It's called Columbus Partnership, and it includes most of the names you'd expect. They've kicked in to a kitty, set up an office, hired a high-ticket Milwaukeean who “loves to make things happen” and now they're ready to . . . what, exactly?
(This story originally appeared in the December 2002 issue.)
Whenever two or more Titans gather to discuss the city’s future, it is best to stay alert. And the Titans have been busy lately, joining or forming groups, hiring hired guns, inserting themselves even more directly into the process of how things get done in Columbus. Perhaps the most intriguing development is the emergence of the Columbus Partnership, a group of CEOs (you know which ones) that says it wants to do good.
What’s unclear, in differing degrees, is the who, what, when, where, why and how of doing that good. What is the Partnership’s purpose? How is it different from similar (or disbanded) groups? Where will it have an impact? When will it—if ever—rise above the suspicion that it’ll just run things behind closed doors? Who is Bob Milbourne, the high-priced Milwaukee recruit wooed here to run the Partnership? And why is it even needed since there’s the chamber of commerce and another new Titan-laden organization, the Columbus Downtown Development Corp.?
The Columbus Partnership actually started under a different name, Columbus Tomorrow, which essentially was the city’s business leaders meeting informally. Then Limited Brands founder Les Wexner and Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe began to formalize the informality. And in concert with the Wexner way, there was a lot of mulling: talking to consultants, researching the 20 or so other cities with Partnership-like groups and thinking, thinking, thinking. The result was an organization—a 501(c)3, complete with a soon-to-be office and small staff at the Huntington Center and a $600,000 to $700,000 budget.
The Partnership consists of 15 of the city’s top CEOs, who kicked in $50,000 apiece to grease the grooves. The “usual suspects,” as AEP head Linn Draper calls his Partnership allies, also include Cardinal Health’s Robert Walter, Ohio State’s Karen Holbrook, attorney Alex Shumate, Battelle’s Carl Kohrt, Huntington’s Tom Hoaglin, Nationwide’s W.G. Jurgensen, the New Albany Company’s Jack Kessler, Borden Chemical’s C. Robert Kidder, Worthington Industries’ John P. McConnell and Schottenstein Stores’ Jay Schottenstein. In addition, there are two members relatively new to the power scene: Tanny Crane of Crane Plastics and Tami Longaberger of the Longaberger Company. The one conspicuous omission is Ron Pizzuti, the developer who’s normally engaged in major civic actions. No one’s talking about his exclusion, except to say that the Partnership will add members later.
Now comes the hard part. Figuring out the Partnership’s purpose. One member says, “It’s hard to articulate, but we know what we’re doing.” Or, as Crane says, “We know what we’re not.”
The Partnership says it was not created to stiff-arm the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve heard people suggest that,” says chamber head Sally Jackson, referring to speculation that business leaders have been disappointed in the chamber’s performance. “Not accurate to say that this is in any way a negative reflection on the chamber.”
And it is not like the Columbus Downtown Development Corp.—Mayor Mike Coleman’s idea to implement his strategic plan for jump-starting the center city. (But it’s easy to confuse CDDC with the Partnership since both were recently formed, nine Partnership members also belong to CDDC and each group just hired an out-of-town hotshot as its president.)
So, again, what is the Partnership? When pressed, members say, “You should talk to Bob.”
That would be Bob Milbourne, who for 17 years was president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a highly influential yet hoary (54 years old) and large (185 members) civic group that shifted its focus under Milbourne’s guidance from capital improvements to social issues such as public education and minority unemployment.
The fact Milbourne lasted nearly two decades working for some of that city’s top leaders says something about his political skills. He’s described as savvy, progressive, patient, a policy wonk, a big arts supporter and a guy with friends in high places. (Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, of Milwaukee, invited him this fall to watch a couple of World Series games in the commissioner’s box.)
“He loves to make things happen,” says a supporter in Milwaukee. Says another, “He is good at getting people who are viewed as antagonists to work together.” A recent GMC accomplishment was a three-year, $52 million project to replace an old technical school in an inner-city neighborhood; the effort involved collaborating with the business community, labor, universities and the public school system.
Milbourne’s reign wasn’t free of criticism, however. While he diversified the membership to include women and minorities, GMC’s reputation is still of an elitist, white, male group. And when Milbourne’s successor was named, the GMC chairman said, “I would hope that our focus would be a little sharper. . . . We have identified many issues and we have written a lot of reports, but in the future I would hope that we have a higher batting average of implementation.”
The Partnership and Mayor Coleman pushed hard to snag Milbourne, who also impressed members with his background in government (he worked under three governors in Wisconsin), the private sector (a former Kohler Company executive) and education (he’s taught an economics class at the University of Wisconsin for 23 years).
Milbourne, though, says he had no immediate interest in the Partnership. “I knew nothing about Columbus,” he says. “Not on my radar screen.” He was comfortable in Wisconsin: a home in a fancy suburb, a pricey country club membership, prime seats for the city’s professional sports teams. And Milbourne had remarried and now has twin 2-year-old daughters.
But the Partnership’s five-month pursuit paid off in June when Milbourne accepted an offer from Wexner. Milbourne was quoted as saying the Partnership gave him a “really quite astounding deal.” It must have been, considering GMC paid him $240,000 a year.
“I had been in Wisconsin my entire adult life,” he says. “I am a conservative person. I don’t do wild and crazy things.” But Columbus impressed him. “The ingredients are here that make you take particular notice. A big factor—what sticks out, what I wished were the case in Wisconsin—is the combination of a growing business community, a state capital and a research university. That’s a huge plus.”
“Then ultimately, I looked at myself,” he adds. “I’m 55 years old. I’d been in my job for 17 years. I don’t want to be one of those people who are in their job for too long. It is logical to do this now. A source of reinvigoration.”
So, Bob, can you explain the Partnership’s purpose? Yes, he says. He provides a one-sentence description supplemented by a 10-point “statement of principles.”
The sentence: “A civic organization of business and education leaders whose goal is to improve the economic base of Columbus as a region.”
The 10-point statement includes being a catalyst for civic improvement, working with the public sector, collaborating with nonprofits, focusing on downtown development, seeking regional solutions, supporting educational institutions, developing future leaders and cooperating with the chamber. Milbourne adds, “We will not operate programs, but spin them off to other organizations better suited for implementation.” He says there will be little legislative arm-twisting; lobbying is the chamber’s job.
Milbourne describes the Partnership as some kind of benevolent advisory group built upon collaboration and good cheer. “Partnership is in the name because we mean it,” he says. You half expect its slogan to be “One for all, and all for one.” He says he’s already met several times with Sally Jackson and sat on the search committee that recently hired CDDC’s president, Tom Lussenhop, who oversaw the extensive renovation of the area around the University of Pennsylvania.
Although the Partnership is still figuring itself out, it did take some action this fall. And it wasn’t pretty. It involved the region’s request for a share of the state’s capital-improvements budget to help fund brick-and-mortar projects. For the past 15 years, the city of Columbus, Franklin County and the chamber presented a wish list to the Central Ohio legislative delegation. “It worked very well,” says Franklin County Board of Commissioners president Arlene Shoemaker.
The three entities met this past April to do the same thing. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Statehouse. Subsequent meetings were canceled, Shoemaker says, and somehow the Partnership got involved and even made the formal presentation via a letter signed by the newcomer from Milwaukee, Milbourne. The change in plans was news to Shoemaker and City Council president Matt Habash. Although the letter included the county’s request, Shoemaker says the commissioners submitted a separate proposal.
“The mayor encouraged us to move,” says Milbourne, who adds he got involved at the end of the process. Coleman says, “What is being requested is consistent with what the community needed.” The mayor says the Partnership’s involvement makes it a “greater possibility for our request to be filled.”
It appeared, however, that the Partnership was doing what it said it isn’t going to do: lobby. And it didn’t do what it said it wants to do: collaborate.
Milbourne says it wasn’t a shining moment. “It could have been done better,” he says. “It was not a great example of collaboration.” And he insists the Partnership is not interested in lobbying. “That’s the chamber’s role,” he says.
Skeptics—and there are always skeptics when the Titans are involved—see the capital-improvements incident as an example of the Partnership pushing an agenda. Some have suggested that the Partnership will act like the old Metropolitan Committee—an informal group in the 1940s-early ’60s that was powerful enough to approve or veto almost any civic project.
Coleman supports the Partnership because, “A lot of good people were doing good things, but not always going in the same direction.” About the Partnership calling the shots, “I would much rather they be engaged than not engaged. I need them involved. But they will not control the destiny of our city. Their input is important. This is a forum. Yeah, it’s a forum.”
Milbourne adds, “Nobody elected the Columbus Partnership to make decisions. We recognize that. We require public support. Elected officials may take a different opinion. We respect that.”
The ever-active Doug Kridler, Columbus Foundation president and a civic heavy-lifter, has helped introduce Milbourne to Columbus. He says, “In the end, hushed conversations in the backrooms can only move a city so far. Things are more complex now; there needs to be more focus, more collaborations and consistent professional leadership. We are moving forward, something everyone should celebrate.”
As of early November, Milbourne was still traveling to Milwaukee on the weekends. He and his wife were looking at houses here—Jack Kessler’s daughter is their Realtor—but he won’t move until they sell their place in Wisconsin. Some cynics might half-jokingly advise that he keep his current home—considering the track record of past hired guns of high-profile Columbus civic groups: Ed Armentrout of Downtown Columbus Inc. (DCI) and John Dobie of the Riverfront Commons Corp. (RCC).
Armentrout left town shortly before DCI, a mix of Titans and public officials, imploded in 1993 after a six-year run marked by an ongoing clash between the business types and the politicos. Then came the RCC, which hired Dobie, who’d worked on major redevelopment projects in Boston. He lasted less than two years before returning to Massachusetts for personal reasons; the RCC completed a plan about downtown riverfront development before it disbanded in 1999 after five years.
When Dobie first arrived, a key RCC member was John Christie, who has close ties to Worthington Industries founder John H. McConnell. Christie gave Dobie advice, which he related to Columbus Monthly at the time: “This city has a history of bringing in people from the outside and then chewing them up. This is a city of users and a city of people who really care. Fortunately, there are a lot more people who care. But watch out for the users.”
Perhaps it’s advice Milbourne might want to keep in mind.