From her RiverCenter office overlooking the Ohio River, several things are very clear to Kara Clark.

More jobs, better schools and cool city neighborhoods are within reach. Not easy reach, but reach. Cap it off with a premier walking and biking trail linking the Licking River to the communities on its banks and we'll have a vibrant region that will attract young professionals and thriving businesses.

For Clark, vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Communication for Vision 2015, it can be done. And, she's quite convincing.

Cities on both sides of the river are working together "” closely"” to meet the goals outlined in Northern Kentucky's Vision 2015 and Southwest Ohio's Agenda 360.

There really is a "tremendous amount of energy, excitement and opportunity" for regional collaboration and cooperation, she says.

Tough economic times or not, this is not the time to put plans on hold or avoid moving ahead, she says.

The news has not been all good, including a study a year ago which found the Tristate was 11th of 12 regions in developing jobs. In response, the economic development arm of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber is re-organizing. And, Vision 2015's own materials report: "Our educational gains since 1990 are impressive, but they are not enough. In an era when regions compete based on talent and innovation, education must be at the core of our economic development strategy."

The Headlines

Still, Clark's energy is contagious. And she supports it with facts that are delivered in a rapid-fire whirlwind of details, names and projections. From her desk, a look at the next round of headlines for Vision 2015 includes a significant investment in the work of the group, development in Covington and the Licking River Greenway.

Certainly, the August headline was a $1.25 million investment in Vision 2015 from the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./US Bank Foundation. Businesses see that, and Clark believes that will bring in more.

"The last year in particular we have really been focused in documenting our results to the business community in order to set that next stage," she says.

The Foundation's explanation: "Our giving strategy has been and will continue to be to invest in areas in which we can have the greatest and most lasting impact."

Expanding Development

Next up? The Catalytic Development Funding Corp. is at $7.5 million of its $10 million goal. Businesses see that it is "an investment and not a charitable donation," she says of the plan to encourage development in cities along the river. Despite the economy, Northern Kentucky is "still getting people coming up to the plate."

"The development of the Covington riverfront has been fantastic, but it has not trickled out into all the neighborhoods," and the fund will allow that to happen, says Clark.

"It's going to allow us to take the phenomenal success that is happening along the riverfront (further)."

A Bike Trail?

So, in the middle of talks of jobs and urban development, what is the excitement about a bike trail?

The Licking River Greenway and Trail system, with secured funding of just under $300,000 for the first phase, will be launched this fall. The grand vision is a $12 million system that goes from the confluence of the Licking and Ohio rivers past I-275 on both sides of the river, with several pedestrian crossings.

It hits the sweet spot, Clark says, of Vision 2015's overlapping focus areas "” economic competitiveness, livable communities and urban renaissance. Add educational components by working with the schools and regional stewardship in terms of sustainability and improving water quality.

Capitalizing on the beauty of the Licking River is a "talent issue," says Clark. "Young professionals, as well as talented people of all ages, look for that outdoor recreation opportunity, and we just don't have it."

Livability and urban renaissance are addressed because the trail system is a quality of life issue that, it is hoped, will revitalize neighborhoods and connect people in those neighborhoods. Hikers, bikers and families with strollers will be able to go from the floodwall in Covington, cross over into Newport, go around Twin Oaks, cross back into Wilder with the expansion of Frederick's Landing and go on to Taylor Mill.

The first phase is the paving of the top of the floodwall. The biggest challenge is building access to the floodwall in a way that meets the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Once you are up there, Clark says, there are unbelieveable views of Cincinnati, with the Licking River right alongside.

Clark earned her stripes promoting Northern Kentucky from the ground up. Growing up in Reading, Ohio, her parents (a stay-at-home mom and a cop) taught her about giving back to the community. She chose Northern Kentucky University because it was the right size school and close enough to home "” but not too close. She likes to say that she and President Jim Votruba were freshmen together "” since 2001 was the first year for both at NKU.

Clark won a scholarship linked to campus leadership and built on it with roles in student government and as a student regent. Already she was making the connections that would lead to her first job at the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. She started the Monday following graduation.

"And I really, really do believe that was the best job I could have had," Clark says.

She was immersed in the business community of Northern Kentucky, all the while building connections and an understanding of the issues core to the community. Ultimately, this took her to the staff of Vision 2015.

And now she's sitting at the table with a lot of heavyweights "” guys in tailored suits who literally built Northern Kentucky in terms of both development and construction. Tiptoeing around the political correctness of it all, I have to ask: Is that intimidating for someone just 10 years out of college?

"I tend to be pretty reserved until I understand the issues and everything," she says. Then she speaks up. She has experienced the "lift as you lead" principle in her work in Northern Kentucky and learned a great deal by working with Votruba and Chamber President Steve Stevens. In fact, she credits all her former bosses and contacts, including Toyota Manager of Community Relations Helen Carroll, for opening doors and helping her develop the skills to be speaking for Vision 2015.

"If I'm prepared and I'm knowledgeable and I bring value, my experience is that people listen," she says. "Helen Carroll is one of those voices in the my ear saying, "Step up and be heard.'"



Dianne Gebhardt-French writes about the newsmakers of Northern Kentucky.
Contact her at (513) 297-6209 or dfrench@cincymagazine.com.