A Diversified Economy Cushions Columbus, Ohio, From Downturns

Sep 19, 2016
Originally published on September 20, 2016 5:26 pm

Much of the anger and anxiety in the 2016 election are fueled by the sense that economic opportunity is slipping away for many Americans. This week, as part of NPR's collaborative project with member stations, A Nation Engaged, we're asking the question: What can be done to create economic opportunity for more Americans?

Columbus has become a nearly recession-proof hub of Ohio. Ohio State University, state and local government, insurance and retail are the central spokes of the city's economy, which at a glance looks remarkable.

"In a service economy Columbus was destined to do better, much better than places with smokestack industry," says David Stebenne, a professor of history and law at Ohio State. Columbus has a set of built-in advantages, including a countercyclical set of employers — insurance, government and the university. "Even in bad times insurance is insurance," he says.

Columbus was once mocked as a paper-pusher town without the industrial might of Cincinnati, Toledo or Cleveland. Now those high-paying white-collar jobs are a central asset, Stebenne says.

"The ability of Columbus to attract and retain many of the brightest young people in Ohio is now well known around the state," he says. Cleveland and Cincinnati both lost population for decades and only recently have stabilized or had some small growth. Columbus, meanwhile, has been one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. "Young 20-somethings go and come back. If they want to raise families, this is such a more affordable place to live than Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York."

Tara DeFrancisco and her husband, Rance Rizzutto, just moved from Chicago to Columbus to start the Nest Theatre, an improv comedy venue. Since they've being touring the country, the couple realized they could save money moving to Columbus while still maintaining their lifestyle.

The low cost of a home in a major city was a lure. "I think we're saving like $500 a month-ish on buying a home," DeFrancisco says. "I don't think Rance or I expected to own a home in our lifetime. And I think we assumed that we'd be renting forever or maybe buying a modest condo but not a house with a yard that has food in it," DeFrancisco says, referring to the garden outside her newly purchased home.

She says price made her think of moving, but the culture of Columbus made her want to move. "Columbus has everything we want," she says. And now the newlyweds say they feel a town of Columbus' size has a growing arts scene that's encouraged them to live there. "If you can bring art to those communities then they don't have to necessarily push out to the bigger cities," DeFrancisco says.

Cameron Mitchell runs a restaurant company headquartered in the Short North, the neighborhood that sparked Columbus' downtown revitalization. Mitchell, long a Columbus booster, says the city's success is no accident. On a tour of the neighborhood, he points to North Market, an old local market that's been turned into a hub of activity. "Twenty years ago ... you wouldn't be caught dead around here at night. There were no hotels here. It was decrepit down here. It was a rundown dead urban core."

It was the tech boom of the 1990s and almost all of Columbus' big players — business, the university, the city — realized they were missing out. Many point to the election of the Michael Coleman, the city's first African-American mayor, as a turning point for the neighborhood and much of Columbus. Coleman was seen as a being pro-business and development.

"The truth in that is that 10, 15, 20 years ago we were stagnant," Mitchell says. Today, he says, Columbus has the reputation of being "a smart, open, young, vibrant city."

Stebenne, the Ohio State professor, says the city benefits from not having quite the same pitched labor or school desegregation battles that other Ohio cities had. The city also annexed land, which has allowed it to keep taxes relatively low. "It had a very committed group of civic leaders and a culture of working together and it's not a confrontational town. It's much more of a cooperative one," Stebenne says.

Nile Woodson is founder of Hai Poké, a food truck. (Poké is a Hawaiian raw fish.) The 26-year-old OSU grad says he had the choice of going to New York, "where it's extremely competitive and extremely expensive. And even being from there ... I didn't have as strong of a network. But Columbus is all about support and community and networking. It's just this awesome place."

Enrico Moretti, author of The New Geography of Jobs, says much of the city's success can be summed up with one word: serendipity. He says Columbus is lucky. It's blessed by its relatively central location in the state, being the capital, and being the home of OSU. Those are the seeds of development in Columbus. Moretti says even with those seeds the city could've "messed up" its opportunities.

"If the local workforce is not skilled enough that seed will move away," he says. The second way a city could mess it up is if "the cost of living increases too fast relative to worker productivity." The third way Moretti says is if the regulatory environment makes it too difficult to do business.

Moretti says you can't manufacture the seed that make Columbus' current success, but "Columbus didn't mess it up. Columbus took the seed and made the best of it."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Many cities in the Midwest have experimented with various ways to revive their city centers and stimulate growth. One success story is Columbus, Ohio. The population is growing, and so are wages. The downtown is being revitalized. Housing prices are still low, and so is unemployment. Columbus has become a nearly recession-proof hub of Ohio.

All this week, NPR is asking this question. How can you create economic opportunity for more Americans? It's part of our election year project with member stations called A Nation Engaged. We sent NPR's Sonari Glinton to find out if the success of Columbus can be replicated.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: There are few things more annoying than when a national media organization like NPR comes to your town and discovers it. Well, they call it Columbusing, and I'm essentially Colombusing Columbus.

TARA DEFRANCISCO: (Laughter) You are. You're the Amerigo Vespucci of the world here. It's really happening.

GLINTON: I met Tara DeFrancisco and her husband, Rance Rizzutto, at a coffee shop across from the state capitol. Now, they just moved from Chicago to Columbus to start an improv comedy theater.

Now, since they've been touring the country, they thought did they really need to live in Chicago even if it is the epicenter of improv? They recently closed on a house here.

DEFRANCISCO: I think we're saving something like $500 a month-ish (ph) on buying a home. I don't think that Rance or I expected to own a home in our lifetime - maybe buying a modest condo but not a house with a yard that has food in it.

GLINTON: Now, when DeFrancisco started in improv, there wasn't an improv or sketch comedy scene here, so she had to move to Chicago. Increasingly she found herself coming back to Columbus, and she and her husband thought, well, why not stay?

DEFRANCISCO: I think part of the reason we were finally compelled to move is that we didn't feel like we were losing anything. It's a very affordable cost of living. So if you can bring art to those communities, then they don't have to necessarily push out to the bigger cities.

GLINTON: Can I get you to introduce yourself for me?

CAMERON MITCHELL: Sure. Hi, my name is Cameron Mitchell. I'm the founder and CEO of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants located here in Columbus, Ohio.

GLINTON: Mitchell has more than a dozen locations in Columbus and around the country. He and almost anyone you talk to point to the revitalization of a neighborhood called the Short North as a springboard for the new Columbus.

MITCHELL: Twenty years ago, this was a Quonset hut here. You wouldn't be caught dead walking around here at night. All these buildings were all dilapidated. There were no hotels here. It was decrepit down here. It was a rundown, dead urban core.

GLINTON: It was the tech boom of the '90s, and almost all of Columbus's big players - business, the university, the city - realized they were missing out.

MITCHELL: Ten, 15, 20 years ago, we were stagnant here in Columbus, very stagnant, and we deserve the reputation we have. And now the reputation we have today is well-earned, and it's through the work and collaboration of a lot of great people.

GLINTON: What do you think the reputation...

MITCHELL: Smart, open, young, vibrant city.

GLINTON: All right, so I headed over from the Short North south to Columbus Commons. That's where I met David Stebenne. He's a professor of law and history at the Ohio State University.

Stebenne says just a few years ago Columbus was mocked as being kind of a cow town, a paper-pusher town because many of the city's white-collar jobs were from the university, state government and the insurance industry. He says that was last century.

DAVID STEBENNE: In a service economy, Columbus was destined to do better, especially than Cleveland and Youngstown and other places that had a lot of sort of smokestack industry. But there's still a range of how much better. And what has startled all of Ohio and especially the folks in Cleveland and Cincinnati is how much better Columbus has done.

GLINTON: Stebenne says population wise Columbus is gaining while Cleveland and Cincinnati are declining. The staples of the economy are white-collar jobs - insurance, state government, retail and the university. Stebenne points out that Columbus didn't have quite the same contentious school desegregation fight that other cities had, and Columbus also annexed a lot of land at the edge as whites began moving to the suburbs. That kept the tax base broad and the taxes low.

STEBENNE: The ability of Columbus to attract and retain many of the brightest young people in Ohio is now well known around the state.

GLINTON: OK, our next stop is a food truck. What would a Columbusing story about Columbus be without a food truck? It's O Hai Poke. For those unfamiliar, Poke is a sort of Hawaiian sushi. Nile Woodson is the 26-year-old founder.

NILE WOODSON: All right, all right, excellent. So you're familiar with Poke.

GLINTON: So I think it's hilarious that I find the black guy with the Hawaiian food truck.

WOODSON: Yeah. That's it. That's the name of the game. Well, I think that comes down to the entrepreneurial drive.

GLINTON: Woodson is an OSU graduate. Now, he had a choice to go home or to stay and start a business with his buddy in Columbus.

WOODSON: And it was, like, go to New York where it's extremely competitive and extremely expensive. And even being from there at that point in time, I didn't have as strong of a network. But Columbus is all about support and community and networking, and it's just this awesome place.

GLINTON: All right, so this is the moment where I bring out the expert who tells other cities what they could do to duplicate Columbus's success. Well, we have an expert - Enrico Moretti. He wrote a popular book called "The New Geography Of Jobs." He says you can sum up much of Columbus's success with one word.

ENRICO MORETTI: Serendipity. I've looked at the history of most clusters of innovation in the U.S., and it's rarely the case - in fact I couldn't find any example - where it was the local government that decided to create an innovation cluster there.

GLINTON: Moretti says Columbus is lucky - the university, the capital being in the center of the state.

MORETTI: Cost of living is affordable. The skill of the labor force - it's high, and taxes tend to be generally low. The regulatory environment tend to generally be pro-business. So these are all factors that favor Columbus over other locations.

GLINTON: So Columbus didn't mess it up.

MORETTI: Columbus didn't mess it up. Columbus took the seed and made the best of it.

GLINTON: OK, everybody, I have discovered Columbus - all right, just kidding. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We say Columbus is gaining population while Cleveland and Cincinnati are losing residents. Cincinnati has grown slightly since 2010 after decades of significant decline.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.