Can one of the country’s most dynamic economies be built in the Midwest?

June 4, 2018

Today’s Economic Development Matters is by guest author Alex R. Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership.

These days, the economy in much of the United States is good. Many metro areas are thriving, including Columbus. Questions abound about how to retain and attract labor, how to build infrastructure to keep up with a growing population, and how to maintain housing affordability.

Those are big questions.

But lest we forget, at the outset of this decade and in the fog of one of worst economic recessions in the nation’s history, business leaders and elected officials in Columbus were asking a very different set of questions.

  • Can we claw our way to positive job growth, or is high unemployment the new normal?
  • Can we reset our housing market, or has it been permanently damaged?
  • Can we maintain government services without raising taxes to an unsustainable threshold?

It has been said that it is a shame to let a crisis pass without creating the impetus for positive change. Led by the Columbus Partnership, a few visionary leaders in Columbus not only harbored that thought, they did something about it.

With data sets from McKinsey & Company as their ammunition, public and private leaders made the case that the Columbus Region must take action or slip irreparably backward. They were joined by thousands of leaders throughout the Region who recognized that bold action could lead to jobs, investment and rising incomes. They asked:

  • With intentional effort and a bias for action, can we have the greatest decade of growth in our region’s history?
  • With regional collaboration and focus, can we rise to national prominence in economic development circles?

Both questions have been answered in the affirmative for millions of residents in Central Ohio.

In 2010, Columbus Region leaders worked together to launch the One Columbus Regional Growth Strategy, a plan to achieve a set of aggressive 10-year economic growth goals.

A record amount of money was invested into the strategy and a world-class team was assembled to execute the hard work of implementation. At the state level, JobsOhio was created as well, as one of the most innovative economic development approaches in the country.

Last week, the One Columbus team announced that the key goal to add over 150,000 net new jobs has been exceeded by our region in just eight years. This was a goal that many viewed as unattainable, and others viewed as mere hype.

Many could not imagine such an achievement. In the 1990s, considered a boom era for Central Ohio, just over 138,000 net new jobs were created in a ten-year period. During the decade of the Great Recession, only 3,000 net new jobs were added.

During the last eight years, Columbus has become the second largest city in the Midwest and 14th largest in the nation. Surrounding counties like Delaware, Union, and Licking are growing at unprecedented rates as well.

Companies like JPMorgan Chase, Facebook, Honda, Amazon, IBM, and Accenture have built tech centers and mission critical facilities in the market. Brands like Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, Cardinal Health, and Nationwide Insurance have added thousands more jobs and are continuing to build on their history in the Columbus Region. Wendy’s moved its headquarters back to the Columbus Region from Atlanta, and foreign-owned companies like Sofidel, Klarna and BrewDog call the Columbus Region their U.S. home.

Rickenbacker International Airport and the surrounding area have grown into a global logistics and e-commerce giant with over 70 million square feet of logistics space and daily flights from airlines like Cathay Pacific, Cargolux and Emirates, delivering imports and exporting goods direct to Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

The Columbus Region produced its first unicorn, also the Midwest’s most recent. CoverMyMeds, a company started by Columbus native Matt Scantland, has revolutionized the way patients get the medication they need.

Drive Capital has set up the Midwest’s largest venture fund and is steadily moving companies to the market and fueling the aspirations of the Region’s technology community.

Columbus bested great cities across the country to be named the grant winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, officially designating Central Ohio as a living laboratory for advanced mobility testing, deployment and technology development.

Most importantly, confidence has risen along with jobs, salaries and entrepreneurial fortunes. Students are not only graduating from more than 30 colleges and universities in the Region – they’re staying to work for established companies and the start-ups surrounding them. Nearly 50 percent of the graduates of The Ohio State University, one of the largest urban universities in the country with over 60,000 undergraduates on its main campus, are staying within the market.

Along the way, the Columbus Region banded together under the ColumbUS brand platform, recognizing and practicing the power of regionalism and collaboration.

In other words, Columbus has learned how to win. How to expect to always win, with newly earned mojo. No longer do we say “we can’t do that.” Rather, we expect that we can do anything we set our sights on. And the Harvard Business School teaches the world about The Columbus Way, the power of private sector leaders working together with government because of unwavering commitment to the future of their community.

Now, as the Region begins to close in on completion of its decade-long plan, new questions have surfaced:

  • Can industries cross the technology divide and innovate fast enough to keep pace with global competitors?
  • Can we meet the national workforce challenge in a time of great demographic, technological and social change?
  • Can this region economically lift its most vulnerable residents?
  • Can we advance a forward-thinking plan to manage 500,000 more incoming residents? Another million?
  • Can we further unleash the power of our concentration of higher education?
  • Can we maintain our culture of tolerance, acceptance and equality for everyone?
  • Will a new generation of leaders be committed to carrying forward the ideals and the power of The Columbus Way?

Answering these questions will be a huge challenge. It will lead to unexpected outcomes and maybe even some failures along the way.

However, the Columbus Region has proven that it can be accountable for overcoming the challenges it faces. And the success of the past decade has fueled a new level of ambition for what could come next.

Thank you to thousands of leaders who have joined and maintained the momentum. I hope you are proud of what all of US have accomplished!

Alex R. Fischer
President and CEO
Columbus Partnership