CINCINNATI — Developers have spent the past two decades working to bring business activity back to Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
Now, there’s a new organization with a mission to ensure any future growth better reflects those who call the city and OTR home.
What You Need To Know
- Represent Cincy aims to support the creation and growth of Black-owned businesses in Over-the-Rhine
- Black people own only 12% of businesses in the historically African-American neighborhood
- The nonprofit's board is made up of a mix of developers, bank lenders and business owners
- A goal of the program is to not just open businesses, but open doors to long-term success
After years of discussion, the organization Represent Cincy officially launched in Over-the-Rhine. The nonprofit looks to assist prospective Black entrepreneurs find brick-and-mortar spaces in OTR, while also offering resources to established minority-owned businesses looking to grow.
The Represent Cincy plan calls for providing capital and professional services that allow for long-term success. That includes offering a mixture of grants, low-interest loans, mentorship from experienced business owners.
After an 18-month selection process, the Represent Cincy board of directors selected Procter & Gamble alum Jared Simmons, 44, as the agency’s first executive director.
“I want us to be seen as a place where you can get advice and not just as a source of capital or marketing support,” Simmons, an Alabama native, said of Represent Cincy.
There’s still work to do
The idea for Represent Cincy stems from an Oct. 2018 conversation between then-Cincinnati City Council member Greg Landsman and the leadership team at Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC), according to the community developer.
Landsman, who’s in his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives, D-OH 1, voiced concern while still at City Hall over the few number of Black-owned businesses in Over-the-Rhine despite it being a historically African-American neighborhood.
The number of Black residents in OTR declined in recent years, based on data from the 2020 U.S Census. But proportionally, the number of minority-owned businesses lags far behind those operated by White people.
“We asked OTR building owners to hit a goal of 60% of new leases signed with Black-owned businesses. They did it and the OTR business district is stronger for it,” Landsman said, before stressing that there’s still a lot of work to do.
Currently, there are more than 60 Black-owned businesses in Over-the-Rhine, accounting for 12% of all the neighborhood’s businesses, according to information from 3CDC. The data showed 26% 3CDC’s street-level commercial spaces in OTR have Black owners.
Lindzie Gunnels, commercial leasing manager for 3CDC and chair of the Represent Cincy board of directors, said organizations like Urban Sites, Model Group, and other landlords have made headway on this front in recent years. But those parties — all of whom were part of the Represent Cincy process — recognized that it was “not enough.”
To aid in the nonprofit’s launch, Represent Cincy received $100,000 in startup funding from both the Haile Foundation and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Gunnels said.
She noted the program also received $1 million from the city of Cincinnati for “deployable capital.”
‘I want to help them thrive for the next… 40 years’
Represent Cincy’s new leader is no stranger to OTR.
After graduating from the University of Alabama, Simmons took a position as a senior research and development engineer at Cincinnati-based P&G. He spent nearly 10 years in the Queen City before relocating to Atlanta for a job with Coca-Cola.
Simmons — who also consults on product development and diversity management — called OTR his home for a time while working in Cincinnati. He said he spent a lot of time there over the past year as well.
He described finding a “whole new Cincinnati” when he moved into the neighborhood in the early 2000s.
“I’ve been impressed with how cohesive the neighborhood has become. There are very few empty spaces or areas anymore,” Simmons added. “There’s work left to be done, but the dramatic shift of continuity in the neighborhood jumped out at me. It’s an exciting opportunity to not only help Black-owned businesses in the neighborhood, but to help the neighborhood itself.”
Successful residential and commercial development are part of what makes neighborhoods a great place to live, work and play, said Alena Speed, executive director of Homebase Cincinnati.
“(But) it’s vital that development in any of our neighborhoods reflects the historic or social fabric of that place,” she said.
Homebase works with Cincinnati-area community development corporations, or CDCs, with housing and economic vitalization programs. The organization often serves as an intermediary between the CDCs and the governments, she said.
Despite not being involved in the planning of Represent Cincy, Speed emphasized that the program has “fantastic” potential.
“Our neighborhoods do better when it’s a place and a space for everyone to not only have fun or live, but also to start a business,” she added. “It’s vital that CDCs look at those members of the community, a neighborhood’s history and its legacy, to ensure that growth is done correctly.”
Creating more opportunities for new and old businesses
Represent Cincy is more focused on creating lasting partnership than simply opening businesses, Simmons said.
The nonprofit is approaching the relationships its building in three ways:
Recruiting new Black-owned businesses into OTR storefronts
Supporting the long-standing health of existing businesses
Enabling current Black entrepreneurs grow and develop their enterprises
“We’re not just interested in startups or filling vacant storefronts,” Simmons said. “Obviously we want to attract successful new businesses to the neighborhood, but we also want to help existing businesses go from surviving to thriving.”
Simmons’ office is in the Globe Building at 1805 Elm St., across the street from Findlay Market. But he doesn’t expect to sit around much in his office, he said.
While Simmons expects there to be things like pitch nights and opportunities to create capital and board presentations, he said he's not focused on those things right now.
He plans to spend his first few weeks on the job walking throughout the neighborhood to familiarize himself with his current roster of 60-plus business owners and figure out their immediate needs.
Examples of possible assistance could range from working on a lease negotiation or discussing whether it’s a good time to expand operations.
“No two businesses are alike and their needs aren’t, either,” he said.
Other Represent Cincy board members come from TriVersity Construction, Dinsmore, Habitat for Humanity, Nostalgia Wine Bar, UBS, Jostin Construction, Visit Cincy, Cincy Nice, Cincinnati Bell, Mortar and StriveTogether.
Many of those organizations work in commercial management, lending services or minority businesses.
“Our board is one that understands entrepreneurship at a level that allows us to be supportive in a different way. We view Represent as an additive organization to all the other groups doing great work in this area,” Simmons said of his bosses.
The Respect Cincy board is still completing metrics and benchmarks to measure the success of the program, Gunnels said.
Gunnels described a part of Simmons’ job as creating a pipeline of potential entrepreneurs and established business through recruitment.
He’s going to do that by working with business incubation programs — Union Hall, Findlay Market and Findlay Kitchen, etc. — to identify candidates that may be ready to move into a storefront. He also wants to work closely with the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce.
Lann Field, board chair for the OTR Chamber of Commerce, mentioned that her organization and others have worked hard to make OTR a “thriving, diverse business district,” and this new program fills a “vital piece of the puzzle.”
Simmons was bashful about discussing what he expects the program’s accomplishments to be in its first year. But he’s hopeful its success leads to other communities doing something similar in the future.
“There’s a lot of excitement and vibrancy in Over-the-Rhine already, and we’re looking to add to that by connecting to some really promising entrepreneurs.”