During Mary Stagaman's 25 years at the University of Cincinnati, the school experienced a metamorphosis.

The urban public college evolved into a research and academic force, complete with shiny new branding and strengthened community ties.

As the incoming executive director for Agenda 360, Stagaman is working toward similar goals on a region-wide scale. Agenda 360 has set out to make Cincinnati a leading metropolitan area by retaining workers, growing jobs and providing economic opportunity. Among specific goals: 200,000 new jobs by 2020.

The odds are challenging, but not discouraging.

"What the economy has done, actually, is provided something else we needed that we didn't have. And that is a sense of urgency," Stagaman says.

Agenda 360 is a collective of programs backed by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and supported by business, civic and governmental leaders. Beyond the four counties of southwest Ohio, Agenda 360 is dovetailing efforts with Northern Kentucky's Vision 2015 and efforts in southeast Indiana to improve the quality of life.

Stagaman, as UC's associate vice president of external affairs, has been involved with Agenda 360 since its beginning in 2007. She's volunteered on the steering committee and recently was co-chair of Council 360. This month, Stagaman succeeds Myrita Craig, who is leaving to pursue professional interests.

A Global Force

Though there is much to be done, Agenda 360 is already seeing measures of success.

In 2009, it was awarded the Organizational Champion Award from the Alliance for Regional Stewardship (ARS) for commitment to an innovative economy, livable communities, social inclusion and collaborative style of governance.

Recently, it revealed it was taking on a new challenge in an area where Cincinnati is already out ahead: the consumer marketing and branding industry. As the home base for major players in the field, Agenda 360 wants to make Cincinnati the Silicon Valley of consumer marketing.

"Some people might say that we're guilty of hubris in believing we can do that," Stagaman admits. "We happen to think we have all the assets we need to really make that real."

The industry is, of course, grounded in Procter & Gamble's long local history. Gov. Ted Strickland announced in July that Cincinnati was named a Hub in Innovation and Opportunity in consumer marketing. Accompanying the designation is a $250,000 grant to help the effort. It will "assist the region's already strong business and educational community in attracting young creative talent, new companies, and job opportunities in consumer marketing in Ohio," Strickland says.

One goal that's encountering more skepticism is the plan to add 200,000 jobs to the region by 2020, which seems daunting with the national economic and employment trends.

"Of course the economy is affecting how we feel about the goals we've set and where we're going with the agenda," Stagaman admits. "It has not, however, caused us to step back and say we need to realign and change our goals right now."

She points out that the regions facing greater economic trouble are those that were not prepared. Agenda 360 was busy planning for growth when the recession hit, so instead of shocking the plan into oblivion, it acted as a necessary catalyst.

Mapping a Vision

When Stagaman and former Executive Director Craig began working on Agenda 360 in 2007, they set out to fill a gap. "One thing that was pretty clear "” we didn't have an aligned vision for our region," Craig says. "We had a lot of great things taking place, but they weren't really things that everyone was coalesced around."

The Agenda 360 team (originally called the Shared Regional Civic Agenda) started by surveying more than 8,000 Cincinnatians in spring of 2007 about what they wanted for the region. From the results, they developed six priority areas, as well as ways to measure and connect actions. The priorities are: business growth, qualified workforce, transportation, inclusion, government collaboration and quality place.

Agenda 360 was organized as an intellectual umbrella encompassing organizations already working on similar goals. "The Chamber acted as kind of a catalyst and a convener in the beginning," Craig recalls. "It wasn't completely apparent that the Chamber would own it at the end of the process, but we felt like we needed to bring all the other entities and individuals together."

A Citizen Advisory Panel continues to keep goals in line with public input. The organization is also divided into an oversight board to look at the big picture and Council 360, which is made up of stakeholders who represent the groups involved. More than 700 organizations are represented, with individuals from a range of organizations, such as labor unions, civic leaders, lawyers and business groups.

For inspiration, the group need look no further than across the river.

Vision 2015, the plan for Northern Kentucky, is in full swing. The plan that had sprouted flashy riverfront development, as well as improvements to nearby neighborhoods including Bellevue, is a guiding force to Kentucky's neighbors to the north.

"They saw the riverfront development and the collaboration process between the people in Kentucky in an efficient way, and we have sustained our model since the "¢80s," says Bill Scheyer, Vision 2015 president. "They said, "¢Let's learn from the experiences right here in the region, at the intersecting points where we can work together.'"

Stagaman echoes, "We rise or fail together."

The Road Ahead

Stagaman doesn't stand on top of the Carew Tower, shouting Agenda 360's accomplishments. She does, however, point to successes including the Greater Cincinnati Workforce Network, which has bridged workforce networks and helps people succeed in their jobs. And, the Arts & Culture Partnership has worked to explore the next stage of the Fine Arts Fund and how it will affect support of that sector.

Agenda 360 can also point to progress for the next generation of Cincinnati leaders. Local children have benefited from the Strive program, which guides them to college and eventually a career. It is currently being replicated in four cities around the country.

Another program, Success by Six, is documenting greater levels of readiness in children going off to kindergarten.

"That alone, to me, is something that we ought to be standing over on Fountain Square celebrating, because it really speaks to the future of our community," Stagaman says.

While Agenda 360's successes can ultimately lead to our improvement, it faces potential obstacles.

"Some of the challenges [for Vision 2015] were how to keep enthusiasm up, continue to have a broad group involved, and stay focused on high-impact issues," Scheyer says. The sister program in Cincinnati could expect similar tests.

The plan is also a tall order for a city that has a mixed history of results of ambitious plans of the past.

They can be credited with the region's sprawling highways, a more regional outlook and riverfront growth. However, the unforeseen downside of the Metropolitan Master Plan of the 1940s can be blamed for the forced exit of 30,000-40,000 West End residents to make room for I-75.

In the 1990s, the Metropolitan Growth Alliance funded an analysis of the region (called The Gallis Report) and made plans for improvement.

"Some of the organizations and businesses that had funded the initial study, for whatever set of reasons, sort of lost interest. And it all melted away very quickly," says Dan Hurley, local historian and executive producer of Channel 12's Newsmakers. Hurley was on the steering committee for the Growth Alliance, and is currently the director of the Chamber's Leadership Cincinnati program.

The sole concrete success of the once-impressive program: Paddlefest, the canoe and kayak event that brings 1,800 paddlers to the city's banks of the Ohio River.

"From the point where Gallis starts, which is this huge, regional perspective, that you end up down here, at this one event, is a terrible commentary on the collapse of community will to implement it," Hurley comments. "It was a shame. I think it was one of the great missed opportunities that this region has had."

Agenda 360 is laid out differently to avoid such failures. It was structured with existing programs that demonstrated success and is backed by the Chamber, which gives it a strong institution as a home, rather than a loose affiliation of leaders.

"We are committed to measuring ourselves," Craig says. The Chamber measures through regional indicator reports, with individual programs striving for markers of progress. "I think in the past there have lots of plans with great ideas but they haven't put the stakes in the ground to say "¢Here's the expectation of where we're going to be.' We've committed to that from day one."

So far, the group is putting some serious markings on the yardstick of success.

In August, we will know more accurately how well the initiative is working. The release of the Regional Indicators Report will shed some light on how we're faring in relation to economic health and regional vitality, compared to others around the U.S. Agenda 360 leaders hope it will help the community benchmark progress.

With community members onboard, Agenda 360 could hit the much-needed homerun for the region where previous attempts struck out.

"If we do this right," Stagaman concludes, "everybody will be better off when we're done."