By Alison Goebel and Tanisha Briley

Ohio models a federal-city partnership for pandemic times

High water on Lake Erie and high winds resulted in flooding of some of Sandusky’s lakefront neighborhoods in 2019. Guest columnists Alison Goebel and Tanisha Briley write that Sandusky and other midsize cities in Ohio have gotten development help from a program set up during the Obama administration that could become a model for pandemic aid to the heartland.

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Biden administration has an opportunity to create a new partnership with America’s economically challenged places based on a model at work here in Ohio. Doing so could begin to bridge the seemingly insurmountable political divide between big cities and the rest of the nation and help U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Marcia Fudge fulfill her goal of putting the “UD” – urban development – back into HUD.

COVID-19 and the resulting economic and fiscal crises have hit all of America’s cities hard. Once prosperous cities now face extraordinary challenges related to loss of jobs, small businesses and revenue to fund essential services. The impact, however, is especially great in places already struggling before March 2020.

Chillicothe in red Appalachia and Cleveland Heights and Sandusky in blue industrial Ohio would seem to have little in common if looked at solely through a political lens. Two-thirds of Ross County, where Chillicothe is located, voted for President Donald Trump; two-thirds of Cuyahoga County voted for President-elect Joe Biden.

But these cities face common economic challenges. Chillicothe and Cleveland Heights, for instance, are both dealing with the impact of concentrated poverty, with rates hovering around 18% to 19% for both. And each has seen dramatic population declines – since 1960, a loss of 13% in Chillicothe and 29% in Cleveland Heights.

Because Ohio cities are largely dependent on income tax revenue, the economic slowdown and unanticipated costs of COVID-19 make places like Cleveland Heights, Chillicothe and Sandusky especially vulnerable. To help address this fiscal shock, they need federal aid, including strategic and targeted investments in housing, workforce development, transportation and education to drive equitable recovery.

But these places also require more from a partnership with the federal government: a helping hand to develop a recovery blueprint that “builds back better” and an acknowledgement that one-size-fits-all support for different places is not enough.

As part of the recovery from the last recession, the Obama administration launched an initiative called “Strong Cities, Strong Communities.” One part of the program deployed federal resources to cities, including Cleveland and Youngstown. Another part, the National Resource Network, provided tailored expert help to small and midsize places looking to increase their economic competitiveness.

Cleveland Heights was one of the first cities across the country to work with the National Resource Network. The Network supported efforts to address housing issues by helping the city form a new partnership with a community development corporation and did the initial work on the planned revitalization of Severance Center, a former shopping center.

With philanthropic support, the network has continued its work. It recently developed a multiyear financial plan to guide Sandusky through the difficult budgetary decisions needed to overcome current fiscal challenges and identify a path toward investments focused on growth. The network is also now tackling some of the unique economic challenges faced by small cities and towns in Appalachia with a financial planning project about to launch in Chillicothe.

By recognizing that few cities have the resources to confront more than one issue at a time, the network has been able to deploy support and guidance to local leaders looking to achieve a comprehensive turnaround in their communities. The network understands that different places often need different approaches and has won the support of city officials and independent researchers nationally.

HUD Secretary-designate Fudge is uniquely positioned to champion these different places with common challenges. She knows these issues firsthand as the former mayor of Warrensville Heights – where more than 20% are living in poverty and where population has declined by nearly 31% since 1970.

One city at a time. That is how the nation will recover from COVID-19. Some cities just need a little help down that path — and it doesn’t matter whether they are red or blue in their voting.

Dr. Alison Goebel is the executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center and Tanisha Briley is the former city manager of Cleveland Heights, Ohio.