By: Nick Swartsell
In his 2019 State of the City address at Memorial Hall tonight, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, a Democrat, cast Cincinnati as a city prepared to move on progressive agenda items the Republican-controlled state and federal government are unwilling to take up while painting an expansive, if at times somewhat optimistic, portrait of the city's progress since his first election in 2013.
Cranley called the city's progress "the Cincinnati miracle," celebrating successes such as BLINK and big developments while, during a few moments, sidestepping some of the city's bigger challenges and controversies.
The roughly 50-minute speech touched on the city's growing population — which Census estimates indicate has inched up a few thousand people during Cranley's term to top 300,000 — and efforts to grow jobs, curb gun violence, increase access to public transit and combat poverty and climate change.
That last issue was the focus of two new initiatives the mayor discussed during his address — a solidified plan to move forward with an array of more than 31,000 solar panel array and a statewide climate summit to be hosted in Cincinnati next year.
Cranley pinned increased rainfall and resultant landslides the city is seeing — average rainfall jumped from 40 inches in the city up to 1999 to 46.4 inches last year — on climate change and said state and federal governments are moving backward on addressing that global phenomenon.
"Donald Trump pulled our country out of the Paris Accord," Cranley said, also blasting state lawmakers for passing legislation called HB6 that bails out nuclear and coal plants at the expense of the state's renewable energy standards. "But in the meantime, we are picking up the slack and leading by example."
Cranley said the city has locked down a site for 1,000 acres of solar panels, an array he says will generate 100 megawatts of energy. The majority of that array will exist outside the city in Highland County, while some of the panels will be placed on city-owned rooftops. The array will be constructed by local laborers with IBEW, Cranley says, and will create hundreds of jobs.
The mayor also announced that the city, along with Green Umbrella, the Ohio Mayors Alliance and the Ohio Climate Council, will host a statewide climate summit in April of next year designed to convince municipalities across the state to adopt the climate standards state lawmakers reduced or eliminated in HB6.
"We will do what our state will not — take the responsible steps to invest in renewable energy and reduce our carbon footprint before it is too late," Cranley said.
Cranley also pledged similar pressure when it came to gun restrictions — an area where, despite mass shootings like the tragic 2018 incident at Fountain Square and this year's deadly attacks in Dayton and El Paso, federal and state lawmakers have passed few new laws.
The mayor railed against what he called "the NRA-controlled state legislature" for inaction on gun restrictions recommended by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. He also announced he is endorsing a statewide referendum effort to pass universal background checks.
Elsewhere in his remarks, Cranley recognized the late civil rights leader Marian Spencer, Pamela Smitherman, the late wife of Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, city employee of the year Ronetta Engram, public services employee Leroy Garrison, who died while on the job this year, retiring Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune — currently fighting cancer — and Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen for his company's move to stop using plastic bags and the first downtown location for the grocery in half a century.
The mayor praised a number of community development initiatives in College Hill, Westwood and other neighborhoods as well as continued development of bike paths in the city. He also gave a big plug for Issue 22, the charter amendment that would end the city's portion of its earnings tax going to bus service if county voters approve a sales tax to fund Metro.
Throughout his remarks, Cranley returned to touchstones that have become constants in his state of the city addresses — encouraging volunteerism, holding up the city's economic and population growth and efforts to reduce poverty and gun violence. Here, the mayor highlighted real progress but also painted a somewhat rosier picture than others might.
Spotlighting the city's economic growth, Cranley touted Cincinnati's economy's 3 percent growth rate, a claimed 1,000 businesses added since his first year in office and 2,300 jobs added this year. That 3 percent growth rate is roughly the same as U.S. GDP growth last year, though nationally growth has slowed to about 2.5 percent since then.
Cranley also celebrated construction of a $550 million expansion at Cincinnati Children's Hospital and FC Cincinnati's $250 million Major League Soccer stadium in the West End as major economic boosts to the region. However, he didn't mention the bitter wrangling associated with those projects and critiques from community groups upset about the displacement of residents near those facilities.
And while the mayor rightly noted that poverty has decreased in the city — falling from 31 percent to roughly 26 percent during his time in office — Cincinnati still has the fifth-highest poverty rate among U.S. cities with more than 250,000 people.
"As proud as we are of our growth, inequality and poverty remain stubbornly too high and so we are trying to extend the light of the torch of the Cincinnati Miracle into the shadows," Cranley said during his address, but said some private employers' and the city's $15 minimum wage, his own Hand Up Initiative, the Childhood Poverty Collaborative (now renamed Cincinnati LIFT), the United Way and others are working to address the big gaps.
Sometimes, the mayor's remarks seemed to contradict his previous stances, especially when it came to the city's budget.
The mayor touted the fact that the city has increased its human services funding from $1.5 million to $7.1 million annually — though Cranley has sometimes fought with Cincinnati City Council as it sought to increase that funding. Cranley also praised Cincinnati Office of Environment and Sustainability Director Larry Falkin, despite keeping cuts in the city manager's budget this year that would have eliminated his position. Council restored that funding.
Again and again in his address, Cranley — who is term-limited as mayor and has been rumored to have ambitions for a congressional run — returned to his underlying theme that Cincinnati (and he, as the mayor) were picking up where more conservative state and federal lawmakers and administrators had dropped the ball.
"Given the abdication of state and national leadership, hope is hard to come by," he said. "But we are giving hope at the local level. The torch of hope that was dropped in Washington and Columbus has been picked up here and is lighting the way for the Cincinnati Miracle."