How do you revitalize a declining municipality?

Katie Meyer, Executive Director of Renaissance Covington, is on the front lines of this challenge in Covington, Kentucky. Her city’s downtown shares a similar story to many others. An incredible historic infrastructure still stands, albeit empty. Over the years, their downtown has lost a lot of small businesses and population, but she’s working hard to preserve it before it’s too late.

Her approach of choice? Smart city initiatives.

That’s where our second guest comes in. Mike Grogan, Director of Mobile Strategy and Product Marketing at Cincinnati Bell, has partnered with Renaissance Covington to not only connect the downtown area with WiFi, but also collect data insights to improve the revitalization strategy.

The biggest challenge with the revitalization efforts that Katie used to face was proving the return on investment –  answering tough questions like: how many people did it attract or how did it influence business growth in the district? Now, empowered with new data, answering these questions and understanding what’s working will become much easier.

Listen below, or on: Apple Podcasts, Pocket CastsStitcher, Google Play, SoundCloudSpotify

Read the Transcript

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John Rougeux: Hi everyone and welcome to another episode of People and Places. I’m John Rougeux, VP of marketing here at Skyfii, and your host for today’s episode. Today we have two guests on the show who are going to talk to us about how data can help drive downtown revitalization. So joining us are Katie Meyer who’s executive director of Renaissance Covington, and Mike Grogan, who’s director of mobile strategy and product marketing at Cincinnati Bell.

John Rougeux: Thank’s of being with us, guys.

Mike Grogan: Thanks for having us.

John Rougeux: Now in a moment we’re going to talk a little bit more about how smart cities can better use data to drive these revitalization efforts, but before we do that, can you guys each give us a little bit of background about who are you and what you’re working on at the moment. Let’s start with you, Katie.

Katie Meyer: Sure, thank you, John. Like John said my name is Katie Meyer, I’m the executive director of Renaissance Covington and we are a nonprofit organization that is focused on the social and economic revitalization of our historic downtown. We are accredited through Main Street America, and we work to fill vacant store fronts create sense of community and drive the economic vibrancy of our historic central business district in Covington, Kentucky.

John Rougeux: Good deal, thanks, Katie. Just for context since we’ve got people listening in different parts of the country and different parts of the globe even, where can we find Covington on the map? Just so we have a little bit more context.

Katie Meyer: Sure, yeah. Covington is at the very northern tip of Kentucky just south of Cincinnati. Our city is population 40,000, so we’re not a very large city but we are part of the metropolitan region of greater Cincinnati.

John Rougeux: Cool, thanks for that. Mike, let’s here a little bit about yourself.

Mike Grogan: Yeah, so as John mentioned, I’m the director of mobile strategy and product marketing for Cincinnati Bell. Cincinnati Bell is the telecommunications provider in Cincinnati. We’ve been around for a little over 140 years almost 143, I believe. My role is essentially, and mobile strategy and product marketing is developing new products, new services around mobile that can enhance overall experience within our consumers, our businesses around greater Cincinnati. So, part of the discussion today is around the Renaissance Covington, so once of the things that we’ve developed a solution that we kind of bundle together as an overall solution, starting with really the root of what we are developing in fiber.

Mike Grogan: So, for 140 years we’ve obviously changed out business model several times and we’ve been the telecommunications provider. More recently, probably the last five or six years, we’ve been working on really reshaping our brand, reshaping what people believe Cincinnati Bell offers in being more of a technology provider as opposed to a telephone provider. We built a fiber asset throughout the greater Cincinnati area to the tune of about a billion dollars and we’re going to continue to develop that and build fiber as believe that fiber is the future. So, really what my role is is building out those products, building out those relationships that glare over the top of that fiber solution. So when there’s wifi, whether it’s analytics, whether it’s mobile applications or any other applications that can be developed over that fiber layer, my responsibility with our future builds.

John Rougeux: Cool, thanks Mike. Certainly a lot of exciting initiatives you guys have going on there with cutting edge technology and paired with a 100 plus year old company. Look, I’m really excited to hear what you guys are working on together in Covington, and so maybe to kick things off, Katie let’s start with you, can you tell us a little bit more about what’s happening in Covington with your revitalization efforts there, and what are you guys trying to achieve through these efforts?

Katie Meyer: So our downtown shares a story with thousands of downtowns across America. Where we have this incredible historic infrastructure, but during the 60’s, 70’s, through suburbanization, federal highway act, initiatives like that we lost a lot of population and a lot of businesses from our downtown, and so our work is really, it’s preservation based, so it’s about preserving our historic buildings. One piece of that is regulation, but our role in historic preservation is activation of those historic buildings. We know that when there are upper floor residents, offices and filled store fronts, that those buildings are more likely to be preserved. We’re also a community driven organization, so we work with a number of our key stakeholders in the downtown to drive the revitalization efforts together and that’s the bottom up approach versus the top down. Finally, we’re play space so we only work within 16 blocks of what was the original business district of our city. So, most of our work is based on small business recruitment, retention, creative place making, and promotion, and helping to change the narrative around city as one right for economic development. A great place to live, work and play and all of that good kind of economic development strategy.

John Rougeux: So, you’re doing a number of things to really add life to the city, and I know- I as watching the video that you guys put together about some of your efforts there and it’s really exciting to see what you’re doing with local businesses, art, events, things taking place in city streets, there’s so much going on there. So, I’m going to try to include a link to that video in our show notes because I think it’d be great for our listeners to check that out and get a little bit more context for what you’re doing. Can you talk to us about some of the challenges you’re facing? I know we’re going to talk about data a little bit more specifically so I’m really curious to hear, in particular, what kind of challenges you have faced in terms of learning about this city and getting the data you need to really inform those efforts.

Katie Meyer: Yeah, one of the challenges that Covington is facing, as well as many other cities is how do we build out a economically viable retail district or retail opportunity. A lot of our small businesses are competing against Amazon, they’re competing against big box stores, and as we try to fill our vacant store fronts, providing as much support to those businesses specifically helps create a better destination and a stronger sense of place in our downtown. So, that’s really one of the challenges as we move forward. We’ve had a good progress with food and beverage restaurants, bars, and even hospitality with the convention center, but that last piece of retail is something challenging. The other piece is- as many cities in Kentucky, cities are struggling financially because of pension issues and other things like that. So, our city government doesn’t have a lot of money to invest in the public realm and they need to think about creative solutions to become more efficient and to save dollars wherever they can. There are some pieces of this project that help support that effort from the governmental side as well.

John Rougeux: So you got a number factors involved, you’ve got kind of a political lens that effects things in the economic challenges that are going on, and certainly some macro transitive kind of been shaping things for decades. So, I know you guys are working with Cincinnati Bell in particular, because there was a number of reasons, but one in particular was you’re trying to learn a more about how people interact with the city, what they’re there for and just trying to get better insights on what’s happening. Can you tell us a little bit more about what’s happening with that aspect of your project?

Katie Meyer: It’s an interesting question because this conversation started for our organization as we were looking at our public arts and creative place making more- most of our work is funded through private foundations, as well as with some support from the local government. As we do these projects, whether they’re park woods or we did a pop up performance park, we’ve done a lot of murals, one of the questions is always what is the return on investment, how many people did it attract, how did it influence business growth in the district. That’s requested as part of grants or as parts of reporting to the local government. So that’s actually where we started to try and understand how can we use technology to create stronger data around return on investment for the arts.

Katie Meyer: Over time as we developed a relationship with Cincinnati Bell, we were able to realize the incredible potential to create new data to impact everything from how we develop a wayfinding system, how we think about traffic patterns and parking, how we thinking about foot traffic for our small businesses and the impact of our special events on turnout, as well as direct marketing. So, as much as we had a targeted approach from the beginning, ove the process of developing the project, we were able to expand the impact incredibly across a number of different areas of work.

John Rougeux: So it sounds like there’s a pretty direct connection there, because you talked about funding and grant money and this need to show the ROI in terms of some of these initiatives that you’re doing. If I’m hearing you correctly, it sounds like the data you’re getting from measuring things like traffic patterns, visitor counts, attendance at events, things like that. That all helps prove that ROI, which then directly effects your- or improves your ability to get some of this grant money and other sources of resources. Did I get that right?

Katie Meyer: Yeah that’s absolutely right. That is a big piece of it is how we measure our impact, but it also incidentally has been the opportunity to make better decisions going forward, not only for us but also- as a small non-profit, but also for our local government, also for our small businesses.

John Rougeux: Well, look I know this is an initiative you’ve taken on solo, you’ve worked with some partnerships including people like Cincinnati Bell to kick some of this off and really have the support you need to make this happen. Can you tell us a little bit about the role that partnerships have played in some of you data efforts?

Katie Meyer: Yeah, so you know, this project would not have been remotely possible without the partnership with Cincinnati Bell, everything from the fiber deployment to the captive portal system, to the integration of Skyfii as our backend analytics, in addition to that critical piece, and I mean, the deployment of the access points and the 24/7 monitoring and maintenance. Like you mentioned, we are a small organization and we were able to fund this all through private grants, but at the end of the day, Cincinnati Bell did all of the heavy lifting and it’s our responsibility to take all of that effort and make an impact through sharing those analytics. So, we’re partnering with the city to do workshops, we just did one yesterday, where we’re sharing this information with our small businesses so that they can make more data driven decisions. We’ve partnered with 32 property owners to install access points on their buildings and we’re including publicly held properties and that way we’ve created a partnership where we’re sharing data with the city government. So, you know this whole project was made up of 40 plus partnerships, although Cincinnati Bell and Renaissance Covington are the primary one, it was a total community list, not any single organization or person was able to make it happen alone.

John Rougeux: Yeah, that’s great. I like how you’ve got partnerships from multiple angles to really make this happen. You got partnerships with technology companies like Cincinnati Bell, with local government, with small businesses, local businesses in the area. I think that’s really interesting how it’s not just been the efforts of just one particular party, it’s really this collaborative effort that’s kind of an on-going project together.

John Rougeux: Okay, so Katie to give us a little bit more context for today’s discussion, I understand that you partnered with Cincinnati Bell to develop a free public wifi network in your downtown. Can you briefly tell us just a little bit more about that?

Katie Meyer: Sure the technical application was really based on the existing fiber footprint and some of the expansion of the fiber footprint throughout our downtown, and then that was centigraded through access points on properties to create a ubiquitous, seamless wifi experience. Something that you might experience at an amusement park or an airport but instead it covered all the streets and sidewalks and public spaces throughout our downtown.

John Rougeux: So you’re basically taking the kind of wifi experience that you’d get at another large public venue, broad coverage, high speed access, capacity for lots of user and you’re recreating that in a downtown atmosphere, is that right?

Katie Meyer: That’s exactly right.

John Rougeux: So maybe this would be a good opportunity, Mike, to bring you back in the conversation. I’d love to hear your perspective on how and why you guys at Cincinnati Bell decided to work on this with Covington.

Mike Grogan: Yeah, one of the things, I’ll just add to what Katie said. As we approach these conversations with municipalities it’s about a partnership, so certainly we are a telecommunications provider, we’re a technology provider so we’re selling solutions. At the end of the day, we want to build partnerships that are successful because as we look at working with other municipalities we want to make sure that we’ve done the right thing for the organizations that we work with, because we want to use that as leverage to partner with other municipalities. So we’ve been very involved and working very closely with Katie, with Renaissance Covington, and they’ve been certainly very helpful in spreading that word. So the partnership’s been great and Katie mentioned we’ve worked with several other locations as well with small businesses, with simply as putting an access point on their building or selling in services. So it’s been more about developing that overall partnership as opposed to it being a one way street and we’re just selling solutions into Renaissance Covington, because they’re success is very helpful in our success for the future as well.

Mike Grogan: You know, as it relates to the partnership with Renaissance Covington, specifically, I think one of the major drivers in Renaissance Covington choosing Cincinnati Bell is that fiber, it is the foundational layer. So, as opposed to whether it’s coax cable or whether it’s a fixed wireless solution, fiber is the future, I mentioned that earlier, and I think that was a big driver in Renaissance Covington choosing us. It’s also the other things outside of that, as we layer on best of breed technologies, whether it be Aruba wifi, whether it be a Skyfii solution from analytics and engagement perspective. Those are the things that I think were major drivers in the work that Renaissance Covington and Cincinnati Bell have done together.

John Rougeux: So I want to touch base on something you mentioned earlier in that comment. You mentioned you didn’t want to just come in and sell something to Covington and just have it be more of a transaction, you’re really looking for initiatives that you feel will be successful and you can work on in a more collaborative fashion. I’m curious, when you guys started talking together and you were vetting each other out, what were Katie and her group doing well that got you guys excited about working with them?

Mike Grogan: As we look at smart city, Katie and Renaissance Covington were very out in the forefront of addressing what the needs are around smart city. As we look at smart city, it’s really the foundation of fiber, but then what are the real problems that exist within an organization that they’re looking to address. So, Katie obviously has talked a lot about the revitalization of the city of Covington, we knew that what we were doing and what we’ve done in the community is very key in what they’ve done and that is that fiber asset. So, a lot of Covington already had some of the fiber that we’ve built out, but it allowed for us to build out even more and what Katie’s doing from a revitalization perspective is happening all over the greater Cincinnati area. There’s very small municipalities that need to compete with their neighboring communities, and those were some of the things that were obviously very key in the conversations that we had because we knew that we could solve a very important need that Renaissance Covington was looking to address.

John Rougeux: So, I like that they kind of recognize the need to compete and just stay relevant among the larger metro area, and then along with that they had this foundation of in your case, fiber, but this foundation of a really strong communications network internally in the city for other internet bat call. So, you work with a lot of initiatives and probably some other cities, Mike, what advice do you have for other folks who are working on a smart cities initiative or maybe who are thinking about working on one? What advice do you have for what they should look for in a tech partner?

Mike Grogan: Really the first thing is the smart city is a very broad term. It’s important to really focus on what the need is. So, whether it’s economic development, whether it’s public safety, whether it’s engagement with the community, those are all certain things that municipalities really need to address. They don’t all have the same problems, so coming up with that problem statement as to what are you addressing, and then making sure that you’re bringing in the right partners.

Mike Grogan: Katie knew that there was a couple providers in the space from a comminations perspective that could really help. From our perspective, one of the things that’s very beneficial about Cincinnati Bells is we can be that one stop shop, because we are the communications provider so we can take that from end to end. So, identifying who that communications provider is very important because at the end of the day, all smart city applications have to run over some type of communications platform, whether it be internet connectivity, whether it be macro cellular connectivity, whether it be low power ran. So in order for the data to be utilized, there needs to be a communication tool, so addressing what that communication tool is and then from there you can start to layer on whatever that problem is, layer on the applications that would directly associate with that particular problem.

John Rougeux: To start with the issue, the problem first and then look for the solution. Don’t pursue a tech partner or even a smart cities initiative just because it sounds interesting or might be a shiny object, but really focus on problem first, solution second.

Mike Grogan: Correct.

John Rougeux: So Mike, another question on this line of thinking. What kind of trends are you seeing in terms of how cities are starting to use data more effectively?

Mike Grogan: It kind of goes back to what I mentioned as far as what those problem statements would be. So, municipalities are looking at data in a whole different way and how they can start to capture more and more data. Whether it’s through a solution such as wifi, because with wifi you can start to understand and analyze. Katie mentioned it a little bit earlier, foot traffic, traffic patterns, all these different thing that can provide a better visitor and customer experience because at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. If you provide the best experience to a guest, a visitor, a resident, whatever it may be, that’s going to want to keep them coming back. So, more and more people or more and more municipalities look that data. They can bring in data sets from all different kinds of angles. So, bringing them in, analyzing it, utilizing it for the purposes of some of the things that were mentioned but economic development. It gives businesses, municipalities, whatever it may be the opportunity to engage with their constituents on a more personal level. So now if I’m capturing data about users, I can now be more targeted as opposed to just sending out broad and blanket messages. I can be very targeted in how I engage with those users or with those guests.

John Rougeux: Good deal. So really trying to, not just put out these blanket messages, but understand who people are, how they’re different and then maybe tailoring that communication to those various groups. I really like that. Look I want to end today’s episode with one question for both of you guys. Katie, I’ll let you take this first, come back to you and then, Mike, we’ll let you take it afterwards. What advice do you have for other cities, municipalities out there who are maybe thinking about a smart cities initiative or maybe more fundamentally just thinking about how to start better using data. What’s your advice for how they should get started and what can make that effort successful.

Katie Meyer: I think one of the most important things, which we have discussed quite a bit over the last several minutes is that partnership approach. That pulling together of governmental, non profit and full profit partners to A identify the problem, like Mike mentioned, or problem, I think it’s really true that, in our case public wifi and this whole process opens the door to have discussions not only about economic revitalization, but about digital divide and access for our adjacent, you know, high school students, elementary school students, community college students to utilize our public spaces and create stronger public spaces as well as all of the opportunity for the government to understand a bit more about some of the basic infrastructure needs and opportunities. So, I think as you identify the common and shared problems you can also identify unique resources that may help especially smaller cities with smaller budgets get over that funding barrier. If we don’t start having these conversations now, as cities, especially in Kentucky, then we’re going to continue to fall behind our competition nationally as we think about how we grow, how we attract business, how we create jobs and how we build stronger cities.

Katie Meyer: So, my advice is get together a group of folks and get started as soon as possible because waiting too long will just continue to create the lag in the cities economic growth in the long run.

John Rougeux: Thanks, Katie. Good advice for someone who’s actually out there doing this and been working on it for some time. Mike, what’s your advice?

Mike Grogan: So, Katie kind of stole mine, but I’m glad she said it because it is the most important component and it is the partnerships. So, if you don’t identify the right partners to work together collaboratively, then it’s not going to be successful.

Mike Grogan: I’ll tell one quick story around the Renaissance Covington launch. Katie and Renaissance Covington is a small organization and they have a lot of responsibility. So, Katie’s team leaned on us a lot to provide some of the marketing around the launch around the initiatives, so we basically were an extension of Renaissance Covington as it relates to- from a marketing front to really make sure that this a successful launch. So, we held a couple of events in Covington to really make sure that people understand what this is all about. So we brought in residents, we brought in guests from greater Cincinnati, we brought in small to medium businesses, so we really tried to make this a very successful launch and a partnership, that this wasn’t just- we’re not just putting this on Renaissance Covington, we’re making sure that this is a successful launch as a partnership as a whole for Renaissance Covington and Cincinnati Bell.

Mike Grogan: So partnerships to me, it’s the biggest thing. Technology is going to be very important obviously once you figure out what you’re addressing, but I think the biggest thing for us was making sure that we had the right partners in place and working closely and collaboratively with Renaissance Covington and some of the other partners that were involved.

John Rougeux: Alright, well thanks Mike. I appreciate that, it sounds like partnerships are really key, data’s important, technology’s important but if you don’t have the right partnerships some of that maybe might start to fall apart. So, Mike if one of our listeners wants to get in touch with you today, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Mike Grogan: I can be reached by email, my email address is mike.grogan g-r-o-g-a-n @cinbell.com. C-i-n-b-e-l-l.com.

John Rougeux: Alright, thanks, Mike, and Katie if someone wants to get in touch with you, how can they do that?

Katie Meyer: Couple of ways. My email is katiemeyer@rcov.org. It’s k-a-t-i-e-m-e-y-e-r@r-c-o-v.org, or you can follow us on Facebook, Renaissance Covington and message us there as well.

John Rougeux: Alright. Well I want to thank you both, again, for being on the show with us today, lots of great advice on how cities can make better use of data. Thanks again for being with us.

Mike Grogan: Thank you.

Katie Meyer: Thank you.

John Rougeux: Alright, just two quick things before we go, if you found this episode helpful and liked hearing from Mike and Katie, please head to iTunes and leave us a five star rating. That will make a huge difference in helping us get the word out about the show. Secondly, if you have an idea for the show or guest you’d like us to interview, send us a note at podcast@skyfii.com. That’s podcast@s-k-y-f-i-i-.com. Okay, well that is it for todays episode of People and Places, I’m John Rougeux with Skyfii, thanks for being with us, we’ll see you next time.

People in Places is a podcast dedicated to helping today’s shopping centers, retail outlets, airports, museums, universities, and other physical locations optimize the experience of their visitors. Get in-touch: podcast@skyfii.com. See all current episodes on our website here.

Show Notes:

  1. See how Renaissance Covington has transformed the downtown district in this video.
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