Mr. Downtown on panhandling, retirement, C-pass and standing up to Bill Moss

In Columbus, a handful of folks probably could be called “Mr. Downtown.” Former Mayor Mike Coleman made revitalization of the city center a top priority of his administration. Developers such as Jeff Edwards and Ron Pizzuti invested in Downtown before it was cool. But the nickname has stuck for just one person: Cleve Ricksecker.

For the past two decades, Ricksecker has been one of Downtown’s biggest champions through his position as the leader of the Capital Crossroads and Discovery District special improvement districts. Unlike those other Downtown advocates, Ricksecker hasn’t spent millions on ambitious condo projects or changed the city’s civic agenda. Rather, he and his colleagues with the two special improvement districts, which are funded by Downtown property owners, have worked on the ground level, beautifying streets with planters, sponsoring kickball leagues, organizing a farmers market and partnering with COTA on the C-pass program, which provides free bus passes to Downtown workers. 

At the end of May, Ricksecker will retire from the dual posts after two decades of leadership, a period that coincided with a dramatic transformation of Downtown into a cleaner, safer and more vibrant neighborhood. In an email interview withColumbus Monthly, Ricksecker discusses the changes he’s witnessed, the success of the C-pass program, what Downtown still lacks and his bit role in a memorable moment of Columbus political theater.

Why did you decide to retire now?

It’s an intuitive decision. I’m 67 years old and want to shift gears at a young enough age to rewire myself. It’s also important to get out of the way and let other younger people take the organizational reins.  

What is your proudest accomplishment at the two SIDs?

The decision by Downtown property owners to fund Downtown C-pass, which provides free, unlimited access to transit to 30,000 people who work Downtown. I am a fierce believer in communities designed to allow people to walk to work, retail services, school and other activities. These places allow an active lifestyle that is physically and socially healthy, protect the environment, reduce sprawl and result in an appealing built environment. You can’t have a civilized community without strong support and use of public transit. Downtown C-pass incentivizes people to get out of their cars, ride the bus, share space with diverse people, walk, patronize businesses in historic neighborhoods and strengthen Downtown.  And the incentives are working. Downtown property owners deserve kudos for taking this initiative.

What is Downtown still lacking?

A public willing to embrace an urban lifestyle. You can’t have a vibrant downtown with surface parking lots and parking garages. They’re dead space. Retail won’t flourish if most Downtown residents own and warehouse personal vehicles because they will use them to drive to big-box stores rather than walk to small, Downtown stores. Small, sidewalk-oriented stores are more expensive than big-box stores and only make economic sense if a person is not spending $500 a month on a car. If you don’t own a car, the extra expense of a small, urban store is a bargain.

I understand you don’t have a car. Is it difficult to live in Columbus without a car? Has it gotten easier over time?

I’ve lived in Columbus 43 years, and it’s always been easy to live here without a car if you live and work near Downtown. I chose to live in the Short North in 1980 because it had good bus service and retail services within walking distance. At the same time, I chose to work at jobs in Downtown, the Brewery District and the Short North to be within walking, biking and busing distance of home. Not owning a car has rewards. It simplifies life. It frees money to spend on things like restaurants, spa services and travel. And it doesn’t cramp my mobility at all. Weekend car rentals and Uber fill the travel gaps for me, and they are a lot cheaper than warehousing a car.

Panhandling remains a persistent problem Downtown. What can the city do to address this?

City officials can’t do anything to address panhandling because people have a constitutional right to be on public sidewalks and to ask for money. Only if the public stops giving money to panhandlers will the problems stop. Most panhandlers in Downtown have addiction issues. Money fuels the addiction. If people want to help, they should give to agencies that assist people who are homeless or have mental health or addiction issues. 

You had a cameo in an unusual moment in local history: the late Bill Moss' shoe-pounding protest at a Columbus Board of Education meeting. How did you end up confronting Moss about his actions at the meeting?

Years ago, I attended a Columbus City Schools board meeting to advocate for a policy that would allow siblings to attend the same schools. At the time, I had three children in the city schools. Bill Moss showed up in military camouflage and took over the meeting by pounding his shoe on a table. The room emptied until the only remaining people included Mr. Moss, a Greek chorus of his supporters in the back of the room, school board member Jeff Cabot and me. I had an uncontrollable impulse to begin talking back to Mr. Moss. To my surprise, WCBE recorded the whole exchange.  

The C-pass program is set to expire at the end of the year. Should it be renewed?

Stay tuned.

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