Where Steve Leeper meets Kathy Holwadel


Steve Leeper and I both arrived in Over-the-Rhine a few years after Cincinnati’s social problems exploded in 2001. Our community had hit rock-bottom and everybody in town understood there was no choice but to be part of the solution. Steve moved from Pittsburgh to run the non-profit, 3CDC (Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation).  I left a river-view office at Merrill Lynch to eventually start InkTank, a non-profit writing center where college-educated white people swapped stories with OTR natives who didn’t look or think like me.

We were both outsiders.  People who had been living and working in Over-the-Rhine for decades didn’t trust us.  But it was worse for Steve.  Hired by corporate executives, he represented the interests of the economic elite and everybody assumed that 3CDC couldn’t rebuild OTR in a way that would be fair.

More than a decade later, with the Cincinnati Renaissance popping-up on list after list of “must-visit” destinations, you’d think the obvious hero of our turn-around story would be strutting around like the king of the barnyard, eager to recount every detail of every 3CDC development success. But that’s not the guy who showed up for the conversation orchestrated by Anastasia Mileham, VP of Marketing and Communications, when I asked if someone could explain how the money works at a non-profit development corporation.  The guy sitting across the table from me sounded like he was on trial, like he felt I was out to get him.

The only time Steve’s eyes lit up and his voice softened during the hour we talked was when I asked about his 33 person board.  He said they were the most cohesive, supportive group imaginable.  “All they want to do is help.”  Wow.  What miracles happen when people believe in each other.

The reason I started writing Cincyopolis was because I wanted to be part of a more sophisticated public conversation about the built environment in Cincinnati, about what we value as a community, how we make those decisions and the public-private division of responsibilities and risks in making it happen. With all the development going on around town, citizens needed to be better educated about these important issues, ask for a more transparent process, and get involved.  But has the tone of my writing become too negative, the focus more on the problems than solutions, on what’s going wrong with not enough emphasis on all the amazing things that are going right?  How am I contributing to this climate of mistrust?  Because Steve Leeper isn’t crazy.  If he feels like he’s frequently under attack then he probably is.

So – let’s start over.

Please accept my sincere apologies for not publicly focusing first and foremost on all that’s going right in this city.  And it’s not just our buildings.  We rebuilt Cincinnati’s pride along with our city center, our belief in what’s possible at our little bend in the river.  Demand exceeds supply in every single aspect of all the new 3CDC developments: fun, imaginative events free to all, 2-hour waiting lists for tables in restaurants, full parking garages, residential units that fill-up faster than they can be finished, parks and plazas where people come together who would never have a chance to meet otherwise – this combined with a renewed commitment to better address the needs of the homeless.  And every single step along the way required super-human sensitivity to negotiate all kinds of different lives from yesterday to today.

Thank-you, Steve Leeper.  Thank-you, to every member of the incredibly talented 3CDC staff that has made Cincinnati’s re-imagination their work.  Thank-you, maybe especially, to all the corporate executives who believed in this community in our darkest hour, came together to invest so much time, knowledge and patient capital in our city’s future.  Our turn-around is a model for cities all across the country.

Buildings are important, but they are just the physical manifestation of what’s really important in a  community.  What we’re constructing through this process is a way of listening to each other, sharing our concerns, and coming together that goes beyond the bricks and mortar. With so much work left to do to make this the city what we want it to be, let’s try to show up at every table always assuming the best about each other, asking what we can do to help.

18 thoughts on “Where Steve Leeper meets Kathy Holwadel

  1. kkmn13

    Thank you for writing this article. It’s great to hear what I already know…that we live in a beautiful city that is rich in entertainment and filled with compassionate people.

  2. Bill Collins

    I agree. Clearly, there is room for more input from the OTR community into 3CDC’s work, as the OTR Community Council has said.

    That being said, I want to say that I, too, am a big fan of Stephen Leeper. He made a believer out of me a couple of years ago at the one time that I have met him, at a public event at the Mayerson Jewish Community Center.

    At that event, Leeper explained the methodology that 3CDC used to make what I understood to be its first big move to reduce crime in OTR. He said that they started this anti-crime effort by commissioning a study that used geo-spatial “heat-mapping” to track exactly *where* in OTR crime was concentrated. What the heat-mapping found was that criminal activity was concentrated around the carry-out liquor stores.

    So, 3CDC decided to do what it could, using its considerable money, to close as many of these carry-out liquor stores as possible. 3CDC made financial offers to the owners of these stores, and many of them — being the cash-strapped family business operators that they are — took the offers. In so doing, the amount of carry-out liquor activity in OTR plummeted, and with it the crime also dropped.

    As much as we talk in this country about the connection between illegal drugs and crime, the truth is that there is sometimes an even bigger connection between alcohol and crime. Using hard data, 3CDC under Stephen Leeper’s leadership figured this out, identified a problem, and solved it.

    To me, that sounds like very good leadership. Thank you, Mr. Leeper.

    1. executivedreamer Post author

      These social satire videos have gotten a lot of attention. In fact, we spent a few minutes talking about them the day I visited 3CDC. Anastasia takes them very seriously and I’m pretty sure I have this initiative to thank for getting me on the schedule. While I agree that we, as a community, have not yet figured out how to do better for the needs of the poor in our city (almost 30% of us live below the poverty line and the median income is only $33,000/yr) — I’m not ready to lay the blame at the feet of the developer who was given the assignment of rebuilding our city center.
      The reason? We gave buddy gray’s bottom-up approach a good run – and though the social justice groups that worked together on that vision were well-intentioned and good of heart – the experiment was a dismal failure on every level for every resident of this city including the very people we all wanted to help. OTR was crumbling – a place where nobody felt safe, rich or poor.
      The points of this video are not without merit. But Steve Leeper is not responsible for solving the complex problems of poverty. And my impression after researching 3CDC’s history is that he sincerely cares and that the social service agencies that are moving to new facilities are now excited about the spaces he’s helped create for them. — You are so right in that Cincinnati has to do better in terms of all kinds of opportunities for all of our residents. But, maybe, just maybe, could it be possible that 3CDC has done some good things in the past ten years? And maybe, just maybe, we might recognize those even as we raise the standards of compassion for our community as a whole.

      1. executivedreamer Post author

        So I’m going to ask again. . . how has Steve Leeper become the scapegoat for our failure as a society – because this isn’t just an issue in Cincinnati as the civil unrest in Ferguson recently demonstrated – this is every urban center in the United States – why is this one man to be held accountable for solving our inner-city poverty? Why do we resent him so much? Is it his paycheck? Then I tell you – you have to resent me, too – because I was ridiculously over-paid as a financial consultant for years and didn’t do one damn thing to improve the lot of my city’s poor other than the paltry checks I occasionally wrote the United Way or Salvation Army. I was too busy raising kids and doing wash and getting groceries in the house like most people. This problem is tough and tricky and I am so glad we are talking about it. But if we’re serious about improving the situation we have to work on this together, all of us.

      2. throughthecatchfence

        If you want people to discuss issues respond to them. Your reply is a rant about YOU not the question I raised. I made no attack on Leeper or his salary. I raised a valid issue which you chose to ignore. I simply pointed out that success is much more achievable where there is a profit motive and a lot less so when the motive involves poverty elimination.

  3. Barbara Boylan

    Time for me to be removed from this list. I forgot that we must always accentuate the positive in the neoliberal world and I don’t buy it for a minute. As if there isn’t enough back slapping for the elites and their management workforce.

    1. executivedreamer Post author

      Barbara – let me remind you about why I volunteer my time – full-time – to exploring these questions. It’s because I see things that could definitely be improved. I want to effect real change. cincyopolis isn’t just a rant. I’m not bored and in need of attention. I don’t want a job. And I don’t ever want to run for public office. So how does change happen? Maybe you’ve had a different experience in your life, but in mine it’s never happened by villifying the other, by banging the decision-makers over their heads with how bad they are, or dumb. Somehow we have to get to the same table, really listen to each other, find commonalities and move forward together. Are you really saying you can find nothing you like about the changes in our city since 3CDC was formed? Nothing???????

  4. Barbara Boylan

    I agree with throughthecatchfence, your reply is more about you and why ‘banging decision makers over the head’ is not your thing. Ok, I get that, I misunderstood. Someone told me you were actually taking a deeper dive on our cities issues with this blog. No, I can not tell you I find anything attractive about an entity like 3CDC being brought in to replace city government planning and development. I don’t find long lines for food thrilling. I take the long view, I wish I didn’t, maybe then I could enjoy the bubble of Over The Rhine (oh wait, I mean OTR) that is now a nice playground for a very small part of our population. I tend to follow the downer stuff, like where people get moved to and how the housing markets and crime rates follow, about the long lists for subsidized housing and how the renter’s crisis – which Cincinnati is a poster child for – has come home to roost.

  5. Bill Collins

    I have two comments to make
    1) one re: Buddy Gray’s approach to redeveloping OTR, and
    2) one about how the collapse of manufacturing employment in Cincinnati’s basin area and Mill Creek Valley has created so much poverty

    Back in the early 1990s I worked Downtown, a few blocks from the Main Street district in OTR. At the time I was active in civic affairs (later I wasn’t). During the period, I met through my civic work (work that was *not* related to OTR) a young recent Walnut Hills graduate who had lived in OTR all his life and lived there with his family as he worked and attended UC. [Let’s call him Eric L].

    As a local resident, Eric L had been active with Buddy Gray’s organization for some years. But, as Eric L and I got to know each other better, he confided in me one day (this would have been around 1992) that he had lost confidence in Buddy Gray’s approach. As I recall, he said something like this [I’m paraphrasing] “They talk a lot about co-operative non-profit businesses created jobs and housing here, but nothing is happening. Year after year the talk continues, but I don’t see Buddy Gray’s group making anything meaningful happen.”

    From that day when Eric L said what he said, I stopped giving money to Buddy Gray (may he rest in peac) and stopped attending Gray’s events.
    – – – –

    It’s no secret that it’s the collapse of the manufacturing base in the USA over the last 35-40 years that has created such massive amounts of poverty in the USA — particularly here in the Midwest.
    As this article published this week int he Atlantic explains — http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/for-great-american-cities-the-rich-dont-always-get-richer/385513/ — in 1980 Flint, Michigan and Detroit, Michigan had some of the highest income for young working people in the USA — well ahead of places like DC, San Francisco and Boston. As capital fled the Michigan industrial cities .. . . well, we know what happened.

    Also, the director of UC economic center, Julie Heath, wrote a great column in the January 31st Enquirer — see http://goo.gl/qs24BZ — where she explained the core value-add reasons why the manufacturing sector is so critical to helping people get out of poverty. Heath wrote:
    “The manufacturing industry employs a larger percentage of workers without a college degree
    than the overall economy. In addition, in 2012-’13, workers without a college degree
    in manufacturing made, on average, 10.9 percent more than similar workers in the rest
    of the economy. Manufacturing has historically been one of the pathways to the middle class,
    so maintaining strength in this sector is important in the face of growing income inequality.”

    “In terms of total output, manufacturing is by far the most important sector of the economy.
    Manufacturing’s total output (including intermediate goods, which are not counted as part
    of GDP) is more than four times as large as its share of total employment.”

    “Given its reliance on manufacturing, the Tri-state region has been particularly hard hit
    by these job losses. Since 1998, Ohio has lost 6.8 percent of its total employment –
    386,500 people – because of manufacturing’s decline. Indiana lost 5.8 percent
    and Kentucky, 4.4 percent.”

    As it was in Flint and Detroit, so is in Cincinnati. So, what to do about it?

    We know that there are trends afoot now for more manufacturing and logistics businesses to build facilities in the USA. And, locally, we have seen just that happen over the last 30-40 years in two “industrial park” areas of Metro Cincinnati:
    * the area at or within 3-4 miles of the I-75/I-275 interchange in Sharonville, Springdale, West Chester, Forest Park and Fairfield, and
    * the area within 3-4 miles of CVG

    In OTR, the opportunity here is to redevelopment the traditional smaller manufacturing buildings that are now largely vacant and lie north of Liberty Street and in or near Central Parkway. Redeveloping this manufacturing area is the primary responsibility of 3CDC.

    In Queensgate, there is much more land where large manufacturing shops and/or logistics complexes can be built. This Lower Mill Creek area is within the “remit” of the Port Authority, but currently the powers-that-be at City Hall are failing to give the green light to the Port Authority to take on this critical task to create the kinds of high-value jobs that we need to pull people living in the City out of poverty.

    So, again, is this Stephen Leeper’s fault? No.

    Let’s try to look at creating opportunity, reducing poverty and attracting more black middle-class people to the City in ways that show an understanding of how the economy works and how income and wealth are actually created in the real world.

    Stephen Leeper is not the enemy.

  6. throughthecatchfence

    No one said that anyone was an enemy; Buddy Gray was only mentioned as an example of what the author called the bottom up approach. Just like so many blogs this is an example of “if you agree with me great but if you don’t, don’t comment.” Cincinnati now has OTR – Only The Rich – Hipsterville where the Millenials can gather with craft brews and $15 cocktails and bemoan their plight. Gentrification is doing to OTR what i-75 did to the West End – moving poverty somewhere we don’t have to look at it.

  7. Bill Collins


    I’m not going to take exception to anything said above except the last comment that says, “Gentrification is doing to OTR what i-75 did to the West End – moving poverty somewhere we don’t have to look at it.”

    I am not a native Cincinnatian, and I am white (62 years old). So, I never knew what the mostly black West End and Kenyon Barr — see the commentary here: https://andobayanka.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/kenyon-barr-never-forget/ — were like prior to the destruction of those neighborhoods by I-75. This was an outrage, the kind of road-building outrage in the interior of cities that President Eisenhower expressed outrage at before leaving office in January 1961. See http://goo.gl/KEkXo

    From conversations that I have had with a fellow church member whose family lived in that area and was forced to leave because of I-75, she told me that the West End and Kenyon Barr was *not* a poor person’s ghetto. Instead, these two communities were the heart of the entire black community which in Cincinnat at that time was concentrated up and down the Mill Creek valley from Lincoln Heights and Glendale (yes, parts of Glendale), Wyoming (yes, parts of Wyoming), Lockland and on down to the Ohio River. She said this Kenyon Barr/West End area was a mix of poor black folks, working-class blacks who worked in the factories of the Mill Creek valley (and Newport Steel) and the small black white-collar class of its day.

    It was also the place where there was a concentration of black-owned businesses that served the black community — funeral homes, movie theaters, night clubs, pharmacies, shoe repair stores, laundries, etc.. In other words, it was the type of neighborhood that was the soul of the entire black community at that time in the Mill Creek Valley of Cincinnati, and was similar to black communities across America — many of which (Miami, St. Paul, Winston-Salem, etc, etc.) were destroyed by freeway construction as in Cincinnati.

    At that time before I-75 when the manufacturing base in the Mill Creek valley was intact, people tell me that this was a different City with less concentrated poverty, a much stronger black community, and a business class within that black community that was well-integrated with the larger black population than is the case today.

    Today, like the white communities, Cincinnati’s black community exists basically in name only, with professional blacks moving to Mason, Loveland, Boone County, West Chester, with working-class blacks moving to Finneytown, Forest Park, Springdale, Fairfield, etc. and poor blacks moving to the West Side and some of the inner-ring northern suburbs.

    That is what three generations of real-estate speculation and sprawl does to people and communities. One cannot look back at the late 1950s and assume that the world of that time is like the world today. It wasn’t and it isn’t.

  8. executivedreamer Post author

    throughthecatchfence: sorry – I did misinterpret your response. my only excuse is that I was getting banged-up big time for my support of 3CDC and jumped to the wrong conclusion about your comment. It is valid.

  9. throughthecatchfence

    Net result is the same. the poor are forced to move away from essential to communities that cannot provide a safety net. For every new high rent apartment put on line in OTR 4 or 5 tenants are displaced because of increased rents. I’m not opposed to market rate housing in OTR but where is the affordable housing?

  10. executivedreamer Post author

    Is anybody arguing that we don’t need more affordable housing? Not that I’ve heard. Not Steve Leeper the other day. — But as a community we decided to preserve the historic building stock and according to every developer I’ve talked to, it’s more expensive to restore those properties than rip them down and start over. Hopefully the rat and fly infestations have improved since I rented a storefront on Main 10 years ago (and I had a great landlord). Michelle Dillingham and Margy Waller have talked about including more affordable units in market rate rehabs. That seems like a doable goal.


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