Local Politics: Central Ohio growth requires change

Michael Curtin

Central Ohio continues its march toward statewide economic and political dominance.

Census projections show that, in 2040, the seven-county Central Ohio region should account for one-fifth of the state's population.

That would continue a trend that has been gaining momentum since 1950, when the region accounted for less than one-tenth of Ohio's population.

By the 2010 census, the region contained 15.6 percent of the state's population.

The slow-but-steady emergence of Central Ohio as the state's dominant region is due to many factors, but the two greatest have been the growth and reach of Ohio State University and state government.

OSU and state government are Central Ohio's largest employers, with nearly 31,000 people drawing a paycheck from OSU and 24,000 from state government.

Those two anchors have served as magnets for other employers — businesses, nonprofits, professional organizations and trade associations that rely on convenient access to them. The two institutions also are nearly recession-proof, providing economic stability in bad economic times as well as good.

A third crucial factor in the success of Central Ohio is its diversified economy. It's never been dominated by a single industry, unlike many of Ohio's other major metro areas.

When the 1981-82 recession — the worst since the Great Depression — crushed the manufacturing economies of Cleveland, Akron, Toledo and Youngstown, Central Ohio went relatively unscathed.

The continuing growth of Central Ohio will present myriad challenges to the region's public- and private-sector leaders, particularly those in Franklin County.

As the region approaches a 2040 population of nearly 2.3 million, a significant and politically sensitive challenge will be deciding whether and how to regionalize various public services.

The most recent — and successful — consolidation was the 2003 merger of the Columbus Airport Authority and the Rickenbacker Port Authority, forming the Columbus Regional Airport Authority.

The merger produced economic efficiencies, increased professionalism and positioned Central Ohio to expand both air passenger and freight services.

In previous decades, Columbus and Franklin County overcame political obstacles and financial hurdles to merge the courts, upgrade the zoo and make it independent, and — in fits and starts — set the stage for regionalization of solid waste disposal and recycling services.

The Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, created in 1989, will play an ever-larger role in the greening of the region.

Some elective offices providing highly specialized and technical services will offer them, on a fee basis, to outlying counties and regions.

The Franklin County Coroner's office has been doing this for many years. In just the past year, it provided autopsy and forensic services to 15 other counties across central and southern Ohio.

In evaluating the future of regionalization, the most politically sensitive areas, as always, will be police and fire. Every burg, regardless of size, loves having and supervising its own safety forces.

However, when one considers that Franklin County alone has 34 police departments and 23 fire departments, failure to at least examine potential mergers would be political nonfeasance.

Ever-increasing population density will require governmental change.