30 over 30
The OSU football team after winning the national championship by upsetting the Miami Hurricanes in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Dan Trittschuh
This story appeared in the June 2005 issue of Columbus Monthly.
A lot happens over 30 years, but certain moments stand out. They become part of a city’s shared vocabulary, reduced to a short-hand reference: Woody’s punch, Bucky’s affair, the death of the C-J. These events helped shape the city’s self-image, its future, its conversation.
Some were serious, with impact on growth patterns and jobs and livelihoods, such as court-ordered busing and the building of the James cancer center. Some came with trumpets blaring, such as the opening of City Center and the arrival of Baryshnikov. Some were out of the spotlight, their importance not known until later, such as Dimon McFerson’s gazing through an office window and Les Wexner’s getting lost on a mountaintop.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the founding of Columbus Monthly, the magazine’s senior staff—collectively representing more than 140 years of journalistic experience in the city—compiled a list of events that have occurred since the premier issue in June 1975. From that list, a top 30 eventually emerged. Many are familiar, a few not so, and a handful more interesting than significant. Frankly, it was difficult to include three events related to Ohio State football. But, on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine any happening that matched the passion each generated.
Besides, we are what we are.
Aug. 20, 1975
Perhaps no single development in the past 30 years has changed the face of Central Ohio as dramatically as I-270. The 55-mile outerbelt was responsible for the rise of a second ring of suburbs that exploded along I-270—especially Westerville, Gahanna, Dublin, Grove City and Hilliard, according to Bob Lawler, director of transportation for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.
In many cases, it wasn’t planned development, and some of the interchanges became poster children for congestion, such as the Sawmill Road ramps before their recent reconstruction. The outerbelt also hastened the retreat from downtown. No longer did people need to head to the city to work or play. COTA also suffered, says Lawler.
By the same token, I-270 helped boost the Central Ohio economy, as businesses—from major corporations in Dublin to the warehouse and distribution centers in southern Franklin County—sprang up as quickly as housing developments.
Here come the buses
March 8, 1977
It’s hard to overstate the significance of federal judge Robert Duncan’s decision in the case of Penick v. Columbus Board of Education. It would take two years and a U.S. Supreme Court decision to enforce his order to desegregate the schools, but when the buses began to roll, the city changed irrevocably.
Columbus received high marks for its initial reaction. Unlike cities such as Boston, which exploded into violence, Columbus peacefully complied with the court order (although the elementary school attended by Duncan’s daughter was evacuated because of a bomb threat). Also, there clearly were advantages for students of different races and classes sharing a classroom.
But the profound impact was on regional growth patterns. In short, middle-class flight. Gregory Jacobs, who attended Columbus Public Schools during the busing era, published a heavily researched book in 1998, Getting Around Brown, in which he concludes, “In essence, the health of the city school district was sacrificed to preserve the expansion of the city itself,” contending that city leaders created a “development safety valve, disengaging Columbus’s growth from the growth of Columbus schools.”
The facts are hard to dispute: Enrollment has dropped (from 111,000 in 1971 to 77,609 in 1979 to fewer than 61,000 today), new housing starts in Columbus were nonexistent until recently, and the district has struggled academically and financially. Critics contend the school system—which ended forced busing in 1996, nearly 11 years after the order was lifted—has become resegregated by race and class.
Wexner and the mountaintop
During a trip to Colorado, Les Wexner found himself in the middle of an unexpected snowstorm on top of a mountain. Not outfitted properly and lost, he thought about death, asking himself if he would be proud of his accomplishments. He wasn’t pleased with the answer.
And so the billionaire who became rich through the swift and massive success of The Limited began to share. Not just his money, but also his attention and time. His determined push into the civic life of Columbus changed the city immensely.
His influence extends to:
• The economy (the company, now named Limited Brands, remains one of the region’s largest employers).
• Philanthropy (tens of millions given to Ohio State, various arts organizations, Jewish causes, Children’s Hospital—not to mention $25 million for the Wexner Center for the Arts).
• Organization building (helped the Columbus Foundation and the United Way of Franklin County blossom into national leaders).
• Retail development (involvement in City Center and Tuttle malls, as well as the driving force behind the shopping and entertainment Mecca, Easton, which became a blueprint for similar attractions across the country).
And, of course, there’s the creation of the new New Albany, his encouragement of business tycoon Max Fisher to donate $20 million to the new OSU business school, his influence on architecture (from the controversial Peter Eisenman-designed Wexner and convention centers to the Georgian-style mansions of New Albany) and his large role in moving COSI from East Broad Street to the Scioto River (OK, not everything turned out so well).
When Wexner came off the mountaintop and plunged into civic affairs, his bold ideas and brash pronouncements—Columbus had the “worst downtown” in America and the Ohio Theatre should be razed—didn’t sit well with the old guard. Mayor Buck Rinehart once said talking to Wexner was like “talking to a tree.” Rumors were rampant that a frustrated Wexner would abandon his hometown for New York.
But over time, Wexner learned that engaging in civic affairs wasn’t the same as running a business, and, of course, he never left for the Big Apple. As he told Columbus Monthly previously about his mountaintop experience, “I think I have more balance in my life. I am much less selfish.”
A Titan dies
June 10, 1994
A visiting Italian journalist, after an afternoon talking with J.W. Wolfe, said of the patriarch of the powerful Wolfe family, “He’s like a character out of a movie.”
Indeed, John Walton Wolfe was larger than life, and his death signaled a major change in the city’s power structure. For nearly two decades he was the city’s most powerful man, and he enjoyed the role, using his influence to improve the community (see James center) and inflict considerable pain (see the sidetracked careers of Palmer McNeal, Larry Carey, Clyde Tipton, Buck Rinehart, Gordon Labuhn). Meeting with J.W. was a requirement for aspiring officeholders, as J.W. reveled in the role of the behind-the-scenes puppeteer, viewing political and civic affairs as a blood sport.
Gruff, down-to-earth, at times charming, Wolfe was the opposite of the city’s other top power player, the philosophical and sophisticated Les Wexner. Perhaps that was why opposing camps broke out in the 1980s when the billionaire and his big ideas began to threaten J.W.’s rule.
After his death, a new day dawned and now Wexner and the new Wolfe patriarch, Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe, are close civic allies. John F. Wolfe—calm, quiet, less vindictive—also has made an important change in an influential institution: the city’s only daily newspaper, the Dispatch, which over the past decade has shifted from being a lapdog with an occasional political agenda to a respected journalistic enterprise.
J.W.’s supporters and detractors will argue about his legacy. But no one can disagree that his death left the city a less interesting and colorful place.
Buck’s affair goes public
Nov. 13, 1990
Buck Rinehart was a brash, roll-up-your-sleeves street politician—a Republican Wonder Boy, elected mayor in 1983 at the age of 37 and then reelected—unopposed—in 1987. There were rumblings about a J.W. Wolfe-backed run at the governor’s mansion.
Controversy was his shadow, whether it was guiding a wrecking ball into the Ohio Pen without proper authority or trying to give away Columbus’s Roy Lichtenstein sculpture “Brushstrokes in Flight” without, well, proper authority. On occasion there was scandal, including the resurrection in 1988 of the unproven allegations of a decade-old sexual assault of a 13-year-old baby sitter.
Rinehart always survived, even thrived, during tough times.
In the fall of 1990, however, Rinehart’s political career finally imploded. For weeks, rumors had circulated about his having an affair with a cabinet official; the mayor insisted there was no other woman.
It was a lie, and the Dispatch—which previously had been an unabashed Rinehart supporter—and Channel 10 got a tip about a legal filing that contained a transcript of an apparently taped conversation between the cabinet member, Human Services director Brenda Dodrill, and her then-husband. During the conversation, she revealed the salacious details of a love affair with her boss. Channel 10 aired a brief and sketchy report, but the next day the Dispatch printed the entire document. A stunned city read every word.
Barely a month later, Rinehart recklessly insisted he would run for a third term, pounding a podium to accentuate his words, “I . . . love . . . this . . . city.” But it was too late. Support from the party and the Titans, especially J.W. Wolfe, had shifted to former City Attorney Greg Lashutka, who was anointed after a meeting at the Columbus Club. Rinehart soon bailed out.
“The Buck years were fun years,” says former Dispatch reporter Scott Powers, who helped break the story about Rinehart’s affair. “He was the kind of guy who would try everything and occasionally something would stick. But his antics were adding up to a record of someone out of control, and the Titans were getting more and more nervous. In the end, they brought in a cleaner, safer candidate in Lashutka. A lot less got accomplished, but a lot less got screwed up.”
The unveiling of the Wexner Center
Nov. 16, 1989
Shortly after Ed Jennings was hired as president of Ohio State in 1981, he called Andrew Broekema, dean of the College of the Arts, and Jonathan Green, director of the University Gallery of the Fine Arts, into his office and directed them, according to Green, to “find a way to put this university on the map in terms of signaling its commitment to the arts and humanities.”
Their solution was grand: one of the world’s foremost museums of contemporary art. A much-publicized competition for an architect drew big names, and in the end the university ensured its idea would remain in the national spotlight when it selected the controversial Peter Eisenman to mold the building’s image. A $25 million donation from Limited Brands founder Les Wexner, dedicated to his father, Harry, helped make certain the project wouldn’t be short-changed.
The massive, angular, glass-covered structure took four years to complete and opened without a single piece of artwork on exhibit. The Wexner Center itself was the debut exhibit. The worldwide buzz over the building, however, would not overshadow the museum’s mission for long. The focus of the center quickly became an intellectual pursuit of commissioned new works from the most creative minds of contemporary art, ranging from performance artist Laurie Anderson to composer Philip Glass to choreographer Twyla Tharp.
“The Wexner Center distinguished Columbus from other cities in the United States,” says Ray Hanley, executive director of the Greater Columbus Arts Council. “Other than the Walker in Minneapolis, there are very few museums of a sizable, professional level that focus exclusively on contemporary works. It made a statement that Columbus is serious about being a player in the arts world.”
It also helped elevate the expectations of the other arts organizations in town. “Internally, it set a level that a lot of our other institutions were trying to attain,” Hanley says. “Columbus had a bit of an inferiority complex. That went away within a few years of the Wexner opening. It set a standard for our other institutions to achieve.”
CNN town meeting: The whole world is watching
Feb. 18, 1998
With the Clinton administration talking loud about bombing Iraq for the sins of Saddam Hussein, it chose to gain public support by holding town hall meetings across the country. The first would be at Ohio State, televised live on CNN and broadcast around the world. The idea was that Central Ohio would be a friendly venue for Clinton’s foreign policy team—Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger—to make its case.
Talk about a miscalculation. About 6,000 people in St. John Arena surrounded the elaborate stage holding the White House officials and CNN anchors Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff. Things got ugly real fast. Protesters began to heckle and chant. (“One, two, three, four! We don’t want your racist war!”) One man got into a shouting match with Shaw. When Cohen started to make a point by saying, “Well, I’m from Maine,” someone in the crowd screamed, “Maine sucks!” Administration supporters in attendance shouted back. Seven people were ejected, one arrested.
It was more than just random chaos, though. There also were tough, probing questions demanding serious answers. Afterwards, pundits and members of Congress wondered if the Clinton plan had backfired, while others complained that the protesters sent the wrong message to Saddam. A New York Times editorial stated the event was a “fascinating barometer of a country divided . . . the division on display in Columbus bears close watching by President Clinton and others.”
A few days later, the crisis in Iraq lessened when the U.N. brokered a deal with Hussein. But by December the United States military bombed the country for four days. For a day in February, however, Columbus played a significant role on the international stage.
Dimon McFerson’s arena decision
May 7, 1997
In the spring of 1997, the National Hockey League approved an application for a Columbus franchise on one condition—that the new team would have a place to play. But on May 6, voters rejected a
0.5 percent, three-year sales tax increase to pay for not only a hockey arena, but also a soccer stadium for the Columbus Crew. Both were to be built on the site of the abandoned Ohio Penitentiary.
A day after the defeat, Nationwide CEO Dimon McFerson stepped into the office of his chief financial officer, Bob Woodward, and gazed through the 37th-story window that overlooked the Pen site. “We can’t let a golden opportunity pass us by,” he said. “There has to be another way.”
By June 2, beating the NHL’s deadline by two days, McFerson announced Nationwide’s plan to foot most of the bill for a new 20,000-seat arena (the Dispatch agreed to partner for 10 percent), salvaging Columbus’s hopes for its first major professional sports team. Soon came another announcement about an even bigger plan: to complement the arena with restaurants, bars, a movie theater, apartments and office space—“a place to work, a place to play, a place to live,” said McFerson at the time.
Three years later, the Columbus Blue Jackets made their debut before a sellout crowd inside Nationwide Arena, the heart of the $500 million Arena District redevelopment project that has become a Central Ohio destination spot. “In hindsight, it’s gone beyond what any of us thought it could be,” says McFerson. “I’ve heard it said that the Arena District has moved the center of town four blocks north. It’s a fun place.”
Woody Hayes: The punch
Dec. 29, 1978
As punches go, it was a glancing blow at best. In fact, Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman would later say he didn’t even feel it. But the impact of The Punch was perhaps as great as any ever thrown in sports history.
Ohio State was trailing Clemson 17-15 in the Gator Bowl late in the game, but the Buckeyes had the ball within field-goal range. Quarterback Art Schlichter, however, threw a pass that was intercepted by Bauman, who ran out of bounds near the Ohio State bench. He was met by legendary Buckeye coach Woody Hayes. In one of his notorious fits, Hayes grabbed Bauman and fired a wild right hook that landed somewhere around Bauman’s throat while a national television audience watched.
The melee that ensued was short-lived. The aftershocks, however, lasted much longer. A day later, OSU athletic director Hugh Hindman fired the 65-year-old Hayes, who had turned the Buckeyes into a national football power and Columbus into a great football town.
According to OSU football historian Jack Park, on the very play that Bauman had picked off Schlichter, Buckeye flanker Doug Donley had slipped unchecked past the Clemson secondary and was “open by 10 yards.” Parks says, “Had Schlichter seen Donley, it probably would have been a touchdown and Woody probably would have been coaching the next year.”
Hayes, who would eventually rehab his reputation and rekindle good relations with OSU, died at his modest Upper Arlington home on March 12, 1987. Former president Richard Nixon delivered the eulogy, quoting Sophocles: “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”
Opening night at Polaris Amphitheater
June 18, 1994
At age 23, Scott Stienecker had bought the former Columbus Agora and turned it into the Newport Music Hall in 1984. But, he says, “It seemed like everything we were making in the fall and winter, we were losing in the summers. We definitely needed an outdoor venue.”
It would take Stienecker and his partners seven years to complete the $15 million project that’s part of the huge Polaris development in southern Delaware County. Then things got off to a bumpy start. The Moody Blues, backed by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, were supposed to be the debut show. But a summer thunderstorm not only forced the show’s cancellation, it also washed the parking lot sealant into Westerville’s water supply, leading to a lawsuit—the start of a still contentious relationship with the amphitheater and its suburban neighbor, particularly over noise.
So Billy Ray Cyrus, Mr. “Achy Breaky Heart,” was the official first act. The fact that only 5,000 fans attended was not a harbinger. Soon the 20,000-capacity site—with covered seating and expansive green space—was attracting big crowds. The first season included a lineup the likes of which Columbus had never seen: the Eagles, James Taylor, Santana, Bette Midler, Bonnie Raitt, Phil Collins, Janet Jackson, Aerosmith.
“Before Polaris, Columbus was always viewed as a secondary market,” says Stienecker, who in 1997 sold his interest in Polaris (now called Germain Amphitheater). “The big-name headliners would pass us by for Cleveland and Cincinnati. Polaris put Columbus on the map.”
Chic comes to town
Aug. 18, 1989
It was 15 years in the making and the crown jewel of a massive and often troubled project known as Capitol South. But when it finally opened, City Center mall delivered on its long-awaited promise to bring big-city chic to Columbus. The three-level shopping complex brought a number of new high-rent retailers, such as Marshall Field’s, Gucci and Henri Bendel, to the Central Ohio market.
And shoppers flocked. For a few years, sales per square foot at City Center were among the highest in the country.
“These were stores that people used to go to Chicago to shop,” says Bob McLaughlin, director of downtown development. “It brought an economic and commercial energy to downtown for the first time in decades, and it was wildly successful for a few years.”
And though City Center has fallen on hard times—overshadowed by the next wave of malls (Tuttle, Polaris, Easton)—it injected a much-needed confidence boost for center-city supporters. “It demonstrated that, for the right experience, people would indeed come downtown,” says McLaughlin. “It was no small feat, occurring at a time when suburban sprawl was at its height. The trend was outward and away, and City Center reversed that, if only for the time being.”
Death of the C-J
Dec. 31, 1985
On Jan. 1, 1986, Columbus became a one-newspaper town. A day earlier, a joint-operating agreement between the Dispatch Printing Company and Scripps Howard, owner of the Citizen-Journal, expired and the C-J published its final edition, using on page one the banner headline “Goodbye, Columbus.”
The time leading up to its demise was a melodrama in its own right. Way back on Dec. 27, 1982, Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe had informed Scripps that the Dispatch Printing Company would not renew the contract to handle all the business functions of the C-J. Wolfe and Scripps board chairman Edward Estlow had met throughout 1983 and early 1984, with Scripps at one point offering to buy the Dispatch. The offer was declined.
Local attorney Thomas Tripp expressed interest in buying the C-J and turned heads briefly when he mentioned Les Wexner might provide financial backing. It never materialized. A proposed deal with Jerry Gordon, owner of the Sun Newspapers weekly chain in Cleveland, also fell through.
Then things got strange. In November 1986, an unknown Akron-area businessman, Nyles Reinfeld, announced he would save the paper—to the cheers of C-J staffers and readers. Soon, though, it was learned that Reinfeld, who had filed for bankruptcy in 1977 and had formed a not-for-profit organization with religious and right-wing political purposes, had no financial backing behind his optimistic words.
While the Dispatch, with a circulation nearly double the Citizen-Journal’s, already was the most powerful paper in town, the C-J was a feisty alternative. It was viewed as a straight-shooter (unlike the Dispatch, which was accused of protecting friends and punishing enemies) and a livelier read, with popular columnists Joe Dirck, Sam Perdue, Larrilyn Edwards and Mike Harden (now with the Dispatch).
“We had no sacred cows,” says Seymour Raiz, the former managing editor of the Citizen-Journal. “We were not allied to any political party or any business interests. I think people appreciated that.” Raiz says there’s still a “vestige of nostalgia” for the Citizen-Journal, nearly 20 years after its demise. “Mention it to those who remember, and their eyes still light up,” he says.
Lashutka doesn’t run
Dec. 1, 1998
Popular Republican mayor Greg Lashutka caught the city, and his own party, off guard by announcing he wouldn’t run for a third term in 1999. That decision created an opening for a cautious, yet ambitious politician—Democrat Mike Coleman—to change the political landscape of Columbus and, eventually, Franklin County.
When Coleman won the election, he became the first Democratic mayor of the city in 28 years, and its first African-American to hold the position. He built on that momentum to establish widespread community support, including the Republican business community, and was so entrenched the local GOP didn’t field a candidate against him in 2003. Freed from campaigning, Coleman spread his considerable political capital to other Democratic candidates, particularly those running countywide—a longtime Republican stronghold. By 2004, Democrats had won the majority of seats on the powerful Franklin County Commission and snagged key county offices.
The tide has shifted, with a politically savvy mayor (now running for governor) building a Democratic machine and the Republicans scrambling not to become irrelevant—an unlikely scenario if Lashutka had chosen to run one more time.
Oct. 12, 1992
The final day of AmeriFlora signaled the end of perhaps the biggest civic embarrassment in the city’s recent history. The giant flower show/entertainment festival at Franklin Park took seven years to plan, but the six-month salute to the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage began to unravel well before the gates opened. The event had been sold as a world-class centerpiece of the 1992 celebration, complete with promises of a Sky Tower, monorail and widespread international representation in a flower festival on a par with the famed European extravaganzas. Officials confidently projected attendance at four to five million visitors.
Reality was different. Gone were the gee-whiz factors and the prestigious flower show as the $95 million event battled budget shortfalls—private sponsors and ticket buyers never lined up as expected to complement the $30 million in public funds. Things got so bad that subcontractors began to file liens for payment, and AmeriFlora held a Schottenstein-like liquidation sale at the end to try to reduce the massive budget shortfall, estimated at the time at about $30 million. A good portion of that was covered by the various corporate guarantors, especially the event’s main supporter, the Dispatch Printing Company. For AmeriFlora’s overlord, Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe, who mainly had stayed in the shadows on community affairs, it was a painful debut as a major civic leader.
It wouldn’t be fair to call AmeriFlora an outright failure—tourists spent money at hotels and restaurants, an aged park received a makeover, President George Bush attended the opening ceremony. The biggest success story from the flower festival was the magnificent renovation of the Franklin Park Conservatory, which stumbled financially post-AmeriFlora until it found its stride under the innovative leadership of Paul Redman the past few years.
Otherwise, consider AmeriFlora a lesson learned about the confluence of big ambitions, excessive hype and poor planning.
Opening day of the new COSI
Nov. 6, 1999
The city’s leadership—from Titans to public officials—all enthusiastically supported the Big Idea to move COSI, the beloved science museum, from its cramped space on East Broad Street to the former Central High School site on the west bank of the Scioto River. The relocation would not only give COSI more space to pack in all those school kids on field trips, but also trigger a renovation of the depressed Franklinton area. A win-win, for sure.
And the mood was jubilant on opening day, with dignitaries smiling widely and congratulating each other about the fabulous new building (a mix of the old—Central—and the new—a long, canoe-shaped structure—that already was getting national attention).
Things looked grand at first as 1.2 million visitors visited the new space; it appeared certain that this was $125 million well spent. But then a funny thing happened on the way to a happy-ever-after ending: A tidal wave of complaints. It’s too big, too sterile, too pricey, too boring. We want our old COSI back. Folks stopped coming (not even half as many as projected) and a number of serious miscalculations caused red ink and budget cuts. A tax levy in 2004 failed miserably, forcing the museum into drastic cutbacks (closing for two days a week and shutting down certain exhibits), and this year COSI head Kathy Sullivan announced her resignation.
Talk about a fall from grace.
Besides COSI’s reputation, other casualties were the Open Shelter, used by the city’s hardcore homeless, and its maverick director, Kent Beittel. In preparation for COSI’s move—to make sure visitors weren’t scared off by panhandlers—civic and political leaders, along with the Community Shelter Board, enacted an overall plan to deal with the homeless issue. It included relocating the Open Shelter, which was a hefty beer-bottle toss away from the new COSI. Beittel and his supportive board bucked the powers that be, however, and stayed put, but only temporarily.
Now, the facility is gone and Beittel, for so long the passionate, eloquent and abrasive voice of those without shelter, is like a knight who’s lost his sword.
July 23, 1987
For all the significant arts happenings in the city over the past 30 years, it’s hard to match the sheer sensation caused by the booking of Mikhail Baryshnikov to perform at the Ohio Theatre as a fundraiser for BalletMet. At that time, the great dancer was at the peak of his life as a superstar celebrity and sex symbol. Tickets went for up to $250; a crowd greeted his plane at Lane Aviation; more than 800 people crammed into a ballroom of the Hyatt on Capitol Square for a glimpse of him at a post-performance reception.
His appearance was a financial boost for BalletMet (netting $250,000, increasing season subscriptions and indirectly helping the company later move to a new building). It also was a collective confidence boost for little ol’ fly-over Columbus.
John McFall, BalletMet’s artistic director at the time, who’d previously worked with Baryshnikov, says, “It was just huge for us. It caused a stir. [Mayor] Bucky Rinehart wanted to do the curtain speech. I had to tell him no. It was too obvious. Everyone wanted to be a part of it.” McFall, now with the Atlanta Ballet, remembers walking with Baryshnikov into the Hyatt reception. “I’d never seen anything like it, and haven’t since. It was astonishing, the effect, absolutely remarkable. Everyone was moving toward him, their hand out. It was scary.”
The dedication of One Nationwide Plaza
May 4, 1978
It may seem quaint now, but in the early 1980s an evening’s entertainment was walking through the sparkling new Ohio Center/Hyatt hotel to a series of walkways that carried you over High Street to One Nationwide Plaza to ride the exterior, glass elevator (whoa!) to the lobby of the top-floor One Nation restaurant before returning to earth.
The 1978 opening of the 40-story headquarters of the insurance giant, however, was more significant than giving the masses a simple thrill ride. Propelled by the vision of its CEO, Dean Jeffers, Nationwide salvaged northern downtown by investing not only $80 million in One Nationwide, but eventually millions more in two other complexes—and in doing so, triggered the building of the Ohio Center, the Hyatt, the Ohio Worker’s Compensation tower, AEP headquarters, the Greater Columbus Convention Center and, much later, the Arena District.
Who knows what the downtown landscape would look like today if Jeffers had moved Nationwide to property it owned in Delaware County. “I am very thankful as the head of downtown development for the city of Columbus that they made that decision,” says Bob McLaughlin. “It’s not possible to overstate the possible consequences of having made that decision to stay in downtown Columbus.”
James Center opening
July 9, 1990
It wasn’t the best of starts. Just days before the opening of the James cancer center in late 1989, a water line broke inside the $54 million hospital and research institute. News reports indicated 400,000 gallons of water rushed through the building at Ohio State, causing an estimated $1 million in damages. It took six months to fix the mess, which apparently wasn’t a big deal to Arthur G. James, the project’s prime mover. After all, the physician had spent 30 years trying to build the place—finally succeeding after enlisting Columbus’s major civic leaders, especially Wolfe family patriarch J.W. Wolfe, to help persuade the Ohio General Assembly to fund most of the initiative.
James, who died in 2001, lived long enough to see developer Richard Solove donate $20 million to the facility in 1999 and witness the hospital’s aggressive recruitment of star cancer researchers, such as Michael Caligiuri and the husband-and-wife team of Albert de la Chapelle and Clara Bloomfield. In just the past five years, the James has brought in about 90 researchers to try to unlock the biological, molecular and genetic secrets behind the devastating disease. There has been a steady stream of headlines in the scientific and popular press on breakthroughs regarding, for instance, colon and breast cancers. Aside from research, the James provides care and treatment for tens of thousands of patients in a state with some of the nation’s highest death rates for cancer.
The facility also is noteworthy for bearing perhaps the longest and most awkward name of any Central Ohio institution: The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center—Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute.
Jennings fires Bruce
Nov. 16, 1987
Two days after the Ohio State football team lost its third straight game, a last-second 29-27 defeat to Iowa at Ohio Stadium, OSU athletic director Rick Bay took a phone call from the school’s president, Ed Jennings. “You asked last week if it was a done deal,” Bay heard Jennings say. “Now, it’s a done deal.” Unpopular Buckeye football coach Earle “9-3” Bruce would be fired.
When the axing was announced, all hell broke loose, with the university on the whipping end of a harsh backlash. Somehow, the very same fans who despised Bruce just days before were now apoplectic about the coach getting screwed . . . during Michigan week.
Events rolled along at a breakneck pace: Bay resigned rather than be a party to the Bruce firing; Jennings laid low; Bruce hired the brutally effective attorney John Zonak; protesters rallied to support Bruce (who was serenaded at home by the OSU band); OSU trustees (and even Gov. Dick Celeste) tossed dirt at Bruce, but gave conflicting stories about the firing; Zonak dropped a devastatingly potent $7.44 million lawsuit on OSU the afternoon before the Michigan game and later accused Jennings of “carousing and excessive drinking”; OSU players wore “Earle” headbands while upsetting Michigan at Ann Arbor and carried their coach off the field. In the end, OSU brought in its own high-powered attorney, John Elam, and soon the parties agreed to a $471,000 settlement to Bruce.
As Columbus Monthly wrote at the time, “Heroes, villains, victims . . . seven days of juicy speculation and character assassination. . . . By the end of the week, careers are in tatters, Columbus is a joke to much of the rest of the country, and the entire community is shaken. All because a football coach got fired.”
New Albany: Jack and Les take a ride
We all know the story by now: Les Wexner driving his Land Rover with his buddy Jack Kessler on the rural roads of the vast emptiness of northeast Franklin County. They ride through a bump-in-the-road of a village called New Albany and Wexner has a vision thing. “You know, Jack, I want to build a house in the country.”
From that idea sprang an astonishing (and immediately controversial) creation—the entire transformation not only of tiny New Albany, but also a way of thinking. Its enormity, boldness and arrogance dominated the news at its inception, from the battles over annexation, water, sewer and schools to the uppity marketing campaign. And, of course, that house, Wexner’s mansion the size of a football field under roof. Suddenly, former burbs-to-aspire-to Bexley, UA and Dublin were overshadowed by this Georgian Colossus bordered by white fences in pursuit of The Best, whether it was the tony country club, the design of a mailbox or as a leader in planned growth.
There’s no denying its impact and continued fascination: a boom of million-dollar houses, a who’s who list of residents, the catalyst for northeast Franklin County development, the influx of glamorous events (a Jimmy Connors tennis tournament, an LPGA event, the Wexners’ equestrian weekend, community and political fundraisers, visits by such notables as Margaret Thatcher).
As Wexner said in 2000 after New Albany had taken root, “It is pleasing to see the fact that my idea of quality is appreciated by others.”
Goodbye Bank One
April 13, 1998
A big front-page Dispatch headline announced the news: “Merger produces Midwest giant.” Bank One—the city’s biggest bank, a huge player in civic affairs and run by three generations of the McCoy family—was merging with First Chicago NBD. It was good news, bad news.
Good news: The new entity would become one of the country’s largest banks. Bad news: Company headquarters would move to Chicago.
Talk about a sucker punch to Columbus’s collective psyche.
Bank One head John B. McCoy—who grew the business into a national force—was a civic heavyweight; nobody would move on a major issue without alerting him. After the merger, he sold his celebrated 21-room Bexley mansion (a former Carmelite nunnery) and moved to a six-bedroom co-op on Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive. The bank, of course, maintained a large employment base here (especially at Polaris), but its civic influence was diminished by the mere fact that its top brass no longer lived here.
The merger triggered a series of turbulent events that resulted in bank infighting, a stock price decline and McCoy’s resignation in 1999. For the first time in 65 years, someone not named McCoy was running the bank. And in the end, Bank One was gobbled up by the gigantic JPMorgan Chase.
Gordon Gee storms into town
Sept. 4, 1990
Appearances can be deceiving. Ohio State’s new president, the bespectacled, bow-tie wearing Gordon Gee, arrived in Columbus looking like a geek, the proverbial 98-pound weakling. But for seven years, until he left to run Brown University, Gee was perhaps the most popular figure in the city. His charm lay in a quick wit and endless energy, as well as a penchant for participating in just about anything (such as the time, for charity, he wore a green Velcro suit and vaulted off a trampoline onto a Velcro wall).
Gee’s mission was to spread the word about Ohio State, and he toured every county in Ohio at least twice in his first few years. He was a master at working a crowd. “I’ll never forget the first day I met him,” says Greg Brown, who would become his assistant. “There were like 2,000 people there to welcome him, and I was just one of the hands he shook that day. Two weeks later, I’m walking across the Oval and I pass him and he says, ‘Greg, how are you?’ It was just phenomenal. And for the next three years, I saw him have that effect time and time again all across the state.”
The Gee years at Ohio State also involved considerable heavy lifting: overseeing a large restructuring of the university, fighting for funds with the state legislature during tight budgets, outmaneuvering the city of Columbus to secure $15 million from the state for construction of the Schottenstein Center, standing firm despite complaints from students and small businessmen to champion the Campus Partners initiative.
Critics contend he helped foster the school’s Football U. image by tirelessly supporting the athletic programs and approving athletic director Andy Geiger’s massive facilities plan (including a renovated Ohio Stadium), which left OSU with a mountain of debt.
But on the other hand, Gee raised a ton of money. “University presidents weren’t seen as fundraisers and spokesmen then,” says Brown. “That’s an important aspect of the job now, and Gordon was one of the first to see it. He was a pioneer.”
Rigsby’s first dish
Sure, the opening of Dale Gussett’s L’Armagnac in 1976 was a watershed moment in Columbus’s culinary history—the French restaurant introduced a level of fine dining quite unlike anything the city had seen before. But 10 years later, Kent Rigsby—a graduate of Lindey’s with bold ideas and a temperament to match—ratcheted up the culinary quality with Rigsby’s Cuisine Volatile.
With the backing of his father (a prominent local doctor) and some high-rolling family friends, including developers Jack Kessler and Dan Galbreath, Rigsby injected an exciting, refined West Coast chic to a ho-hum Columbus restaurant scene.
Patrons stumbled over themselves for a table. “It was an instant success,” says Kessler. “It was very comfortable, like a neighborhood restaurant because all your friends were there at their usual tables. But first and foremost, the food was outstanding.”
In 1992, it was the first restaurant to receive Columbus Monthly’s highest rating—five stars. As we said then, “Rigsby’s features what is mostly avant-garde American food with an Italian touch. Frequently this means zesty . . . and unusual combinations of ingredients. In some restaurants this kind of creativity gets out of hand, but Rigsby’s trendy cuisine is . . . imaginative, but not self-conscious. And the execution is extraordinary.”
Perhaps just as important, Rigsby’s (now called Rigsby’s Kitchen) was a catalyst for the rebirth of the Short North. “When he said he wanted to start his own restaurant, I thought it would be really great,” says Kessler. “When he picked the Short North, it dumbfounded me.” Rigsby, however, shared a vision with developer Sandy Wood that this dilapidated stretch of North High Street could be transformed into something special. Within a few years, the Short North was one of the nation’s urban-redevelopment success stories.
Hip and the Hop
Oct. 6, 1984
In a town desperately seeking to escape its cowtown image, a simple marketing idea gave the city something tangible to point to and say: See, we’re hip. On the first Saturday of each month, the galleries in the emerging art district of the Short North would stay open late. People could browse, perhaps buy, socialize. The Hop quickly became a happening, attracting everybody from punks in black boots to suburban couples pushing baby strollers to art lovers. It was just as much fun to watch the crowds as it was to view the art.
The Hop, still popular after more than two decades, also called attention to the remarkable turnaround of the seedy section of town between downtown and Ohio State. In the early 1980s, developer Sandy Wood, working on a hunch that the rejuvenation of Victorian and Italian villages would shift to the neighboring Short North, started buying what he calls the “dilapidated, run-down, drug-infested” commercial properties along High Street.
Building on what little was there—the Short North Tavern and a couple of small galleries—he offered ground-floor space to artists and craftsmen for “next to nothing,” he says. Wood hoped other people would be drawn to the scene. He realized, though, the district couldn’t survive on the arts alone, so he attracted a mix of tenants—a big coup was luring chef Kent Rigsby to open a restaurant. He also set high standards for design and renovation, which has helped the Short North continue to grow as an attractive business and residential community.
“We were saying, ‘There’s a lot going on here. This is the place to be.’ We said it, and it became true,” says Wood. “It was one step at a time, one project at a time. I must admit, it’s turned out better than I ever anticipated.”
June 30, 1999
Limited Brands founder Les Wexner, the brains behind Easton, has written that he thinks the massive northeast-side development “has had the single largest economic impact on Columbus in the history of our city.” It’s hard to argue the point when you consider the 25,000 jobs and $84 million in tax revenue. Or, that it’s become a major tourist attraction; a leader in the next retail wave (from traditional malls to a town setting); a national prototype for mixed use; the kind of “downtown” the real downtown Columbus struggles to be.
That is, a destination to shop, eat, watch a movie, stroll, people-watch—in addition to a place folks can work and live. Easton has changed the leisure habits of a city.
The development has created buzz by attracting such new-to-market brands as Nordstrom, Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel (which just opened), Cheesecake Factory, Smith & Wollensky and more. Add to the mix the city’s largest movie theater (30 screens), a 75,000-square-foot Chiller ice rink, a massive Life Time Fitness, a GameWorks, a Funny Bone Comedy Club & Cafe and Shadowbox Cabaret. It is the dining hot spot: Five of the area’s top-10 restaurants in terms of sales are located at Easton.
“It’s a credit to the vision of Les Wexner in terms of the tremendous architecture, the layout, the design and planning, the world-class mix of tenants and the outdoor shopping experience,” says retail analyst Chris Boring.
The beginnings of Red, White & Boom
July 4, 1981
Nothing brings people downtown like Red, White & Boom, one of the best-attended fireworks displays in the country. A crowd of about 500,000 descends annually on the downtown streets for the Fourth of July display.
Its beginnings were humble: In fact, current and former organizers can’t agree on the details. But it’s clear that after years of no downtown fireworks shows, one was held on the riverfront in 1981–although a newspaper listing didn’t refer to it as Red, White & Boom. The Dispatch indicated “thousands” attended the event, which was sponsored by WNCI.
The Boom we know today began to take form in 1986, with the addition of WCMH-TV and Pepsi as sponsors; it encompassed the entire riverfront area, with the city agreeing to close a number of downtown streets to accommodate the growing crowds.
Boom also has had its share of woes, the worst occurring in 1995 when Columbus police officer Keith Evans was struck and killed by a hit-and-run motorist (later apprehended) while directing event traffic. That same year, dubbed “Red, White & Gloom” in a Dispatch editorial, a 10-year-old boy was injured by a stray bullet as he sat near the Broad Street Bridge.
But year in, year out, Red, White & Boom has become the city’s biggest party, a community gathering of mega proportions that’s an integral part of Columbus’s social fabric.
The zoo hires Jack Hanna
Nov. 14, 1978
Granted, the Columbus Zoo had its moment in the sun in 1956 as the home to the birth of the first captive gorilla. But it was an average attraction, at best. Until, that is, Columbus Recreation and Parks head Mel Dodge launched a nationwide search for a new director. What he found was a wacky Tennessean with a Midas touch named Jack Hanna.
Hanna, a Muskingum College graduate, had turned around the Knoxville Zoo and started to work with the cohost of the country’s best-known animal show, “Wild Kingdom.” In a 1985 Columbus Monthly story, Hanna said he realized he faced a tough job when he arrived in Columbus and neither the pilot nor his cab driver knew the city had a zoo.
The zoo wasn’t overlooked for long. In his first years here, Hanna accepted every speaking engagement offered, from the local Rotary to grade-school assemblies, and was a firm believer in the credo, “Never make an appearance without an animal in tow.” Publicity wasn’t his middle name. It was his first name. In 1985, he got Enrico Wallenda to walk a tightrope over a pit of Bengal tigers. Although the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums complained, more than 15,000 people attended. When asked what he’d have done if Wallenda had fallen into the pit, Hanna said he guessed he’d have had to shoot one or the other.
His manic personality, ready quips and funny anecdotes made him a natural for TV appearances, and soon he was spreading the word about the Columbus Zoo on “Good Morning America” and with David Letterman—usually while either getting bitten or chasing loose animals, such as the case of the fly-away crow in Letterman’s studio.
There was more than great PR involved. Hanna, now director emeritus, oversaw vast improvements and ambitious expansion plans at the zoo itself, making it a local favorite and one of the top facilities in the country. Last year, Franklin County voters strongly supported an $18.6 million tax levy to fuel continued growth over the next decade. In 2004, more than 1.4 million people visited the zoo—compared with 342,000 the year Hanna first arrived.
Bill Moss joins the school board
Jan. 4, 1978
Prior to taking a seat on the Columbus school board, Bill Moss told the Dispatch he had no desire to become a maverick. Maybe not. But we know what happened. Moss began his tenure railing against court-ordered busing and for nearly 30 more years rarely stopped complaining, hatching conspiracy theories, insulting fellow board members and turning board meetings into the theater of the surreal and the absurd. His antics at board meetings became routine yet remained startling, from showing up in military fatigues to banging a tasseled dress shoe repeatedly on a table.
At his worst, which was often, he was angry, mean-spirited, disruptive—creating chaos in an already struggling district. Yet he couldn’t be dismissed as a clown. Despite repeated organized attempts to oust him, including an unprecedented campaign by the Dispatch in 1999 (two front-page editorials), he won election to the school board five times. And at his best, he was funny, smart, eloquent—and at times right on target, especially when he exposed the $32,000 the Columbus chamber of commerce gave to incoming administrator Don Haydon to cover closing costs on his house—a transaction that ended up before the Ohio Ethics Commission.
In 2003, not enough voters supported his circus show and he lost his seat. In a town that likes to get along, Moss was one of its few hell-raisers. Maybe things are better without him, but they certainly are a lot quieter.
The Memorial’s debut
It’s no coincidence that the inspiration for the Memorial Tournament likely occurred at the 1966 Masters. The Masters was a tournament created by the greatest golfer in the world at the time, Bobby Jones, on a course Jones himself helped design in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia. “There was no doubt they were running the best golf tournament in the world,” says Nicklaus’s good friend Pandel Savic. “Jack said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do something like this in Columbus?’ By the end of the tournament, he told our friend, Ivor Young, a real estate attorney in town, to ‘Get on up there and start searching for a site.’ ”
It would take nearly a decade to purchase the necessary property and close the various deals, but Nicklaus persisted and gave his hometown one of its most anticipated events of the year. The tournament not only became (at the time) one of the area’s few major sporting events, but also a prime social happening. It was a big deal to get an invitation to a house or corporate party held near the course.
The first Memorial drew raves from both Central Ohio’s golf fans and Nicklaus’s PGA Tour peers, establishing the tournament on a rung just below the sport’s four majors. When Nicklaus—who’s won the most majors in the history of golf—finished first in his own tournament the following year, he called it “my greatest accomplishment in golf.”
There was more involved than just a golf course. The surrounding upscale housing development, Muirfield Village, helped begin the rapid growth that turned the lonely village of Dublin into a glitzy zip code and a booming suburb, fueling tremendous growth in northwest Franklin County.
National champions, at last
Jan. 3, 2003
Ohio State linebacker Cie Grant was sprawled on the turf of Sun Devil Stadium. He’d just caused Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey to flip an errant pass on the last play of the last overtime of the Fiesta Bowl. Grant was uncertain what had happened until he saw linebacker coach Mark Snyder. “We did it!” the senior heard him yell. “You came on that play. We’re national champions!”
For the first time since the 1968 season, the Ohio State football team finished No. 1, defeating the feared Miami Hurricanes, which had won 34 straight games. So many images are remembered from the classic that took three overtimes to decide: then-popular Maurice Clarett stripping the ball from a Miami defender after an interception, quarterback Craig Krenzel’s fourth-and-14 completion to Michael Jenkins, the late pass-interference penalty against the Hurricanes that stopped Miami’s premature victory celebration . . . and the streets of Columbus on that particular night, which were eerily empty as 84 percent of all televisions being watched were tuned into the game.
The city’s reaction—widespread celebration, including a crowd of about 50,000 people showing up at Ohio Stadium on Jan. 18 in frigid weather to cheer the team—cemented a fact that Columbus had been trying to downplay for years: It’s the world’s biggest college football town.