Robert Sanders in his SDG office

Even as a child growing up in Cincinnati, Robert Sanders remembers a fascination with urban architecture, particularly the buildings ― occupied and abandoned ― that dotted his childhood neighborhood.

“I’ve always gravitated to real estate, even at a young age growing up in Over-The-Rhine (OTR),” he says. “I lived in public housing with my grandmother near blighted properties. My friends and I used to wander the buildings wondering how many apartment units there were, what type of retail used to exist.

“What really attracted me was wondering what the buildings could become.”

That inquisitiveness, coupled with the encouragement of his grandmother and a life-changing experience at Ohio State, paved the way to where Sanders (BSBA ’00) is now. He is the founder of a commercial real estate development company who’s putting his unique perspective to work shaping community redevelopment in areas of Cincinnati not unlike those he wandered through as a child.

Over-The-Rhine and back again

From his company’s office a short drive from the OTR area, Robert describes how Sanders Development Group (SDG) was founded. Following stints as a real estate development associate at Corporex and banking as an SBA business development officer, he discovered his niche in real estate in 2016 as a commercial development manager at The Port, a public, mission-driven development finance agency focused on revitalizing neighborhoods in Hamilton County and legacy urban industrial sites.

While the position provided Robert with solid real estate development exposure, the desire to create his own firm was too much to ignore. In October 2019, he founded SDG, a company that utilizes turnkey, mixed-used development and redevelopment opportunities to help spur growth, expand access to economic opportunities and foster vibrant and healthy Cincinnati-area neighborhoods.

What sets Robert and SDG apart isn’t what they do. The difference is in the how and why.

Robert Sanders at the New Bond Hill Market groundbreaking.
Robert Sanders at nonprofit client New Bond Hill Market's groundbreaking.

“At SDG, my hope is to bring people from all walks of life together, collaborating on ideas, and having mixed-income residents living in the same area,” he says. “It’s about building trust. Most people don’t trust that developers will keep their word. I want feedback from the community — I want to know what they feel are the pros and cons.”

“Having grown up in the Over-The-Rhine area, coupled with the reputation I’ve built throughout my professional career, I can walk into a room and talk about a project with a level of credibility that other developers may not have. We connect with people from all walks of life.”

At SDG, Robert provides expertise on site acquisition, contract and lease negotiations, deal structuring and financing, feasibility, entitlements, construction and asset management. The company thinks wholistically about a project while focusing on small businesses and job creation as critical aspects to revitalization.

“If you build a coffee shop or a restaurant in a neighborhood, individuals now have a chance to walk to work,” he says. “This gives them the chance to visit their kids at schools in their community and/or have lunch with a spouse. It provides a better quality of life.”

Diversifying SDG

SDG began with a focus on business-to-business transactions but has dedicated a segment of the business to supporting smaller community development and affordable housing projects. SDG’s impact can be seen in several historically disinvested Cincinnati communities including the West End, Bond Hill, Roselawn and Walnut Hills.

“I turned down a job offer prior to opening my business,” Robert says. “When COVID started, I began to wonder if I did the right thing. But I stayed laser-focused and concentrated my work on redeveloping the urban core in Cincinnati, places like where I grew up, to bring my perspective to the table. That’s when I landed the relocation of Triversity Construction’s headquarters.”

Working with residents, Robert pitched Triversity Construction Company the idea of relocating its headquarters and renovating a 20,000-square-foot blighted building in the Walnut Hills community.

“Studies have shown that blight negatively impacts people’s mental health,” he says. “By openly communicating, we took a historically divested neighborhood and turned a vacant building into an active space near businesses already vested in the area’s livelihood. We potentially added dedicated foot traffic for those retailers and provided a more stable neighborhood for its residents.”

Other SDG projects include partnering with another local community organization to bring a grocery store and coffee shop to a food desert in an area of the city, developing more affordable, multi-family housing from vacant buildings and serving as a development partner on the $300 million West End redevelopment around Cincinnati FC’s new TQL Stadium.

An emphasis on education

Robert Sanders at an Ohio State football game at The Shoe.
Robert Sanders at an Ohio State football game at The Shoe.

Save for the time he spent at Ohio State, Robert has never strayed too far from his childhood home in OTR. He never knew his mother and his father was rarely around. Instead, his grandmother — Lula Mae Warren — raised him, always preaching how an education could mean a better life.

“As an inner-city kid, you can go down the wrong path because of peer pressure or being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Robert. “My grandmother and Ohio State’s Young Scholars Program (YSP) kept me on the right path.”

A pre-collegiate and collegiate program designed to enhance academic, personal and career development of Ohio public school students, YSP was a lifeline. From sixth grade through high school, he visited Ohio State’s campus every summer for academic coaching and mentoring, counseling and programming. The program offered leadership development, study skills enrichment and major and career exploration throughout the school year.

“Being part of the Young Scholars Program was key for me — it kept me on track and focused on education, graduating high school, getting the YSP scholarship and graduating from college,” says Robert. “The experience connected and showed me a path to a career, which most kids in the inner city don’t have at that age.”

Robert as a teenager with his future wife, Kenya, and grandmother Lula Mae Warren.
Robert with his wife, Kenya, and grandmother, Lula Mae Warren.

He’s also grateful to YSP for the connections he made to so many others throughout Ohio ― including Kenya, his wife of 23 years, who he met during his junior year of high school.

Recognizing the impact that his grandmother, who passed away in 2006, and YSP had on him, Robert is creating the Lula Mae Warren and Sanders Family Scholarship Fund to provide funding to YSP students from Cincinnati who are enrolled at Fisher.

“There has been no more important moment in my life than having my grandmother see me walk across the stage and receive my Ohio State diploma,” he says. “I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. It was because of the discipline she gave me and her constant focus on telling me to get the best grades I could that led me to that moment and to where I am today.”

In Cincinnati, Robert has found additional ways to give back. He served as a character coach in the Winners Walk Tall program for six years, where he provided Cincinnati Public Schools students with guidance on ethics, work, careers and life decisions.

One of his “goose bumps” moments was when he asked students to draw a picture of what they wanted to do or be. One student drew a picture of a hotel. When Robert asked if the student wanted to stay at the hotel, the student replied, “No, I’m going to own it!”

“I realized then, that because of his exposure to my career, the kid saw possibilities,” he says. “You never know what he will do or become now.”

Robert Sanders speaking at a Cincinnati redevelopment event.
Robert Sanders speaking at a Cincinnati redevelopment event.

He also was a founding board member of the Urban Land Institute’s Real Estate Accelerator Lab to boost minority participation in real estate development, equity investment and ownership. He’s on the board and serves as a mentor, offering insight and guidance on development opportunities to anyone in the program.

Robert also serves on the board of community development corporation Talbert Services and the local chapter of Cincinnati NAIOP, a commercial real estate development association.

“Doing work in these communities provides exposure to kids who look like me,” Robert says. “They can see that developers don’t just look a certain way, can be in development both on small and large scales. What’s important is for kids to see that folks from our own community can own and operate our own businesses.”

“It’s important to leave a legacy and give back more than you receive. I’m more than just a Buckeye football fan. Education was a real game changer for me – I’m where I’m at today because of my time at Ohio State.”

Robert Sanders BSBA '00 Principal, Sanders Development Group, LLC