Columbus Monthly hosts a conversation among experts about the city's trajectory

In a night filled with compelling conversation, Columbus Monthly hosted a panel discussion May 3 at The Joseph hotel in the Short North. The evening, which featured nearly 200 guests, was a celebration of the magazine's renewed commitment to explanatory journalism, an expanded dining section and a new Home & Style section.

The event's centerpiece, however, was a discussion about the current state of Columbus, with an eye toward the future, featuring panelists Nancy Kramer (founder, Resource/Ammirati), Alex Fischer (CEO, Columbus Partnership), Cameron Mitchell (CEO, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants), Tanisha Robinson (founder, Print Syndicate) and Thomas McClure (founder, Fashion Week Columbus). The discussion was moderated by Columbus Monthly Publisher Ray Paprocki.

(Robinson speaks, with Kramer, Fischer and Mitchell listening in; photo by Jodi Miller)

The conversation was wide-ranging, touching on Columbus' "culture of collaboration," as Kramer called it-a drastic change from days in the not-too-distant past. She said the community once operated in a "Hunger Games fashion;" the city's politicians, business leaders and Ohio State administrators "looked out only for themselves" and worked only in their own silos.

That began to change, Kramer said, around 2000, when Mike Coleman was elected as mayor, Doug Kridler joined the Columbus Foundation and the Columbus Partnership opened its doors. Alex Fischer, the Partnership's CEO, said that he was brash enough during one of his first meetings with the Partnership to tell its stakeholders, "The problem is in the room. The door is shut." He told members of the influential civic group that they weren't engaging with the rest of the community. There were 15 members of the Partnership at the time and now there are 50, Fischer said. "The peer pressure between public and private now won't allow it to be any other way-the collaborative way."

The evening's discussion also featured a number of noteworthy moments.

When asked by Paprocki how he'd rate the city's dining scene from one to five forks, Cameron Mitchell replied "maybe two," eliciting a surprised gasp from the audience. Mitchell didn't hedge, instead clarifying that he included his own restaurants in that assessment. He sees the local restaurant industry as wide open and ripe for development; though he doesn't think it has changed much from 20 years ago, he expects it to be very different in another 20 or 30 years. Part of that push forward will come from a $30 million, 100,000-square-foot expansion and redevelopment of Columbus State's Culinary Hospitality School, he said, in which his company has been very involved. Mitchell opined that he could open as many as 14 new restaurants in the city in the next 10 years.

An audience member asked the panel about implementing a long-sought light-rail system in Columbus, and Alex Fischer shot the notion down, saying it would be silly to go back to a mode of transportation from the 1800s. He asserted that no child born today will even have a driver's license, pointing to autonomous cars as the way forward. He said that Columbus has an edge as technology bypasses rail, due in part to the city's dependency on an overbuilt road system and the presence of the country's only test track for autonomous vehicles in Marysville. He also mentioned Columbus' application for the DOT Smart City Challenge grant, which will fund up to $40 million toward one city's efforts to integrate self-driving cars, connected vehicles and smart sensors into its transportation system. Columbus is currently one of seven finalists for the award.

Columbus can't be a high-tech city on dial-up, said Tanisha Robinson-we need citywide fiber. She also asserted that the city needs more venture capital firms, like Rev1 Ventures and Drive Capital, to not only provide seed money for startups-in which the city has made strides in recent years-but to provide follow-up funding to nurture growth, which the city lacks. That means, Robinson said, that successful startups then move to other cities where capital is more obtainable. The city does offer accessible businesspeople who are willing to provide mentoring and advice. "There is not a single business leader in this town that you cannot get an introduction to," she said. "The cool kids give back."

Thomas McClure praised the city for the number of fashion designers here, mentioning its third-place ranking in the nation with more than 500. But to take the next step on the international fashion industry stage, he said, there needs to be manufacturing. "We truly have the potential to be recognized by the world," McClure said. "But you cannot sustain a fashion industry here without manufacturing."

The questions from members of the audience were pointed, even critical, seeking answers from the experts about issues on which they still considered Columbus to be lacking. The city is experiencing a moment of transition, with plenty of room for growth, but most panelists agreed that substantial progress has been made. Fischer summed up the outlook early in the evening: "I believe our good days are absolutely ahead of us."

Additional reporting and writing by Eric Lyttle