The Defining Decade: The Year of Swagger

Dave Ghose
Former Columbus mayor Mike Coleman

In the early hours of the first day of 2012, Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman made a declaration. “This is the year of swagger!” he announced, standing on a stage outside COSI with fireworks lighting the sky above him. Coleman was fed up with the city's persistent inferiority complex—and it was time to get rid of it forever. “This does not come naturally to us as a city,” Coleman elaborated in an op-ed that appeared that same day in The Columbus Dispatch. “We're not prone to brag about ourselves. And we should not. We have a Midwestern tendency to be humble. And we should be. But while those traits may be admirable, we cannot allow them to be self-defeating.”

It was easy to snicker at Coleman's idea back then, to call it just another silly civic pronouncement. After all, it was hard to imagine cowtown Columbus—the country's bland everyman city—strutting around like New York. Or even Pittsburgh.

Yet Coleman did have a point. Columbus' low profile was having negative economic consequences, and he pointed to an example from his first term as mayor—an encounter he had with executives from Dell in Austin. At the time, the computer company was in the process of relocating thousands of jobs, and Columbus wasn't even considered for a new office. When Coleman shared with the executives his city's assets and demographics, they were surprised. “You guys don't talk about yourselves,” one senior executive told Coleman. “You don't have to boast about yourself, but at least acknowledge who you are and market yourselves.”

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

Self-confidence, however, has never been a problem for Coleman. During his 16 years in office—the longest mayoral tenure in Columbus history—Coleman was unapologetically bold, brash and even a bit arrogant, and he refused to see Columbus as anything other than one of the greatest cities in the U.S. To be sure, Coleman wasn't a blind ideologue. He gave up on a proposed streetcar system, for instance, when he realized it was too costly. And he wasn't reckless like former Columbus Mayor Buck Rinehart, who famously smashed a hole in the abandoned Ohio Pen before the state gave him permission to do so. But Coleman did offer a different leadership style in a city accustomed to quiet, unassuming public officials. And whether it was the result of his swagger pronouncement, his self-assured example or something else, the city did become a more confident, gutsy place after he made the declaration in 2012. “If the swagger thing resonated, it's because there were things happening to back it up,” says Dan Williamson, Coleman's former communications director and deputy chief of staff.

You could see a bolder Columbus in the reimagining of the Downtown riverfront, especially an ambitious $36 million public-private project that added 33 acres of greenspace along the river with the removal of the Main Street low-head dam. You could see it in the Smart City Challenge, with Columbus beating out 77 other cities for a $50 million prize that could help the region become a hotbed for transportation innovation. And you could see it in Save The Crew, the multipronged movement that pulled off the seemingly impossible and kept the city's professional soccer team in Columbus.

Without swagger, the city may not have accomplished those things.

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April: Kim Jacobs became the first woman and openly gay person to lead the Columbus police, replacing Walter Distelzweig.

September: Columbus City Schools superintendent Gene Harris announced plans to retire amid an investigation into data-rigging in the district.

October: More than 20,000 people showed up for the opening of the $400 million Hollywood Casino Columbus on the West Side.

Other 2012 Moments