Ellen Belcher: River’s power hasn’t been tapped
By Ellen Belcher Sunday, April 18, 2010, 12:00 AM
Do all good things have to end, especially if they’re getting better?
On Thursday, April 15, the University of Dayton held another River Summit, a confab about leveraging the Great Miami River. Having gone to the previous two, I can attest that the growing number of attendees — upward of 200 this year — aren’t burnt out.
Quite the opposite. They’re still pumped, but they’re wrestling with what’s next.
If the event is ever going to rise above just being a morning briefing where people learn about the impressive, independent things that are popping up on the Great Miami from Troy to Dayton to Hamilton, the crowd needs to get organized.
Besides the participants’ reluctance to commit to another meeting, or to creating yet another regional something or other, there’s this complication:
Projects from amphitheaters and parks, to restaurants and liveries, to kayak races and canoe floats are happening without a strategic plan. Why mess with success?
Last year, the organizers, without asking anyone’s permission or calling a vote, decided to dub the 98-mile swath of the Great Miami River from Sidney to Fairfield as Ohio’s “Great Corridor.”
They argued that the soon-to-be-finished 100 miles of bike paths on the riverbanks, the downtowns along the way, and the existing community events and festivals add up to something bigger than the individual parts.
But the only people who know about that self-proclaimed designation and the things to do in the dozen river towns on this stretch are those who went to last year’s meeting.
No one is connecting the dots — not in the public’s mind, not even in the minds of the public officials and government employees whose job it is to know these things. And if no one’s telling the story, it’s hard to pick up momentum.
The University of Dayton deserves immense credit for bringing so many people and groups together. Its Rivers Institute has used a leadership vacuum as an opportunity to challenge its students to organize the grown-ups.
Its so-called “river stewards” — undergraduate students who spend three years learning about the river and its potential as an economic development asset, a recreational resource and more — have seen firsthand just how much energy it takes and how fun it can be to herd a community’s cats.
At this year’s summit, eight graduating seniors in the river steward program stole the show. They spoke about the science they learned. They talked about the transformative experience of getting out on the river. They preached about the Dayton region’s amenities. And they said we’re foolish not to point people to the water.
The students’ experiential learning — with the river as their focal point — had given them something they couldn’t get from textbooks.
Gene Krebs, co-director of Greater Ohio, was the perfect follow to the students.
A former Republican state legislator who is associated with the “smart growth” movement, he said that when workers only have a high school diploma, they go where the jobs are.
“When you have letters after your name,” he said speaking to the students, “companies will go where you (young people) want to live.”
Krebs jabbed at a recent Dayton Daily News headline, “Interstate 75 becomes area’s new Main Street.” He argued that the community better hope that’s not the case.
If it is, Dayton will be “Generica,” he said — precisely when the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs wants cafes, walkable communities, public transit and authentic urban experiences.
The future can’t be highways, he said, because their existence is predicated on lots of cheap gas being sold and taxed at low rates. Gasoline isn’t going to be inexpensive forever.
Krebs also said Ohio has to come up with incentives to reduce the levels and costs of local government if it expects to compete globally. Balkanized, redundant, expensive local governments are holding back regions like Dayton.
As evidence: Ohio’s state tax burden ranks 34th highest in the country, he said. But it’s 9th highest for local governments.
A “river corridor” that succeeds only if everyone along it succeeds — where development isn’t a zero-sum game — looks like a good meeting place.