What Columbus needs 2006
This story appeared in the September 2006 issue of Columbus Monthly.
For the third time in 10 years, we asked people active in the community for three answers to this question: What does Columbus need to improve itself?
Exactly 102 people responded, including Titans, restaurateurs, politicians and a former zookeeper who hangs out with David Letterman. In addition to his ideas, Mayor Mike Coleman sent a copy of his state of the city address. Attorney Ben Espy offered a slogan for a marketing campaign. Huntington Bancshares head Tom Hoaglin sent five responses. Bob Milbourne of the Columbus Partnership shipped over six, as did a civic association president and ad man Artie Isaac, who contributed some of the loftiest ideas (heroes, a lesson on the ethics of speech). Mary Yost of the Ohio Hospital Association built her replies around a theme—“Lighten up”—and one person e-mailed a photograph of an obscure mural.
We sifted through, puzzled over and chuckled at the more than 300 responses and compiled a top 10 list with a new No. 1: The way we go about moving the masses—bumping aside “Pumping up downtown” as the most pressing concern of the last survey (in 2001). According to the respondents, COTA and Port Columbus have some work to do.
We also discovered that four new needs made the list, replacing “Attract pro sports,” “Create a better housing mix,” “Save green space” and “Lose weight.” Is it possible we’ve become a slimmer city with more affordable housing and plenty of parks, while believing that the Blue Jackets and Crew have sated our need for pro sports even if they can’t make the playoffs? We doubt it, but apparently more important matters are at hand, including embracing the region’s growing diversity, whether it be gays, Latinos or gay Latinos.
Perhaps a sign of that diversity was found at the end of one man’s otherwise thoughtful reply, noting as an aside that what Columbus really needs is more “Hot Cops.”
1. Getting around
Ray Catalino is flustered. The business manager of the Lantern, the Ohio State University student newspaper, frequently entertains out-of-state guests. Inevitably, they will inquire about how to get from here to there without using a car. “It is embarrassing when visitors come to town and ask where the subway goes or the public transportation system stations are located.” He adds, “COTA is not a metropolitan-caliber system.”
He’s not alone, judging from our survey. “The current system is poorly supported, provides poor service and no service to much of the urban area,” says John Bennett, president of the Delawanda Residents Association. “An extensive, efficient and publicly funded transportation system would have numerous benefits, from reduction of congestion and air pollution to improved commerce and attendance at cultural and sports events to promoting an improved sense of civic identity.”
A common refrain is better bus service and more mass-transit options, including light rail. Citing Mayor Mike Coleman’s proposal for downtown streetcars, attorney Harrison Smith says they should travel from “OSU south along High Street to Whittier [Street] and ideally out to the Whittier Peninsula across on a bridge to COSI and then up Neil Avenue to OSU.” Also regarding the streetcars, Bob Leighty of Merion Village urges the mayor to make certain neighborhoods near downtown won’t be overlooked.
Airport service also is a concern. “When America West pulled out of Port Columbus, it was much harder for me to get where I needed to go,” says Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo. “To have more options from Port Columbus would surely help attract businesses and even visitors to Columbus.”
Since COTA is the object of criticism from many folks who answered the survey, it seems only fair to give the last word to the man who runs the embattled system. Bill Lhota says the region needs a “coordinated multidimensional transportation policy” and cites as an example the collaboration between COTA and ODOT to allow it to “use freeway shoulders to move buses when congestion occurs.” He concludes, “Transportation solutions are not achieved overnight. Planning needs to begin now to address problems that may be years in the future.”
2. Revitalize downtown
Capital law professor Bradley Smith gets right to the point. “The core downtown remains weak, especially as City Center flounders,” says the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “There are theaters, but few restaurants or clubs, too few cabs. Additionally, the city does not make good use of its riverfront.”
As for City Center, there’s no shortage of ideas. Katharine Moore, executive director of the German Village Society, suggests a “creative ‘think tank’ session with the most innovative marketing/ retail/community builders in the country to come up with a fabulous solution to City Center.” Destroy the mall or at least redesign it to make the area more appealing for pedestrians, recommends Glenn Kacic, president of the Waterford Tower Condominium Association. City Center also could become an upscale outlet mall that would attract folks from across the region, says Robert Breithaupt, executive director of the Jazz Arts Group.
Others call for more shopping opportunities throughout downtown. “Every major city I have ever visited that had a thriving downtown had a potpourri of retail establishments right next to each other,” says Paula Kulp, president of the Greater Feder Road Civic Association. “Everything from a small shanty of an independent businessman or woman to a major department store.”
Those independents might venture downtown if there were more economic incentives, such as interest-free loans, says club owner Skully Webb: “It’s a special feeling you get when you go to these areas in major cities that cookie-cutter corporate America can’t create.”
Taking a big-picture path is developer Kyle Katz, who recommends that “We need to focus on the small and achievable. . . . Too often, however, we dedicate ourselves to massive projects that rely upon huge assumptions, consume scarce resources, take years to deliver and may never produce the desired results.”
Taking a quirky path is Columbus City Council legislative aide Lelia Cady, who, recalling the “awesome pool/bar culture” on summer weekends at the old Sheraton hotel, believes the city’s quality of life would improve with more downtown swimming pools.
Taking a contrarian path is attorney Kathy Ransier, who goes against the grain regarding the emergence of those huge billboards—or wallscapes—on the sides of downtown buildings. She says they “do not enhance the appeal to downtown living or the image . . . that Columbus should be giving to the rest of the world.”
3. Fix the schools
School board member Betty Drummond touts some of Columbus Public Schools’s successes, including the fact that the class of 2005 earned $32.4 million in college financial support. But she’s a lonely voice in the survey. Almost all other responses concerning education sounded more like Tom Bedway, creative director at Burkholder Flint: “We ought to pretend the city schools are on fire, a slow burn that will fry all of us. Now is the time to commit the financial and mental resources to put out the fire.”
A number of people call for some sort of kindergarten-through-college educational program; some say pre-K. For instance, “Bring together our public schools, Columbus State Community College and the Ohio State University in a seamless system that helps all young people,” says Paul Carringer, former chairman of the Clintonville Area Commission.
Micheal Wiles, president of the Council of South Side Organizations, wants a “school for disruptive students that teaches them not only the three Rs, but self-respect, respect for others, proper conflict resolution.” Drummond suggests that such a school wouldn’t be needed if there are, as she says, “expanded high-quality learning opportunities for preschool-age children.”
Others call for partnerships. Federal judge Algenon Marbley recommends, “I would like to see Columbus’s business community lend its considerable resources . . . to the continued improvement of Columbus Public Schools.”
Bexley superintendent Mike Johnson seeks tougher high-school graduation standards, including students’ taking chemistry, physics and applied calculus. “These requirements should be endorsed and promoted by everyone interested in economic development in Central Ohio,” he says, “and in our ability to compete in the global marketplace.”
4. Jobs, jobs, jobs
In the first two installments of What Columbus needs, the idea of growing the city’s economy didn’t make the list of concerns. Now, it ranks fourth. Perhaps Columbus’s long-held belief that it is recession-proof was shaken after the recent economic downturn.
Anyway, a number of respondents had a variety of suggestions:
• “Keeping more college graduates
in Columbus,” says Ty Marsh, head of the Columbus Chamber. “Brain drain is a real issue in Ohio and a challenge in Columbus. Attracting and retaining talent is the new version of economic development.”
• “Columbus needs jobs with family-sustaining wages, located within the city limits and on bus lines,” recommends Gloria Ann Zebbs Anderson, president of the Argyle Park Civic Association.
• “The Creative Class—a new social class made up of people whose job is to be ‘creative,’ including scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers and architects—is a driving force of the 21st–century economy,” says Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art. “Columbus—and Ohio—needs to be at the forefront of offering incentives and promoting policies that attract and retain the creative-sector workforce.”
• “Columbus needs to start a program, modeled after ARC Industries, to train and place ex-inmates into productive employment,” says Ben Espy, who’s running for a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court.
• “We need the strongest Ohio State University we can achieve,” suggests Bob Milbourne, president of the Columbus Partnership. “It is our most important economic asset and plays a vital role in our regional economy.”
• OSU president Karen Holbrook and Columbus City Council members Matt Habash and Mary Jo Hudson emphasize the importance of the 315 Research and Technology Corridor, which runs along the state route that connects downtown with northwest Columbus. Habash urges “a more concentrated and more thoughtful approach to advancing” the concept, “with new partners at the state level, more innovative incentives, access to much-needed start-up dollars and capital, and a proactive approach to upgrading the area’s infrastructure.”
5. Reduce crime
For the first time, concern about the crime rate has broken into the top 10 list.
“More police protection and involvement in the community,” says Charles Parker, president of the Devonshire Civic Association. It’s a point Columbus police chief James Jackson has been pushing for years. “Columbus has continued to grow not only in population but in area,” Jackson says. “To provide adequate police protection, the Division of Police must keep pace with that growth. Total staffing of sworn and civilian personnel is less now than it was in 1999.”
“Columbus needs to crush crime wherever it shows its face,” says former Clintonville Area Commission chairman Paul Carringer. “From the streets to the Internet, crime in Columbus is growing.” He recommends “more community crime patrols where citizens help the safety forces with additional ears and eyes.”
Jodelle Spruill, president of the Laurel Canyon Civic Association, recommends more street lighting, particularly in older neighborhoods. Skully Webb, owner of Skully’s Music-Diner, calls for “substantial fines and penalties for vandalism—graffiti. These idiots get off way too easy.”
“Juvenile crime and violence is a growing problem in Columbus,” Chief Jackson adds. “This issue can be best addressed by having parents discipline, lead, and act as role models for their children. Parents making the tough decisions early in their child’s life will pay off in the long run for the parents, the child and our community.”
6. Support the arts
It’s no secret many arts organizations struggle financially. The most recent example is Opera Columbus, which was on the verge of dying before raising enough cash to put on a less-ambitious season for 2006-’07.
A strong arts scene is vital to the city’s growth, according to AEP head Michael Morris. “Aside from the pleasure and beauty they bring to daily life, the arts constitute an important financial institution that brings people and dollars into our community,” he says. “And as a Columbus employer, I can tell you that a healthy arts scene is essential for recruiting talent to our company.”
Some respondents write about building bigger endowments. The idea of public funding is raised by John Bennett of the Delawanda Residents Association and Ron Hupman of the University Area Commission. “It would be interesting to see what might happen if there was a coordinated plan that had . . . patrons, boards and funders . . . working together to stabilize the arts into the future,” says Lisa Hinson of Hinson Ltd. Public Relations.
“The King-Lincoln District also deserves special attention to make sure that our near-downtown neighborhoods are part of our cultural center,” states attorney Larry James, who is overseeing the renovation of the historic Lincoln Theater near the King Arts Complex. “This would include CCAD, the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus State, the King Arts Complex, the Lincoln Theater and all of the King-Lincoln District. These entities will provide a great opportunity to showcase our cultural gems.”
Columbus City Council member Maryellen O’Shaughnessy offers a plan. “We should look at beginning programs to offer incentives (Housing? Healthcare? Studio space?) to artists priced out of places like NYC,” she says. “We need a cabinet-level position for the arts and cultural affairs.”
She adds, “And we need a real public art program, with art in the right-of-way, to stimulate our minds and lift our spirits out of our mindset of mediocrity.”
7. Take care of the neighborhoods
While a lot of effort is going into resurrecting downtown, the folks who live outside the center city are trying to get attention, too: Don’t forget about taking care of the streets and sidewalks, cracking down on negligent landlords, enforcing city codes.
“Columbus needs to continue reinvesting in its older urban neighborhoods,” says Gary Baker, chairman of the Greater Hilltop Area Commission. “A great city is made up of great neighborhoods.”
Attorney Eric Martineau only asks that the city upgrade the sewer system “so that German Village no longer stinks.” Columbus City Attorney Rick Pfeiffer thinks life in the neighborhoods would be improved through a change in garbage collection: “Get rid of the 300-gallon residential trash containers. Substitute the 95s for each household.”
Charles Parker, president of the Devonshire Civic Association, calls for “more specific laws regarding multiple families residing” in dwellings. Too many people living in a home, he says, “causes nothing but friction in our neighborhoods.”
Mayor Coleman mentions “cleaning up neighborhoods and vacant homes that have endured a generation of neglect.” It is a notion OSU athletic director Gene Smith supports: “Addressing empty lots and homes and going after landlords is a good idea for the city.” Says Carol Stewart, president of the Franklinton Historical Society: “Our neighborhoods would be very clean if each of us would habitually pick up litter.”
OSU president Karen Holbrook highlights one neighborhood in particular. “The opening of Gateway Center with its exciting new retail and housing opportunities at the south edge of campus calls attention rather dramatically to the need for revitalization of the rest of the off-campus neighborhood,” she says. “Further improvements in housing and other amenities in the area east of campus are essential to making this neighborhood a draw not only for Ohio State’s 50,000 main-campus students, but also for faculty, staff and other urban dwellers looking for a unique university atmosphere.”
8. Embrace diversity
Columbus no longer is a white-bread city. More than 100,000 people show up for the gay Pride parade, while conservative estimates put the Latino population at up to 60,000—not to mention 45,000 Somalis and 35,000 Indians and Asians.
This change has resulted in progress and conflict. “The social fabric of Columbus is rich with cultural, ethnic and racial diversity,” says Mary Jo Hudson, the first openly gay Columbus City Council member. “There are some civic and community leaders who unfortunately fail to embrace the diversity in their own neighborhoods and groups.”
Cindy Cecil Lazarus, head of the YWCA Columbus, calls for a “major communitywide celebration of diversity.” Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Anne Taylor suggests, “We need to exert a greater effort to bridge the language and cultural gaps in order to assist our foreign-born neighbors. Likewise, if you
were born here, now’s the time to learn about life in other countries.” Nonprofit groups should be at the forefront of “strengthening understanding among an increasingly diverse populace,” says attorney Alex Shumate.
While Columbus has a reputation of being gay friendly, some respondents note that the heated debates on gay marriage and domestic benefits could cause the city to lose talented gays and lesbians. “Columbus should view itself as an alternative to Chicago and New York and not Chillicothe and Coshocton,” says Rajesh Lahoti of Roy G. Biv Inc.
9. Better marketing
Ben Espy has a solution to the city’s quest for a national image. The former Columbus City Council member suggests a slogan: “Discover Yourself in Columbus.” He explains, “We have some of the greatest educational institutions, art and cultural facilities, physical-fitness programs and social organizations in the country. I discovered a part of myself three years ago when I found that the Ohio State University offered music lessons for adults.”
Echoing that thought is Peter Scantland of Orange Barrel Media. “We should highlight the innovation and creativity occurring daily at the Ohio State University, Battelle, Limited [Brands] and countless others. This will help us attract better students and talented young folks who usually end up on the coasts.” He adds, “We should establish a commission charged with studying cities of similar size that have a better image, and implement their successful strategies. Why does Portland, Oregon, have such a positive image when Columbus doesn’t?”
One way to do that is through humor, according to Katharine Moore, executive director of the German Village Society. “At the core of every German Villager’s strong sense of place is an appreciation for our quirky shared humor,” she states. “Columbus is full of funny, clever people. We should celebrate that!”
George Tombaugh, superintendent of Westerville schools, suggests Columbus isn’t thinking big enough: “Market Columbus for international competition.” Also, Bill Schaefer, former superintendent of Upper Arlington schools, notes that we need to recognize “Columbus is more than merely the home of or the city in which the Ohio State University is located.”
And Denny Griffith, president of the Columbus College of Art & Design, points out that the city’s “poor ‘brand’ recognition” is a problem for him—“one that we struggle with as we seek to recruit the country’s top design and art students to attend CCAD.”
10. Attitude adjustment
Perhaps Columbus needs self-esteem counseling. Or at least follow the example of Al Franken’s character Stuart Smalley and tell itself each morning: We’re good enough, we’re smart enough and, doggone it, people like us!
Mayor Mike Coleman talks about developing a sense of “Columbus Pride,” looking for “new ways to build upon that attitude and quality of life, and I try to challenge people in neighborhoods, companies and all walks of life to step up and be bolder in everything they do.”
“We need a boost of self-confidence,” adds Gary Baker, chairman of the Greater Hilltop Area Commission. “The kind of self-confidence that allows people to feel good enough about their community that they brag about where they are from when they are out of town.” Notes Bob Milbourne, president of the Columbus Partnership, “Columbus needs a personality adjustment. We are the 15th-largest city in the country and should act accordingly. Our self-deprecation and low self-esteem need a jolt. The fact is that Columbus has huge potential and simply needs to raise the bar for what we expect of ourselves.”
Writing about a different kind of attitude, Mary Yost of the Ohio Hospital Association asks people to smile more and “look for ways to brighten someone’s day,” while Columbus City Council aide Lelia Cady suggests, “Columbus could use more eccentricity. More people who make you look twice.”
Ray Paprocki is editor of and Joel Oliphint an editorial assistant for Columbus Monthly.