Q&A with Laura Brunner, President and CEO, Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority
In this Stories from the Field series, Natalie Cohen, senior fellow, Milken Institute Center for Financial Markets, interviews leaders in the field of public finance to trace their career paths and identify innovative accomplishments from which others can learn. We hope our readers and listeners— whether new to the field or experienced and seeking to advance their public finance careers—will learn more about the area and find inspiration from their innovation.
Laura Brunner did not initially set out to enter economic development in the public sector. Rather, she has a unique and broad background in accounting and holds a CPA, has engaged in project management in commercial real estate, and has held positions in management consulting and leadership development. In fact, she commented that she hated her years in accounting and pivoted to find a more meaningful path in her career. Watch a detailed discussion of her journey in the video interview.
Each of her positions, however, has added skills and experience to her career toolbox, leading to her current role as president and CEO of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority (the “Port”), where she has worked for the last 10 years.
What is most interesting about her role at the Port is her commitment to using her skills to advance the inclusive redevelopment of property in Cincinnati and Hamilton County. These projects make a social impact that encompasses infrastructure investment and development. Many of the projects drive wealth creation for individuals, businesses, and neighborhoods with a history of underinvestment and neglect—ultimately adding value to the city and the county’s human and physical assets. Read more about these efforts in the Port’s 2020 Impact report.
While it may not be the largest component of the Port’s real estate portfolio, the Port has been rehabilitating vacant residential properties in targeted neighborhoods. Brunner’s forays into commercial and residential real estate revealed to her that few projects are owned by people of color. Rather than simply building affordable rental housing where rent is exported out of the community, the Port’s Neighborhoods Housing Loan Fund has aimed to build affordable ownership. Planting that fundamental seed of ownership is helping to grow intergenerational wealth among black and brown owners and their families.
The Port’s Communities First Down-Payment Assistance program, in its own words, “helps break down barriers to homeownership to help build generational wealth.” As a grant program (rather than loan), this assistance is helping to kickstart development and new vitality in depressed neighborhoods. Today, the surrounding community is experiencing a revival from the private sector, boosting development. The Port utilized its own funding as well as financing tools to fix up dilapidated housing and return value to the community. You can read more about this program and its value to Cincinnati and Hamilton County in the 2020 impact report.
Another key program sponsored by the Port for the city of Cincinnati and the surrounding area is its patient capital initiative. As a former industrial city, there are still numerous vacant lots where manufacturing once stood. The Port invited private-sector investment (at low, advantageous rates of return) to clean up commercial and industrial property and make ready sites for companies to locate or relocate. As the US economy strives to reinvigorate manufacturing on home soil, older cities such as Cincinnati are improving physical sites as well as investing in human talent to attract companies and industries to their location. Read more about these efforts.
The Port has also partnered with the Kresge Foundation, the city of Cincinnati, and others to create the Driving Real Estate to Accelerate Microenterprise (DREAM) loan fund for small businesses in the East Walnut Hills neighborhood. Loans have facilitated renovations of vacant space. Spruced-up offices have attracted local businesses to locate there, such as a dental office and an ice cream shop. The fund has made more than $3.3 million in loans.
Finally, when asked how she would advise aspiring public-sector students and professionals, Brunner said, “do what you love,” and concluded that she wished she had known about the excitement and challenges of the public sector earlier in her career.
Brunner’s suggested read is A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger. This book focuses on the development of Philadelphia. An added suggestion she gave was Frontier by Kenneth R. Jackson; this book offers a history of urban/suburban development in the US.
Brunner also recently spoke at the Milken Institute Global Conference in 2022, along with Shawn Wooden, treasurer of the state of Connecticut, Dana Bezerra, president of the Heron Foundation, and Hector Negroni, founder and CEO of Foundation Credit. View the panel.