From the start of our conversation with David Ginsburg, president & CEO of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., and our July City Changemaker, David explained he believes no one is a changemaker alone. Rather, change occurs through the collaborative, focused and sustained efforts of committed and diverse teams.
How did you get to where you are now?
It was not a direct line. I came to this position through the retail industry. I worked for 20 years for Marshall Fields, first as a stock person, then a sales person, then a buyer, and eventually in store management. I moved to Cincinnati to work for U.S. Shoe Corporation, where I directed merchandising and management support services for more than 300 stores nationwide. During this period, I had the opportunity to visit two to three cities each week. I saw how downtowns and suburbs were changing and how they interacted. During a time of ownership transition at U.S. Shoe, Downtown Cincinnati Inc (DCI). was being formed and I was hired by the new organization as Vice President of Retail Development.
Was this transition hard?
It seemed that everything I had done in the past was perfect preparation for my role in leading DCI. This job has taken all of the skills I developed throughout my career – customer service, quick response, a sense of urgency – coupled with my ability to solve problems and my understanding of downtowns. It has also been an opportunity to implement the many things I have learned from bosses, mentors, and colleagues.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by solving problems and helping people. This job is largely about both –which is very rewarding.
What’s your advice for the next generation of city changemakers?
Try to integrate learning from all of your experiences into what you are now doing in your city. Those who will be most successful will have wide-ranging skillsets and the ability to implement those capabilities together. For example, the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was the keynote speaker at our Annual Meeting. He spoke eloquently about the similarities between how a symphony performs and how a city works.
Also, operate with a great sense of urgency. Jump in and get involved. Once you get moving in civic circles, you will find your place. Don’t wait to be asked.
Keep in mind something very important I learned—and lived—in the retail industry – Keep the customer first! Focusing on your mission and your customer will lead to effective change and a successful career.
Finally, remember that no one has all the answers. As a leader, you need to provide the energy to make things happen. Mistakes can be corrected, but the longer you wait, the faster things move forward without you.
What do you think was the impetus for the changes in downtown Cincinnati over the past 20 years?
During the mid-90s there had been some decline in downtown Cincinnati, higher vacancy rates, lower rents, etc. In 2001, the city experienced civil unrest and the need for change was clear. As a city, we had to look at ourselves to determine the kind of city we wanted to be. We were very fortunate to have incredible business leadership – Procter & Gamble, Western-Southern Financial Services, Fifth Third Bank, and other companies, as well as forward-looking leadership in our mayors and city councilmembers and Hamilton County Commissioners. We also had small businesses, residents, the African American and Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, and many others all committed to the success of the center city. All of these entities worked together to determine the best way to meet the needs of all of those who lived in the center city and the surrounding area. What is important is not one change maker, but a civic team, taking the long view, working every day over a long period of time to makes transformative change. Being a part of this team has been a great professional privilege for me.
How do you keep people engaged in the process of change?
People here really care about their city and want to do something to help. It used to be very hard to get involved, but Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI) has helped give people a forum so they can get involved and make a difference. Every week we send out an email about what’s happening downtown. When we first started this in 2002, it went to about 40 people. Now more than 16,000 receive it. People respond to it – I get calls and emails to share upcoming events, business ideas, and ways to solve problems. The readers feel a personal connection to their downtown. We also have committees that allow people to meet with city leaders, creating more diverse and effective guidance for downtown. All of this work is like a snowball rolling down a hill – as it rolls, it continues to grow stronger.
Let me give you an example…
In 2001, the city created a downtown police district and DCI created an ambassador program, offering enhanced cleaning, safety patrols, customer service, and social service outreach. The district commander and I thought about how to best leverage these services to do the most good. We divided downtown into four quadrants we called “sectors.” To empower those each sector, we tapped one stakeholder in each quadrant to be the sector leader. The leaders called meetings, set agendas, and sent notices to anyone who wanted to attend the meetings – residents, property or business owners – and DCI supported these leaders. The only two rules for the meetings were 1) the district commander and I would be there because there was nothing more important than each sector being safe and clean and 2) the purpose of these meetings was to solve problems. This engaged and empowered stakeholders to take an active role in effectively solving their problems. These public/private partnerships enhance what each is doing. We are far more than just the sum of our parts.
What are one or two projects on which you are currently working that excite you?
One is the Cincinnati Streetcar, which opens on Sept. 9. This modern streetcar system connects the riverfront to downtown, Over-the-Rhine, and Findlay Market. . We are working with our local transit authority, the City, and local business to ensure it integrates well into downtown and will be safe and successful.
Retail is also, for many cities, an issue. Right now, independent, local retail is a major initiative. We are working with our colleagues at the City and other downtown businesses to make sure we have data for prospective retailers and that we provide assistance in many ways. We know retail contributes to a vibrant pedestrian experience and the retail industry has changed in many ways.
The quality that helped create long-term success in downtown Cincinnati was FOCUS—We are really focused on having a safe, clean, and beautiful downtown. We never want to take our eye off that ball. Everyone is focused on their mission and roles so that we do the fundamentals of making a city great – we’re refocusing on the basics that got us to this point.
Finally, could you tell us something about yourself that most of your colleagues don’t know about you?
My academic career was not particularly successful. I left college my third year. I enjoyed working and was advancing – and learning – at a rapid pace. I left school to focus on my career and never looked back. This does not mean that I do not value education. I have found constant learning in my career, and have had the opportunity to learn from the best people in each field. And I love doing this for others, too – “paying it forward,” as they say.
Also, I play guitar, and early in my life, I spent a lot of time writing and performing music. The skills of performing and storytelling have been valuable in the work we do leading the revitalization of downtown.