If you are waiting on someone to produce some quick fix to any perceived problems in Portsmouth, some easy scheme to bring the city “back,” you are headed towards disappointment, according to The Ohio State University economist and urban planner Edward “Ned” Hill.
Prior to his time at OSU, Hill was for many years, director of the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. Hill was in Portsmouth Wednesday night and gave a roughly one-hour talk on potential steps the city can take to reinvent itself to a crowded lecture hall at Shawnee State University.
An SSU professor of sociology by day, Portsmouth City Councilman Sean Dunne invited Hill to Portsmouth. He reported he took Hill on a tour of the city prior to the lecture.
“What I am going to talk about tonight is important for Ohio, it’s important for the Ohio River Valley… Because what we’ve got is the fabric that built this state, its smaller cities and communities that were the heart and fiber of Ohio are now being challenged like never before,” Hill began.
He also quickly reiterated a claim he made during comments to the Daily Times previewing his talk. Hill said there is no savior going to come in from outside of town, swoop in and become Portsmouth’s guardian angel. There is no sense, he said, in waiting around for some big outside corporation to come to town. There’s no sense in waiting for that next big state or federal grant. There is no politician that is going to become a sort of superhero for the area.
“That’s not going to happen anymore,” Hill insisted. “Communities have to have the courage to invest in themselves.”
Hill also cautioned his audience to “beware of frogs.”
If one tries to cook a frog in boiling water, that process will not work, your dinner will simply jump out and be on its way. Put the frog in cool water and slowly raise the temperature to cook it and you will get much better results, Hill said. In other words, there are no quick fixes, no quick answers. Any supposed come back is going to take some time.
Along the way, Hill also warned there are no “one-size-fits-all, silver bullet answers” to the problems facing cities around the country. While he spent some time talking about success stories in other communities around Ohio and in other states, Hill said Portsmouth needs to “adapt, not adopt” the plans used by other cities. Programs used by, say, Findlay, simply won’t work here.
So, in Hill’s view, what should Portsmouth be doing? For one thing, Hill said locals must take the initiative to ensure the community is a nice place to live. Hill argued if a place is not a nice place to live, people will vote with their feet and simply leave if possible. So then, what constitutes a nice place to live?
Hill believes it takes investment in several different areas, probably most importantly, investments in people. That means creating a healthy community and worthy schools among other things. Nice places to live, he said, have recreational amenities, identifiable neighborhoods, and are open to diversity. By the latter, Hill added he did not mean racial diversity alone, but also diversity in terms of family makeup and social makeup.
Another point Hill made several times, is a need for a long-term, well-formulated, step-by-step plan many in both leadership positions and persons throughout the community know about and can agree on. He readily admitted creating such a plan is not necessarily an easy thing to do. Leadership is, Hill said, absolutely necessary. However, he also noted leadership does not have to come from the mayor or some politician. The leaders of a community can come from the business sector, be community activists or, perhaps especially in smaller towns, the head of a major church or community group such as the Rotary. Entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship also are mandatory.
Hill mentioned several times optimism about a community is, again, mandatory, adding cynicism simply kills. Touching somewhat on that topic, after the lecture, Dunne said he was encouraged by the diversity of the large crowd listening to Hill speak. He said the audience consisted not only of SSU students, but also faculty and administrators. Dunne said besides himself, there were several local politicians and other community notables in the crowd.
Hill talked about a need for communities to identify their institutions and ensure those institutions are talking to each other as the forward-looking plan mentioned earlier is formulated. Speaking to the audience and Hill following the lecture, Dunne named SSU and the Southern Ohio Medical Center as two of Portsmouth more obvious institutions.
Talking to the Daily Times the day after Hill’s speech, Dunne said he buys into Hill’s idea of clearly identifying Portsmouth’s strengths, even if that advice seems straightforward. “There have been previous attempts to do this,” adding what was lacking was perhaps implementation and follow through.
While Dunne acknowledged Hill’s assertion no come back can be quick, he would like to see what Portsmouth can do in the next year or so. He talked about plans moving forward for a local dog park and local skate park. On Wednesday, Acting Mayor Kevin Johnson told the Daily Times plans for a bike route along the city’s vaunted flood wall murals are moving forward even if somewhat slowly.
“We need to set goals,” Dunne said, “and decide what can we reasonably achieve in the next year.”