Eric Avner didn’t plan on staying in Cincinnati for long when he moved here in 1996 to manage Newport’s Main Street Program. “I thought it was just going to be a stop; I didn’t realize it was going to be home,” says Avner, a Toronto native who bounced around from Minneapolis to Cincinnati to Michigan to Montreal and finally Washington, D.C., before settling here for good.
What compelled him to stay? “The realization that you can actually get stuff done here,” he says. “I think everybody wants to make a difference somehow, and I’ve been lucky enough to be in positions where I’m able to do that at an increasingly growing scale.”
The first big Cincinnati project that excited him was the leadership role he played in helping convert an old rusty railroad bridge into the popular pedestrian-only Purple People Bridge. In his late 20s at the time, he recalls thinking, If they’re trusting me with a bridge, what else could I do here? The short answer: a lot.
Although Avner has held a variety of roles focused on advancing the community, he’s had an especially profound impact through the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr. Foundation, which he joined a year prior to its 2009 launch. The foundation provides grants to nonprofits in arts and culture, community development, education, and human services. As vice president and senior program manager of the community development portion, Avner launched People’s Liberty in 2014 to award grants to individuals with big ideas. Over the course of five years, the program handed out 105 grants throughout the region, sparking projects like the Mini Microcinema and Play Library.
Avner also cofounded Soapbox Media; has served in board leadership roles with Know Theatre, ArtWorks, and the Cincinnati Development Fund; and was a driving force behind the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar. He’s focused now on connecting young professionals with opportunities to make a difference in their communities. “I’ve been able to sit at a lot of interesting tables,” he says. “I don’t plan on stopping now, but my focus has been shifting to make sure that other people have opportunities to make the types of difference that I’ve been able to make. I’m not done yet, don’t get me wrong.”
What Avner will do next is still to be determined, but one thing is for certain: Cincinnati is his home, and that’s a decision he’s proud to have made. People who choose to live in Cincinnati, he says, bring fresh perspectives, new ideas, and diverse networks. “While it’s really great that so many people have been here for generations or come back home,” he says, “there’s a great opportunity to welcome people who choose Cincinnati as their home and work to improve this place with an enthusiasm that we’ve only really just started to appreciate.”