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.
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.
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.”