Central Ohio is more confident, vibrant and cosmopolitan than ever before. But with concerns on the horizon, is this as good as it gets?
Columbus is looking good these days. After a decade of growth, accomplishment and acclaim, the city is finding its place in the world. It's more confident, secure and ambitious. It no longer envies cool kids like Austin and Nashville. (Or at least not as much.) It's even ready to strut a bit. If this was a 1990s Hollywood teen movie, Columbus would take off its glasses, and Freddie Prinze Jr. would fall madly in love with it.
How did the city get to this point? To continue the cinematic analogy, credit goes to a large cast of characters. An artisan ice cream maker, a politician with swagger, a philanthropic power couple, even a grassroots fan movement helped the city grow up over the past decade. Together, their actions birthed a new city, and Columbus Monthly explores 10 key moments—one for each year—that helped bring about that transformation.
You can see those changes all over Columbus. A building boom has transformed the physical environment, bringing high-rises to the Short North, filling Downtown parking lots with luxury apartments and adding parkland to the long-ignored Scioto riverfront, as well as a new architectural gem, the National Veterans Memorial and Museum. There are also cultural and personality changes. Larger immigrant communities are adding to the city's diversity, as is a thriving gay community. The city has fostered a cooperative spirit that has even earned its own name—the Columbus Way, a phrase repeated so much in recent years it makes locals roll their eyes.
The economy is flourishing, too, with Columbus leading the Midwest in both job and population growth and exceeding ambitious economic targets few thought it could achieve 10 years ago. New companies, such as billion-dollar startups CoverMyMeds and Root Insurance, have given the city cachet as an up-and-coming tech community, while civic leaders—led by philanthropists Les and Abigail Wexner—have made health care a community priority, as exemplified by the growth of Nationwide Children's Hospital and the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
The accomplishments of the past decade have given the city more spunk. It won the Smart City Challenge, beating out 77 other midsized metros to become a testing ground for bold transportation ideas. It was a finalist for Amazon's HQ2 sweepstakes, and it was declared one of The New York Times' “52 Places to Go” in 2019, alongside Hong Kong, Tahiti, Dakar and other high-profile outposts. “You just have this sense that something different has happened in this decade,” says Alex Fischer, the CEO of the Columbus Partnership, which has been a driving force for much of the change that has occurred over the past 10 years. “Yes, you can quantify it with a bunch of different examples, but you also can quantify it with an attitude.” What's that new perspective? “We expect to win,” Fischer says.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the city's transformation is through the eyes of someone who's been gone a while. In 2006, Tanny Crane sent her daughter Tally Wolff off to college at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. After graduating in 2010 and spending four years working in Washington, D.C., and New York, Wolff decided to come home to earn an MBA at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. “She was blown away by the growth of Columbus,” Crane says. “She was blown away by the entrepreneurship, by the development of the Short North and Downtown, the buzz. She really witnessed a huge transformation being gone and then coming back.”Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Like her daughter, Crane left her hometown for college and started a new life elsewhere—until some intense lobbying from her father (three years of weekly phone calls) persuaded her to come back and work in the family business, the Crane Group, a Columbus conglomerate started by her grandfather in 1947. Now, the script has flipped for Crane, who's urging her daughter to join the Crane Group, but the pitch isn't as hard this time. Columbus has more to offer, especially for a young, ambitious person. And even though Wolff moved back to New York after finishing her MBA, she's told her mother that she plans to return home.
In fact, the biggest challenge Crane might face isn't getting her daughter to choose Columbus over the Big Apple. It's persuading her to work in the family business rather than start her own. Wolff got a taste of the city's growing entrepreneurial world through Fisher College, and she might want to go that way again. “There was an excitement about being part of the growth of Columbus for her—I think that's what she would say,” Crane says.
All this success begs a question: Could this be as good as it gets for Columbus? There are some concerns on the horizon.Disruptive economic forces are threatening key local industries—retail, insurance, automotive, even higher education. Columbus is a prosperous oasis in a declining state, which is raising concerns about the long-term sustainability of its growth. And while the decade has brought so much good news to Columbus, it also has brought to light concerns about poverty, particularly within the city, as well as institutional racism and police brutality.
Civic leaders aren't flinching at those challenges. They're realigning their economic development efforts around making the region the most prosperous in the country. That means continuing to grow as in the past 10 years, while also addressing inequality, poverty, affordable housing and other social concerns. The goal is to create a more equitable growth model—in other words, growing in a way that perhaps no other city has before. “Has this been the greatest decade? Absolutely,” Fischer says. “But it will not have been the greatest decade if the ensuing decades aren't tackling these problems.”***
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