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Notes from the Field

Community Support Gives Small Businesses Strength in College Hill, Ohio

Through investment in its community, one organization is helping its business district remain a local economic driver—even during a pandemic.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

By investing in the community and building its organizations, a low- and moderate-income community can thrive—even through a pandemic. College Hill, one of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods, is one such community. Like many first-suburb neighborhoods, over time, College Hill began to see a decline in its business district. Many businesses in this neighborhood of about 14,000 residents—including a grocery store, a landmark restaurant, and a big-box drug store—relocated or closed, resulting in empty storefronts and a floundering business district. Then, in 2002, a group of civic-minded residents formed College Hill Gardeners (CHG), a community organizing group focused on community beautification and engagement to revitalize the neighborhood. CHG pulled residents, business leaders, and volunteers together to create or re-engage the Business Association, Community Council, and the College Hill Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (CHCURC).

CHCURC, a non-profit community development corporation, is a leading change driver in College Hill. CHCURC’s primary goal is to revitalize the central business district through land banking and business attraction. Over the last 13 years, CHCURC has diligently worked to acquire property throughout the neighborhood and attract and grow a variety of small businesses. Its efforts have helped to turn the struggling business district into a critical local economic and community driver. In total, CHCURC has led more than $23.7 million in development, owns 23 properties along Hamilton Avenue in the business district, and has plans for an additional $43 million in new development projects in the coming years. This momentum, however, came to a standstill mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

CHCURC stepped up its efforts during the early months of the pandemic to make sure its investments in the community would be sustained over time. Since March, 29 businesses in the College Hill business district received direct assistance through the Alive and Thrive fundraising campaign initiated by the CHG and supported by CHCURC’s rent abatement plan. Additionally, all of the 23 small-business tenants whose properties are owned by CHCURC received 100 percent rent forgiveness, totaling more than $41,500. The funds to offset rent have come from community donations. “This is why the College Hill CURC exists and why we have taken such great strides over the years to own properties in our business district. Right now, our small businesses are some of the most vulnerable, and we are willing to take this burden off their plates during this trying time,” said Seth Walsh, Executive Director of CHCURC.

One beneficiary of the April rent abatement assistance was Tina Stoeberl, owner of College Hill Coffee Co. Tina opened her business in January 2006 to create a comfortable, local spot for friends to meet, eat, shop, drink coffee, and listen to live music. A community hub for the College Hill neighborhood, Tina’s shop is a cozy hangout for locals and a location for meetings and community events; its motto is “eat, sip, chat, and chill.” But when COVID-19 forced Ohio businesses into lockdown at the end of March, Tina had to pivot fast. “It’s hard to plan for something you haven’t lived through, but that’s what we did,” she said. She offered carryout service and filled retail orders through curbside pick-up. She also worked with existing suppliers to obtain masks and hand sanitizer for her shop so that when the state released guidelines for reopening, she was able to do so within days of the announcement.

Though Tina’s resourcefulness was essential for keeping her business afloat during this time, so was CHCURC’s support. The pandemic forced small business owners to make tough financial and operational decisions. Many of these businesses are restaurants, barbershops, and salons that were closed for months before having to drastically adjust their way of doing business. By giving its small businesses a break on their rent, CHCURC eased some of the financial burden of the business owners, increasing the likelihood that their businesses would survive. These actions—and the results of these actions—show how valuable having a backbone organization like CHCURC is to a community. “People are working together in the weakest of times,” Tina summarizes, “and it shows how people are very strong.”