie is only willing to go so far to concede to the conventions of society, especially when he pairs it with a lavender button down.

I didn’t have to listen long to understand that Eric Avner is not just trying to disrupt Cincinnati.   His new community development initiative, People’s Liberty, is designed to challenge the very nature of philanthropy as it has been practiced for decades.  It’s not enough just to cut a check any more. This brand of do-good gets its hands dirty, “investing in individuals through funding and mentorship, creating a new replicable model for grantmakers in other cities.”  The inference of  the program is that if you can get the bureaucracy out of the way – all the forms, professional grant writers, the obsession with providing measurable outcomes in the appropriate format delivered on deadline in duplicate copies and submitted in the appropriate sized font, people with big dreams will take care of what’s really important as long as they know what to do.

“Let me show you what I mean,” he says, jumping up in the middle of our conversation to go get a sample pad of the long, printed check-lists that People’s Liberty leaves in coffee shops and libraries all across town.   There are boxes to check-off for where to go for funding, space, talent, services, media and support with happenings.  More than anything else, the list seems to be a visual reminder of the wealth of resources already available in our community, without worrying too much about the for-profit or non-profit tax designations of who is making it rain.  He sees events as the gateway drug to more meaningful changes that impact the physical environment on a permanent basis.

Avner’s vision for the future of Cincinnati’s built environment is manifesting itself in the Haile Foundation’s first philanthropic lab, the old Globe Furniture building on the edge of Findlay Market scheduled to open in February.  The space will be used to gather civic minded -talent to ” address challenges and uncover opportunities to accelerate the positive transformation of Greater Cincinnati.”  Similar to the one-stop shopping approach to mentors, legal advice and shared co-working space for venture-backed businesses at the new Centrifuse building on Vine St., People’s Liberty intends to put together their own mix  for civic projects.  They chose an urban location close to regular foot traffic on the ground floor in a part of town still in transition..  The plan is to move on to another neighborhood in 2020.  There might even be People’s Liberty branches someday.

Big visions are mesmerizing and one of Eric’s most ambitious ideas involves returning the area north of Liberty to the job center it once was.  He talks about the romantic notion of using those old industrial buildings for industrial purposes instead of converting them to residential, small batch manufacturing for production of locally made products as the economic pendulum swings back from mass-manufactured merchandise featured in big box experiences, completely unrelated to the people or towns where they are located.

“Make no little plans,” is another of Daniel Burnham’s most oft quoted lines.  “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”  And though attributed to a different man of a different generation, Eric Avner lives those words every day.  He understands that great cities are built by people who love them, not corporations.  He believes in us and invented a People’s Liberty to clear the path for citizens to create magical places that embody a generosity of spirit so contagious it could never be confined to a balance sheet.

Learn more about Haile Fellowships, Project Grants, Globe Grants, and the People’s Liberty Residency program at peoplesliberty.org.

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