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January 26, 2018

Ten Years of Community Transformation Through Place Matters

As you take a drive or a stroll along E. McMillan Street into the Cincinnati neighborhood of Walnut Hills, what you see now is quite different than what you would have seen a decade ago. After years of disinvestment, the neighborhood’s revitalized commercial corridor includes businesses like Fireside Pizza, Just Q’in, Video Archive, Brick – MORTAR pop-up shop, and a couple of soon-to-open businesses like Caffe Vivace (a jazz club and coffee bar), The Cure (a high-end sneaker store), in addition to apartments at Trevarren Flats, a once abandoned building. You will also see construction projects for future developments, and will likely see residents putting on events and interacting with one another. 

This did not happen by accident; this is the direct result of long-term efforts from community members and institutions, including funders. In fact, since 2007, United Way has been leading a core group of local funders in the Place Matters initiative, which focuses on making concentrated, place-based investments to engage residents and mobilize assets to catalyze positive, vital places for people to live throughout the region. To celebrate 10 years of the Place Matters initiative, LISC Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky, the community development partner in the initiative, recently released a Place Matters 10 Year Retrospective report


“There is a direct link from United Way’s identification of Walnut Hills as a neighborhood of need to support their vision, and the revitalization of the commercial corridor,” said Kathy Schwab, executive director, LISC Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky. “That community was at a tipping point, and it was the United Way funding and support that facilitated the rebuilding of its Community Development Corporation, one that listened to the community’s vision of revitalizing its commercial corridor.”

Community Development Corporations (CDCs) are community-based organizations, engaging residents in activities that promote and support a community plan or vision. United Way provided funding, technical assistance, and brought other organizations to the table to rebuild the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, whose job it was to lead the commercial corridor revitalization. 

"CDCs can be powerful forces of positive change because they wake up every day working to improve the communities they serve,” said Kevin Wright, executive director, Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “The Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation would not exist, and therefore would not be able to serve Walnut Hills, if it wasn't for United Way funding and support. If it weren't for United Way, you wouldn't see the positive and powerful change you see happening in Walnut Hills today."


Walnut Hills became a Place Matters neighborhood in 2012, but the initiative itself began in 2007 with three neighborhoods: Avondale and Price Hill in Cincinnati, and Covington in Northern Kentucky. Along with Walnut Hills, Madisonville was added in 2012. The West End and Newport, Kentucky were added in 2016

A crucial aspect of Place Matters is that the neighborhood work is a resident-led. LISC and United Way collaborate with other organizations to support and energize the work of CDC’s and other “lead agencies” in each community doing the work on the ground. The CDCs and lead agencies work to cultivate resident leadership, and build on assets in the community to develop a community vision with and for residents. 

“United Way understood that making progress on supporting families who experience poverty and improving outcomes for children was going to take some patient investing in neighborhoods that had been left behind,” said Liz Blume, director, Community Building Institute, a partnership between United Way and Xavier University which serves as the evaluator for Place Matters. “For over ten years, United Way has led the charge and made significant financial investments in Place Matters, but beyond the money, and every bit as important, has been the moral support from United Way. Having United Way as a constant champion has brought credibility to the effort that has leveraged so much more in terms of funds, and support and focus.”


In addition to the work to help rebuild the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, United Way was a driving force in creating CDC’s from scratch in both Avondale and Price Hill – the Avondale Comprehensive Development Corporation (ACDC) and Price Hill Will, respectively. 

In Avondale, United Way supported efforts to secure a five-year, $29MM Choice Neighborhood federal grant to improve distressed housing and support positive outcomes for families, which has helped Avondale create a transformation plan for the community. The grant helped improve an infrastructure in Avondale, including the revitalization of 400 housing units and the building of a new community center. 

Price Hill Will was formed originally to take on the housing foreclosure crisis that had crippled Price Hill. Throughout the past 10 years, Price Hill Will has mitigated the effect of the foreclosure crisis by focusing on blighted and vacant properties to help stabilize property values. Now, a key measure and evaluation point in Price Hill is how property values have turned the corner.


“United Way had the foresight to recognize that not only are these communities in need of stabilization and revitalization, but they were at a tipping point and something needed to be done to help these neighborhoods,” said Schwab. “The intervention of United Way identifying Price Hill as a Place Matters neighborhood was pivotal in turning the tide in that community.”

10 years of this work have been insightful, and the Place Matters 10 Year Retrospective report shared 10 lessons learned, including:

Relationships matter: actively engage all stakeholders in the community and enable development to be driven locally

Residents developing a unified, inspiring vision for community change is the foundation for moving forward

Partnerships with neighborhood institutions and beyond are essential

Change is incremental: place based work requires patience

Place Matters has accomplished a great deal in the first 10 years, but the work is far from done. 


“Over the course of the initiative we have also created a network of informed, motivated, successful communities and a group of community development professionals, and residents with the agency to participate,” said Blume. “This network is going to make all the difference when we move into the policy discussions that need to take place about affordable housing, wages, and public transportation. Without the long-term support from United Way this network would not exist.” 

What started as a new idea for generating community change has been successful in ways that has re-defined how community revitalization and engagement work. Over the next 10 years, we will work on challenges and continue to spread successes to even more places. It is clear to our communities, our funders and our partners that we are on the right track.

“My dream for Place Matters would be that each neighborhood has a community vision that really empowers residents and gets them excited about their neighborhood,” said Schwab. “If you have a community vision and have empowered a lot of residents who have bought into that, it lends itself to building that civic infrastructure.”