Our ability as a region to find reasons NOT to do things is so finely honed that we end up stuck in endless feedback loops. The debate about the streetcar certainly feels that way. Twice Cincinnati voters have struck down ballot proposals to stop the first phase of the project. Opponents, many of them the same people who demanded the "people have a voice" on the parking deal, don't accept those results and now have made the streetcar a centerpiece of this year's race for mayor.

If the only example of us being risk averse is the streetcar, it would not matter, but that is not the case. The city purchased the failed, privately owned bus system 40 years ago with the view that it would grow into a regional public transit system. But no governmental unit beyond the city has been willing to raise significant dollars to expand the system to the rest of Hamilton County or to the job-rich areas of Butler and Warren counties. Once you venture beyond Zone 1, service precipitously drops off.

After World War II, moving the airport from Lunken to Boone County was seen as a temporary stopgap measure. Planners believed the airport ought to be located near the center of the region, not on the southwest corner. That is why the city purchased not just the tiny Blue Ash airport but 1,600 acres covering much of the current Blue Ash area. Twice voters in Hamilton County rejected bond issues to develop the regional airport in Blue Ash. Northern Kentuckians embraced the opening and turned CVG into an engine of growth that transformed Northern Kentucky economically, demographically and politically.

Caution has not always been our identity. In the boom years between 1835 and the outbreak of the Civil War, Cincinnati was a "hotbed of projects." As one resident observed in the 1840s: "Three citizens never meet but one or the other immediately offers a book or a pen for subscription to a new project."

Even after growth slowed following the Civil War, an innovative, risk-taking culture continued to characterize public life. In the 1840s and '50s, Cincinnati emerged as the second leading center in the nation. When the spread of railroads undermined boatbuilding, the capital and skilled labor force in boatbuilding became the foundation for machine tools, which made us internationally famous and essential to the industrial revolution around the world.

We didn't just embrace innovation in private areas to become a leader.

The Civil War cut us off from our traditional trading partners in the South. After the war, new competitors, symbolized by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N), emerged to block Cincinnati from reasserting its influence. First, Cincinnatians developed annual industrial fairs as a stopgap response, but the real answer came in the construction of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad.

In November 1868, former State Senator E.A. Ferguson offered a "remarkable proposition" that Cincinnati use municipal funds to build a rail line to Chattanooga, Tenn.. In June 1869, voters approved a $10 million levy by an overwhelming majority (15,435 Yes to 1,500 No). In 1876, three years into active construction, the railroad was out of money and the voters overwhelmingly (21,433 Yes to 9,323 No) agreed to raise another $6 million in tax dollars. In May 1878, the railroad needed more funds to complete the line, but this time voters narrowly defeated the proposal (11,179 Yes to 11,349 No). The railroad refined the request and the voters responded by taxing themselves a third time (16,244 Yes to 10,424 No), an additional $2 million.

The city completed that line and since March 1880 has been collecting rent that ironically paid the city's share of the interstate system in the 1960s, and since the 1987 Smale Commission, underwrites infrastructure improvements. The Cincinnati Southern remains the only municipally owned railroad in the country.

The Cincinnati Southern was clearly a response to a specific economic threat. But one could argue that so is the streetcar. In a knowledge economy, the most precious regional resource is our ability to attract and retain high value young talent: people who will be innovators and risk takers. What we know about the Millennial generation is that they tend to choose where they want to live first and search for a job second. If we do not have the amenities of "cool" cities, we will have a difficult time drawing and retaining talented young professionals to the region. Developments like streetcars, hike/bike paths and music festivals that get dismissed as frivolous may be just as necessary for our economic and civic future in 2013 as a railroad was in 1868.