Economic development can take many forms: Tax incentives for auto parts makers like USUI and loans to start-up businesses like Over-the-Rhine's MOTR Pub. Land development. Consulting services.

In Cincinnati's Uptown neighborhoods, the sweet spot is working with entrepreneurs, according to the Hamilton County Development Corp.

In studying the business districts of Avondale, Clifton, Clifton Heights, Corryville, Fairview, Mount Auburn and University Heights, the agency developed detailed plans on how to keep the shopping districts vibrant.

Much of the success rests with the entrepreneurs and owners of the businesses located there, says Harry Blanton, HCDC vice president and manager of its economic development office. "In Uptown, we are bringing in assistance at the entrepreneurial level as well."

It's an example of what HCDC has been doing under the radar for years: marshalling all of the resources from its three different arms to add and retain jobs in the county and get businesses the capital they need to grow and expand.

Three-pronged Approach

HCDC is a certified development company that acts as the economic development office for Hamilton County.

It operates three distinct programs:

  • The Business Center, which incubates start-up firms until they are ready to operate on their own.
  • The Horizon Certified Development Company, which administers Small Business Administration and Ohio Department of Development loans for businesses to build new space, renovate existing structures or refinance current mortgages.
  • The economic development office, which sets up tax incentives and other programs to retain and attract companies and jobs to Hamilton County.

"The development side is harder to describe because it is behind the scenes, solving or resolving issues before they blow up," says David Main, HCDC president. "Because it is tied with jobs and investment, it is the core of what the other two programs do."

To date, HCDC's programs have pumped $2.88 billion into the county and have retained or created 40,000 jobs.

Through the end of July 2012 loan volume under the SBA's 504 program has totaled $23 million and is expected to exceed $30 million for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

That's up 27.1 percent over last year.

Attracting Businesses

HCDC's economic development efforts began in 1992, after it set up an enterprise zone for the Ford Sharonville plant. Ford, and later General Electric, agreed to offer various support to Lincoln Heights if that community had more sustainable economic development management, Main says.

HCDC worked with Lincoln Heights on a three-year contract. Impressed by the effort's success, Hamilton County Commissioners expanded HCDC's role and made it the county's official economic development office, financed with general fund money and community development block grants.

HCDC's economic development office has since worked with numerous communities, from studying economic corridors, to preparing properties for development, to creating enterprise zones that allow for state tax incentives for companies.

Michigan-based auto parts maker USUI worked with HCDC and Sharonville when it decided to consolidate facilities from Monroe, Ohio and Mississippi.

USUI landed a 50 percent Job Creation Tax Credit valued at $213,000 over six years and is expected to create 150 new jobs during that time.

USUI's $16 million project meant a new building in Sharonville and more jobs for the region. It moved 71 jobs from Monroe and has added 54 to date, says Dennis Chui, USUI director.

The company plans to add even more jobs this year, and expects to employ 150 by year-end, says Chui.

He says he is impressed by HCDC and its efforts to bring more jobs to Hamilton County. "They have some good ideas," Chui says.

USUI is doing more in Sharonville than it originally planned.

"We decided to put more activities typically done in Michigan, like development, down here," Chui says. "We have more room, its better support for production and it's a better value for our customers."

Retaining Businesses

Perhaps the most innovative work HCDC is doing right now is with the Uptown Consortium.

Not only does HCDC work with business associations, making recommendations on how areas like Wyoming or the shops along Ludlow Avenue can compete and make a name for themselves, but it also offers one-on-one coaching sessions with proprietors.

"We saw a real need to help the business districts revitalize," says Beth Robinson, president and CEO of the Uptown Consortium. And she believes that business retention is "the bread and butter" of economic development.

Main says the partnership is unique.

"We meld the business coaching of the incubator with the retention aspect of our economic development offerings," he says.

HCDC's work in Uptown started on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton, where every business was visited and interviewed to identify issues, challenges and strengths.

"What that allows us to do is strategize about what we can do to improve the entire district," Robinson says.

The results: a need to make more connections between businesses and those who live and work in Clifton. A "shop local" effort was launched. A recent Wine Walk offered shoppers in incentive to check out retailers.

In Mount Auburn, HCDC uncovered a real perception that the area is unsafe even though crime levels don't support that view, Robinson says. To change that feeling, the Uptown Consortium is underwriting police officers to patrol the area.

In the Clifton Heights, University Heights and Fairview area, the consortium and HCDC are working to improve relationships between Hughes High School and the business community.

"We really try to convert the findings to actions and address issues the community is facing," Robinson says.

Assessments are now underway in Avondale.

"We see ourselves as having two customers "” the businesses and the communities," Blanton says of HCDC's development work.

Coaching Entrepreneurs

As HCDC works with the different Uptown neighborhoods, it notes the issues and challenges that each business owner brings up. That feedback is shared with business coach Scott Jacobs, who follows up with each owner and works with him or her to pinpoint ways to make improvements.

To date, Jacobs has conducted 180 sessions with a variety of businesses, including a barber shop, a yoga studio, a Nationwide insurance agency, a women's retail clothing shop and several restaurants.

Often, the concerns revolve around common themes, Jacobs says. Smaller businesses struggle with sales, figuring out who their target customer is, how to sell and what to sell.

"As businesses mature that have to be more savvy in terms of marketing and branding," Jacobs says. "They have to adjust to market conditions and competitive threats."

And most small businesses don't generally have the resources or the time to spend on a business coach. That's why Robinson knew the coaching would be a key asset to Uptown companies. And Main says it is an offering that sets the project apart.

"These are adults with high stress levels and a lot on the line," Main says.

Jacobs says the work is organic. He might meet with an owner once or weekly, depending on their needs. He also is able to make connections among entrepreneurs where it makes sense, whether its getting information on special windows that allow for an open-air feel or gathering examples of social media best practices.

HCDC's work with the Uptown Consortium is something Blanton and Main want to expand to other communities. They have contracts with Columbia Township and Wyoming and HCDC is talking to the City of Cincinnati and others about how to do it.

"There really needs to be a rallying cry to help small businesses," Jacobs says. "We are in tough economic times. The statistics are clear that innovation and job growth come from small businesses. It's important for the economic vitality of cities and municipalities to do all we can to make sure small businesses are successful."

The results appear to be worth the investment. Among Uptown businesses that received coaching services:

  • 45.5 percent said they experienced improvements or anticipate future improvements in revenue growth, and
  • 90.9 percent experienced improvements or anticipate future improvements in their level of confidence in running the business efficiently and effectively.