'Boomtown Columbus' book critiques the so-called 'Columbus Way'

Emeritus Ohio State professor Kevin Cox applauds the city's growth but takes issue with its tax abatements, minor league airport and more

Brian Williams
The Downtown Columbus skyline

Columbus civic leaders bristled in 1980 when a Chicago Tribune profile of the city featured a headline that read “Quintessentially Middle American” above a front-page photo of a Holstein cow grazing at OSU’s Waterman Farm with the Downtown skyline looming in the distance. It didn’t help that the mayor at the time, Tom Moody, was quoted as calling Columbus a grade-B city.

“But though we may not be first-class in anything, we’re not third-class in anything, either,” he told the Tribune.

For one segment of this economically segregated city, Columbus is a comfortable place to live. But that desire to maintain comfort can descend into complacency. Thus the outrage over a clubby, self-selected City Council is muted, as is the anger over tax abatements that are often handed out like full-size Snickers to rich kids at Halloween.

How did the developers end up in line for those candy bars anyway?

Just ask Kevin Cox. Or, better yet, read his new book, Boomtown Columbus: Ohio’s Sunbelt City and How Developers Got Their Way, published in June by Trillium, part of the Ohio State University Press. In it, he makes no secret of his disdain for the way wealthy business and civic leaders profit from policies and deals that make a large segment of the city’s population vulnerable to economic-refugee status.

The emeritus OSU professor of geography makes gleeful and clever (and sometimes snarky) asides about the machinations of those in power in the book’s journey through 70 years of annexation policy and sprawl; water and sewer service; malls and freeway interchanges; gentrification and disinvestment; school district boundaries and more.

Cox argues that housing development tends to be a locally oriented industry, and that developers are tied to their region because they know the regulations and decision makers. Taking their business to another state, or even another part of Ohio, would be like starting over. Because of this — especially with booming growth — the city might have been able to extract concessions from developers rather than offer tax abatements. But that horse has already left the stable, and the stable is now a subdivision.

Would this be different if Columbus had true ward representation on City Council? “I’m pessimistic,” Cox said. “Developers will adapt to local power structures either way. It makes no difference whether the council is elected by ward or at large.”

There may be reasons to seek a ward system, Cox said, but the council-developer balance is not one of them.

More:Panel releases draft map of nine residential districts for Columbus City Council seats

Still, he has respect for a city that has grown steadily over the decades while its major-league neighbors — Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh — have lost population to the suburbs. Columbus, then, is more like Austin or Charlotte: a Sunbelt city in a rust belt region. Much of Central Ohio’s growth (and the taxes it brings) is within the city’s expanding boundaries. But there are challenges, too.

"Boomtown Columbus" by Kevin Cox

For a city that wants corporate headquarters, “Columbus is stuck in the middle between all these other cities. The airport is a big, big problem," Cox said, noting that Dayton lost Mead Corp. and NCR Corp., and Cincinnati lost Chiquita, to cities with major air hubs. “Salt Lake City has half the metro size of Columbus, but its airport has three times the number of direct destinations.”

Meanwhile, so-called legacy cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati lost airline hubs but still have more destinations and international flights than Columbus.

Despite its growth and success, Columbus also lacks the cultural cachet of major professional sports teams. “Soccer and hockey are the jayvee of the big leagues,” Cox said.

Cox, whose focus as a professor was the interaction among politics, economics and geography, makes clear that the cozy public/private/institutional “Columbus Way” of doing things is hardly unique to Columbus, but is, rather, unique to the United States.

In the end, Cox argues that many of the city's challenges are entwined with the massive income inequality across the country and must be addressed at the national level as well as the local. “What happens in cities is beyond the control of [individual] city governments," he said.

In spite of all the challenges, Cox is quite comfortable in Columbus, though certainly not complacent. A native of England, he’s lived here over 55 years and continues to watch how the city and region will absorb the coming wave of population growth, address inequality in schools and neighborhoods, and rise above a Grade-B.

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.