2014: The city and the Wexners go all-in on health care.

The glass and brick behemoth is more than just a building. When the Ohio State University James Cancer Hospital opened in December 2014, it was a $750 million stake in the ground for medical innovation and ambition in Columbus. The 21-story hospital—the largest facilities project in OSU history—replaced the university's previous cancer center with a technological marvel that features on-demand dining, cutting-edge operating rooms, a massive clinical trials unit and the country's second cancer emergency department. Speaking at the hospital's dedication ceremony, OSU president Michael Drake called it a “declaration of our commitment to health care and a monument of hope to all who will pass through these doors.”

The hospital also reflected a trend happening throughout the city. Over the past decade, health care has become an increasingly important part of the Central Ohio economy—the only major job sector that didn't decline during the Great Recession, says Columbus economist Bill LaFayette of Regionomics—and a nonstop hospital building boom at Ohio State and the three other major health systems has helped fueled that growth. In 2019, for instance, Mount Carmel Health System opened a new $361 million hospital in Grove City, OhioHealth employees moved into a new $90 million headquarters in north Columbus, and Nationwide Children's Hospital continued a $730 million expansion that includes a new psychiatric hospital and a fourth lab and office building for its growing research arm. According to the Ohio Hospital Association, hospitals had a $4.22 billion economic impact on the Columbus region in 2017 (the most recent data available), up from $3.8 billion the year before.

Read the rest of Columbus Monthly's Defining Decade series.

Given those numbers, it's not surprising that hospitals have become an increasingly important civic priority. Three years prior to the new James Cancer Hospital's opening, L Brands founder Les Wexner, the city's most important business leader and philanthropist, gave a record-setting $100 million gift to the university, most of which was to go to the university's sprawling $3.7 billion health care operation (now called the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center). The Wexner family also has left its mark on Nationwide Children's Hospital. Abigail Wexner, Les' wife, chaired the NCH board of directors from 2005 to 2012, a period that coincided with the largest expansion in the hospital's 127-year history. In total, the Wexner family has given more than $80 million to NCH, including a $20 million gift earlier this year to the Center for Family Safety and Healing. In May, NCH leaders recognized Abigail's contributions by renaming the hospital's research institute after her.

Meanwhile, Ohio State continues to expand its health care footprint, with a proposed medical tower in the works that will surpass the James as the university's biggest facilities project if all goes as planned. After stepping down from the OSU board of trustees in 2012, Les Wexner became the chairman of the med center board, where he continues to have great influence. “In some ways, one could argue that he's the most important individual shaping OSU,” says a former university leader, “even more than presidents. Presidents come and go, but he stays.”

And his top priority is the medical center that bears his name.

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