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Midwestern Breakout?

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Midwestern Breakout?

Columbus, Ohio, is firing on all cylinders—demographically, economically, and culturally. December 17, 2018
Economy, finance, and budgets
Infrastructure and energy

Nine years ago, when the Columbus Partnership, an organization of 65 Central Ohio CEOs, launched the Columbus 2020 initiative, which sought to add 150,000 new jobs to the regional economy in a decade, it seemed like an unreachable ambition. After all, during the 2000s, Columbus, like most of America, actually lost jobs. But Columbus met its goal early. During 2010–17, the region added nearly 164,000 new jobs, a 17.8 percent growth rate that ranks second among major metros in the Midwest—and far outpaced the national figure of 12.5 percent.

A lot has gone right in Columbus. Its metro-area population has grown by 172,000, or 9 percent, since 2010, tops in the Midwest among larger regions. It has added almost 400,000 people since 2000, putting it fewer than 25,000 behind the much-larger Chicago metro’s increase. The Columbus metropolitan area now exceeds 2 million people, and some demographers project that it will hit 3 million by 2050.

Like many cities, Columbus is experiencing an apartment-building boom, in part because of an influx of educated young people. Among the city’s younger adults aged 25–34, 43.1 percent have college degrees; overall, 36 percent of adults have them. Those figures lag the top national talent hubs but rank in the top half of major metros nationally.

Talented newcomers have helped fire up a technology startup sector, symbolized by the $1.1 billion purchase of local software firm CoverMyMeds by San Francisco–based McKesson. Columbus is home to one of the largest midwestern venture-capital funds, Drive Capital, headed by two former partners at marquee Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Sequoia. External validation came from making Amazon’s short list of 20 cities in its HQ2 competition and from winning a fierce national competition for the Transportation Department’s $50 million “smart cities” challenge grant.

Columbus benefits from numerous advantages over other Ohio and midwestern locations. It’s both the capital and home to the state’s flagship university, Ohio State, whose mid-north-side location is the third-largest college campus in the United States. Its economy was less dependent on manufacturing than that of some other cities, like Cleveland and Detroit, so it weathered the sector’s decline more effectively. Thanks to farsighted local leadership, Columbus could continue to grow geographically, like a Sunbelt city, because it required landowners to agree to annexation before it would extend water service, whereas many other midwestern cities either didn’t negotiate the right to annex suburbs in advance of giving them water, or their suburbs didn’t need such service.

Not that the city hasn’t had to overcome handicaps. Other major cities in Ohio are competing for state dollars, too. Cincinnati and Cleveland were much bigger than Columbus, until recently; they boast stronger legacy cultural institutions. Columbus has major professional sports teams only in hockey and soccer, for example, and the soccer team has threatened to leave. And the city may be America’s largest not known on a first-name basis—it’s still typically listed as “Columbus, Ohio,” to avoid confusion with other U.S. cities by the same name.

The city suffered a jolt in 2007 when NetJets, a Warren Buffett–controlled company selling fractional jet ownership, nearly moved its headquarters to the Sunbelt. In response, the Columbus region revamped its economic-development approach, in part leading to the successful Columbus 2020 strategy. The city also focused on downtown revitalization, building up its Arena District on the north side—home to the city’s convention center and the NHL’s Blue Jackets. Culturally, Columbus has played catch-up. An emerging museum campus west of downtown, on the far side of the Scioto River, will include the new National Veterans Memorial and Museum and exhibits from New York’s famed American Museum of Natural History.

Though it trails Sunbelt boomtowns in growth, Columbus is a strong performer, roughly comparable with other midwestern capitals like Indianapolis and Minneapolis–St. Paul. Like them, it appears to be benefiting from statewide decline, drawing new residents from struggling outer regions. Cities like Nashville and Austin draw significant national migration, but Columbus overwhelmingly welcomes its newcomers from elsewhere in Ohio. For now, this is an advantage; long-term, it may not be, in a state that’s otherwise declining. And Columbus’s cadres of “booster bros,” who can’t abide criticism of their city, will likely make it tougher to address future challenges.

Its limitations aside, Columbus is improving demographically, economically, and culturally. Except for Chicago, no midwestern city has cracked the code on how to attract newcomers from outside the region. There’s no reason that Columbus can’t be the breakout from the midwestern pack, making itself into a national, not just regional, success story.

Photo: mrtom-uk/iStock

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