Columbus’ success defines an opportunity lost here

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Summer festivals enliven downtown Columbus.

When we think of peer cities with which we compare ourselves, Columbus, Ohio, doesn’t rank high on the list — in fact, it’s probably not on the list at all.

And why should it be?

It’s bigger, flatter, older, colder (in the winter), hotter (in the summer), more humid (always), and it’s in the Midwest. Conventional wisdom says that people flee Columbus, as well Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dayton, to come to cities like Colorado Springs.

What’s in Columbus? Surely it’s just another decaying industrial city, plagued by crime, crumbling infrastructure and a hollowed-out manufacturing sector.

During a recent visit to Ohio’s capital city of 800,000 residents (1.8 million in the metro area), which celebrated its bicentennial year in 2012, the weather wasn’t exactly welcoming. Five inches of snow lay on the ground when we arrived, and another seven inches fell in the next three days. The temperature never rose above freezing, and the sun never appeared.

Such weather tests municipalities. Our own might be sorely tried by successive heavy snowfalls, but Columbus was clearly well-prepared. From our 18th-story downtown hotel room we could see an armada of snowplows clearing major streets and freeways. Traffic flowed freely, buses ran frequently and civic life seemed to be unaffected.

Abundance of facilities

Far from being a dark and dingy place of boarded-up buildings and deserted streets, downtown Columbus is exactly the city that generations of civic leaders in Colorado Springs have tried and failed to create.

During the past 25 years, Columbus has built:

A Peter Eisenman-designed, 1.8 million-square-foot convention center, linked by skybridges to more than 2,000 hotel rooms.

Huntington Park, a 10,000-seat downtown ballpark, which opened in 2009. The stadium houses the Columbus Clippers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.

Nationwide Arena, the downtown home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. The airy, light-filled, 20,000-seat facility, which opened in 2000, was erected on the site of the notorious Ohio State Penitentiary, where more than 300 people died in the electric chair between 1897 and 1963. The prison was demolished in 1998.

COSI, a science museum on the Scioto riverfront in downtown Columbus. The building was designed by Arata Isozaki, merging the former Central High School with new construction on the site of the school’s football field. It’s a magnificent structure which welcomes more than half a million visitors annually.

Downtown also includes:

The Ohio Theatre, an impossibly opulent 1928 Loew’s movie house that, like so many similar facilities, was threatened with demolition in the 1960s. According to the theater’s website, “… In 1969, the citizens of central Ohio mounted a ‘Save the Ohio’ campaign, raising more than $2 million in less than a year in an unprecedented effort. The newly formed Columbus Association for the Performing Arts subsequently purchased and renovated the Ohio Theatre, creating a home for Columbus’ performing arts institutions that is the busiest performing arts facility in Ohio.”

The Short North Arts District is a 14-block stretch of High Street just north of downtown and within easy walking distance of the convention center. Low-rise, early 20th century brick commercial buildings line High Street, while three- and four-story townhouses from the same era extend along the side streets. Thirty years ago the area was scary and deserted at night — “the kind of place where you locked your door and hit the gas pedal,” said John Angelo, the District’s executive director as quoted recently in The New York Times. Today, the renovated buildings are overflowing with art galleries, restaurants and boutiques — without a single national chain.

“That was one of the city’s goals,” said Scott Peacock of Experience Columbus, the city-funded convention and visitors bureau. “They wanted to encourage local entrepreneurs and artists, and create a really livable downtown.”

Under construction in the Short North: an 11-story, 135-room boutique hotel designed by the Miami-based Arquitectonica, and two apartment buildings that will add another 150 housing units to the neighborhood.

The Scioto River was once the Monument Creek of Columbus. After a major flood in the early 20th century, it was dammed and channelized, transforming a living river into a sluggish, silt-laden and polluted backwater. In an ambitious restoration project, the dams are to be removed, the river’s original channel reclaimed and parks created along its banks.

So let’s contrast and compare.

As for that grand old movie theater, we had one too. The Burns Theatre was every bit as showy and extravagant as the Ohio Theatre, but beauty is no defense against the wrecker’s ball. The Burns was razed in 1973.

Colorado Springs leaders tried to persuade voters to approve a downtown sports arena in 1989. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the plan. A few years later, voters put the kibosh on any downtown convention center by forbidding the city from even studying such a facility. A Science Museum? A downtown ballpark? Doesn’t seem too likely, even though dedicated folks are working on putting deals together. An arts district? Lots of talk, but no action.

Columbus has certain advantages that we (and Mayor Steve Bach) can only dream of. Interstate 71 and I-70 meet at the city, serving north-south and east-west travelers, while I-670 and I-270 provide inner-ring and outer-ring beltways. Ohio State University and its 56,000 students occupy an 1,800-acre campus close to downtown. Five Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Columbus, as is the Battelle Memorial Institute.

How they did it

Why has Columbus succeeded where we’ve failed? The answer is simple: 25 years of generously funded private, public-private, and public infrastructure funding.

Nationwide Arena and COSI were largely private ventures, while the convention center and the surrounding infrastructure were funded by the city’s room tax. Private entrepreneurs led the way in the rebirth of the Short North, but the city has invested nearly $16 million in infrastructure maintenance and reconstruction since 1982.

The money to support such public investment, not to mention the money to operate and maintain 308 buses on an extensive fixed-route system, has to come from somewhere — so who pays?

Columbus residents pay a 6.75 percent sales tax, somewhat less than the 7.45 percent levied in Colorado Springs. The sales tax includes a 0.5 percent levy dedicated to Central Ohio Transit Authority, which operates the city bus system. Property taxes amount to approximately $1,720 for each $100,000 in home value. A hotel room tax of 10 percent is four times as high as the 2.5 percent collected on hotel rooms and automobile rentals by Colorado Springs.

Ohio State income taxes, which top out at 5.925 percent for incomes above $204,200, are substantially higher than Colorado’s flat rate of 4.63 percent.

Columbus also boasts a bewildering number of special improvement taxing districts, such as the Short North business improvement district, which collects about $500,000 annually from business and property owners in the district.

Finally, in a development that would likely be greeted with appalled disbelief in Colorado Springs, Columbus residents voted a year and a half ago to approve a municipal income tax of 2.5 percent. The tax is levied on anyone, whether resident in Columbus or not, who earns income in the city.

“People who live outside the city tend to complain that it’s taxation without representation,” said Scott Peacock, “but it’s a way for the city to capture dollars from those who work here but pay no taxes to support the city.”

The lively bustle of the Short North and the spectacular public venues are tangible expressions of the city’s growth and regeneration. And if cities in the industrial Midwest successfully leverage public investment to jump-start their economies, does this mean that Colorado Springs will fall behind? Will capital flow away from the Mountain West, and toward high-tax, high-service, high-investment cities in the rust belt?

Such a question would have seemed absurd 20, 10 or even five years ago. But after a few days in snowy Columbus, I wondered about our future. Not to worry, said Peacock.

“That’s a great town, Colorado Springs,” he said. “I really wish we had your microbrewery scene — and we’re working on it.”

20 Responses to Columbus’ success defines an opportunity lost here

  1. As a Columbus, Ohio Resident almost continuously since 1986 when I arrived fresh-faced and innocent to attend THE Ohio State University, I have been amazed by the growth and resurgence of my town.

    It is refreshing to see Columbus through the eyes of others too. This is a great town. Even though Ohio is generally a very conservative and hateful state, Columbus is a fantastically diverse and welcoming city. The mix of college students (over 100,000 in the 5 or 6 colleges or universities in the greater metro area), the leaders and power brokers of State government (Columbus being the state capitol – in case you didn’t know it), as well as all the young professionals here due to the astounding concentration of banking, insurance, and other major industries, and the color and vibrancy brought by an amazing arts district make this a great place to call home.

    Columbus is also one of the most gay friendly places in the country, ranking quite high with the third larges gay population per capita in the US.

    Add in the midwest culture, and attitude, and you have a fantastic city.

    Stop by some weekend. I recommend the first weekend of any month. That is ‘Gallery Hop’. You will find all the art galleries and shops opened late with street performers and other activities. There are 10’s of thousands of visitors for that every month. In June there is Comm fest – which is an experience in and of itself. Columbus also hosts one of the largest Gay Pride festivals in the Midwest with about 1/2 million people in attendance.

    For football fans, it would be tough to beat a home Ohio State Game weekend. The energy is amazing, even if you can’t afford scalper’s prices for tickets. We also have an NHL team, and not mentioned in the article, Columbus is home to the MLS Columbus Crew, and the first purpose-built professional soccer stadium in the US.

    Stop by, visit, staty a while.

    Todd
    January 4, 2013 at 10:07 pm

  2. You make it seem so easy. I lived in Columbus for over 20 years. Before Nationwide Arena was built with private funds, residents of Columbus voted down a ballot measure to fund an arena many, many times. This forced the private option, because it was clear that the citizenry were not going to support a taxpayer financed arena. This is perhaps the most important lesson from Columbus: you don’t need public funds to make such projects happen successfully.

    The Ohio Theater is a true story of private-public success. You might have also mentioned the Palace theater, which has also been restored. Columbus has TWO dynamic and beautiful theaters in its downtown. Unhead of for a city its size.

    Those that work in Columbus and pay the 2.5% payroll tax, but live outside Columbus, get a tax credit from their city of residence to offset that tax. Most cities in central Ohio have a 2% tax, so these Columbus workers will pay 0.5% more than if they paid the local tax of the city in which they live, but the will not pay 4.5%, as your article may imply.

    Columbus Resident
    January 5, 2013 at 12:00 am

  3. I really enjoyed this article and have made these comparisons many times over the years. I lived in Columbus for 17 years and have lived in Colorado for 14. I have often said that Columbus is a much greater cultural hub than any major city in Colorado, and I feel validated by this article. Colorado’s cities lag far behind many of the metropolitan centers of the midwest, other examples are Minneapolis, Ann Arbor, Omaha. Yup, even Omaha has a thriving music scene that leaves any Colorado city in the dust. I have often been shocked by this, but a strong theory is that there isn’t anything else to do in these cities for most of the year besides becoming creative. The amount of very talented and famous people who hail from the midwest is exponentially greater than the mountain west, not necessarily due to ability, but hours spent honing a craft. Granted too, Ohio has over twice the population than a state like Colorado. Colorado is also lacking greatly in any kind of diversity, and with the limited options there is also very little mixing out here. I used to think the neighborhoods where I lived in Ohio were white-bred, plain, and not diverse. That is until I lived in Colorado. There is a limited amount of exposure here. Also, Columbus is a liberal city with a black mayor that the people love and a huge gay population. Say that sentence to your average Colorado Springer and you will blow their mind off. Columbus is liberal by default, a place like Boulder is liberal because of cute Liberal Arts degrees and monied hippies.
    The problems with the mentality of Colorado is the old, white, frontiersman mentality which is a myth and idiotic. The Springs suffers from this greatly, as do other parts of the state. Regardless of your political views, the military and focus on the family will never attract the arts or culture. However, Garden of the Gods, 300 days of sunshine, and proximity to the greatest skiing in the world keeps me in this state. I can get my culture online and visits to other parts of the country.
    Denver has come a long way since the late 90s, and the new legislation for gay marriage and marijuana reform will attract the right people. Its lack of a major university hurts the city, as does its lack of diversity. I feel Denver is where Columbus was about ten years ago, maybe fifteen.
    People from places with good weather are always shocked to hear about the cultural bastions from the gray lands (which is cute, most Coloradan’s parents are from Kansas or Indiana). A little secret for these people; we don’t move to the Utah’s and the Colorado’s and Montana’s for the great cultural experiences awaiting. It’s for the sun and mountains. Highly visited areas begin to think that they are the reason, not the nicest mountain range on the planet. Hawaiians and Floridians are susceptible to this myth as well. I assure you, we move here for the weather not the people.

    G
    January 5, 2013 at 3:05 pm

  4. I am a lifelong Columbus resident. Columbus is is a tremendous city that quietly flies under the national radar. Also worth mentioning: German Village, the largest privately funded historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, and other beautifully restored neighborhoods adjacent to Downtown. The city’s library system was named the best in the country in 2010. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium ranks as one of the top zoos in the country. Kiplinger Magazine ranks Columbus the second best city for commuters. Battelle Memorial Institute is the largest nonprofit research and development organization the world. Public investment in parks and public spaces in the central city, including a new Metropark, has helped spark a renaissance in Downtown living.

    Lifelong Columbus resident
    January 6, 2013 at 4:50 pm

  5. Columbus has a lot of great restaurants, shopping such as Easton Town Center, Polaris Mall and is very diverse. The North Market which offers organic and home grow food, meats etc. The Columbus Zoo with Jack Hanna as director Emeritus–one of the top zoos in the country. On any given Saturday in the summer you can find local farmer’s markets and festivals. Plus, the Ohio State Fair in August. YNot to mention the historic neighborhoods such as German Village and Italian Village. It’s a great place to raise a family.

    Buckeye
    January 7, 2013 at 1:21 pm

  6. I only lived in Columbus for a year and a half while attending Ohio State, but I, too, found the city very vibrant, welcoming and inclusive. I chalk that up to two factors: State government that brings in talent from across a large, diverse state, and the University which brings in a diverse mix of people from across the globe. We have niether here, though the military community does bring in some diversity. A better Ohio comparision is probably Cincinnati, a very conservative city that invested in culture, athletics and transportation to revitalize it’s urban core. Colorado Springs is, in my opinion, where these two Ohio cities were in the 1970s…ready to move forward, but unsure of their destinations.

    Mike P
    January 7, 2013 at 1:44 pm

  7. Great city and place to live….except for the school district! But they are trying hard to get that turned around…and as with other improvements, it will take a while..but it WILL get done!

    Queen Mum
    January 7, 2013 at 2:43 pm

  8. Also a lifelong resident and OSU Alumnus, Columbus was fortunate enough to be a white collar city for a long time and made it through otherwise difficult economies in the past. The methodical growth of Columbus has taken almost fifty years, just about my age. I watched the city transform from having one high rise to a beautiful skyline and is truly generating a metropolitan culture instead of just building an arena and housing downtown. Mass transit would be a welcome sight in the future! And GO BUCKS! 12-0!!

    Buckeye Nation
    January 7, 2013 at 4:18 pm

  9. Thanks for all the great comments on the story. I look forward to visiting Columbus again, especially when it’s not covered with a foot of snow!

    John Hazlehurst
    January 7, 2013 at 5:03 pm

  10. I lived in Columbus from 2004 until 2011 (to attend grad school at OSU); I’m originally from Phoenix, Arizona. Before I went, I imagined OSU as being a university surrounded by cow pastures and maybe a boarded-up steel mill. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered. The Short North, Victorian Village, German Village, Italian Village, Comm Fest, etc. It has lots of amazing restaurants, great farmer’s markets, and a relatively low cost of living. The major downsides are: it’s not great from an international-travel perspective (the currency exchange booth at Port Columbus “International” Airport was one of the loneliest airport counters I’ve ever seen, staffed by two of the most bored-looking people I’ve ever seen), and the winters suck. Also, property tax is quite high, especially when considering the very mediocre school system.

    Grayson W
    January 7, 2013 at 11:13 pm

  11. John may I suggest on your next visit you take time to check out the Performing Arts scene here in Columbus. We have CAPA (a non-profit, award-winning presenter of national and international performing arts and entertainment) Ballet Met (Specializing in the best of classical, traditional, and contemporary ballet, this ballet company brings top notch performances to the Columbus area with seasonal favorites), Shadowboxlive performing Music, sketch comedy, musicals, dance, drama, new metaperformances, arts education Central Ohio’s largest Performing Arts Troupe and so many more Arts related themes.
    Columbus is well known for its Arts !!

    Rick H.
    January 8, 2013 at 10:18 am

  12. Go in the Summer John, summer or late spring!

    Neil
    January 8, 2013 at 11:37 am

  13. Don’t forget the THREE best reasons: economic value in lifestyles (housing, food and entertainment), convenience to major metropolitan cities – less than a 2 hour plane ride to NYC, Washington DC, Atlanta and Chicago and the icing on the cake – Midwest values of life for families and children – worth a fortune.

    Rick Barnett
    January 8, 2013 at 1:16 pm

  14. Love this article! I came to Columbus in 1999 to attend Ohio State and have never left. I find Columbus to be very easy…easy to get around, easy to find something that interests you, easy to make friends/network, easy to eat well. It’s just an easy lifestyle here.

    I don’t however agree with the article’s implication that it snows a lot in Columbus. Granted, it did just snow some over the holidays when the author visited. But I’m from Central Pennsylvania…it definitely does not snow much in Columbus.

    Best wishes to Colorado Springs!

    PAtoOH
    January 8, 2013 at 3:09 pm

  15. Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but, from a long-time Columbus dweller trapped by my job: be careful what you wish for. Many of the wonders you’re ascribing to wonderful public and private investment, etc, in this city, were effected by banana-republic tin-pot thugocracy tactics.

    The short north that “30 years ago you fled from with your foot on the gas”, 30 years ago, was, yes, a bit of a seedy stretch, but it was inhabited by its owners, earning a mostly honest living. Along came Campus Partners to “revitalize” the area, and as if by magic, those owner-operator businesses who refused to sell, all burned to the ground. Outlying communities get annexed into Columbus proper, by having their water and sewer systems shut off, until they vote to accept annexation. Historic sites that the citizens overwhelmingly vote to have preserved, are razed to put in parking for commercial interests, while “make it look good to the traveler” “public works” are undertaken even over overwhelming opposition from the citizens. The list goes on. This city has an appealing veneer, and, genuinely some nice things that have come from polishing the veneer, but underneath, there’s a malevolent rotten core that’s every bit as corrupt as any.

    W. Ray
    January 9, 2013 at 4:24 pm

  16. Thanks to John Hazlehurst for this article and to everyone for this discussion of what it takes to have a thriving urban community. My students and I have been studying these very issues, and I highly recommend the book “Better Together” by Putnam and Goldstein for some historical perspective and loads of inspirational stories. There is vast, untapped potential in every community, but positive change on a grand scale can only happen when we come together and work for it!

    Columbus Teacher
    January 10, 2013 at 8:16 am

  17. W.Ray, you sound like the life of the party. Nice to meet you Debbie Downer

    Rusty1233
    January 10, 2013 at 1:25 pm

  18. Columbus, Ohio – Home to SIX Fortune 500 Companies.
    The entire state of Colorado has NINE.

    Let’s not act like Ohioians should compare their capital city to some place like Colorado Springs, because it DOESNT compare.

    Financial Analyst
    January 10, 2013 at 7:43 pm

  19. ….. how to create Columbus (Pikers Peak Version) ?
    … easy
    …. replace us24 w/ i70 to improve access
    …. change out UCCS w/ THE Colorado University
    …. shoe horn the State Capitol, all the state regulatory agencies & related Federal agencies into downtown
    …. build enuff houses for the additional half million people &
    …… whaa Lah ! Columbus w/a view & brewpubs.
    ….. i love it when newspaper guys decry the fact that we just don’t pay enough taxes to live like they want.

    richard black
    January 11, 2013 at 2:38 pm

  20. I came to Columbus in 1998 for graduate school at Ohio State, I never left. I am originally from Phoenix, Arizona and I don’t think I even knew where Ohio was on the map.

    I adore Columbus. I am a musician and am very fortunate to live in a city with enough performing and playing opportunities to make a living. The cost of living in Columbus is phenomenal. I own a beautiful home that in a larger city would be absolutely out of my price range.

    I’m proud to be a resident of Columbus, Ohio!

    KG
    January 13, 2013 at 12:25 am