from cowtown to techtown: columbus as a startup city
In today's startup economy, civic leaders and CEOs alike face two stark fates: reinvent, or wither away.
The City of Columbus
has boldly chosen reinvention, becoming home to a bevy of entrepreneurs. Mayor Michael Coleman recently declared in his 2012 State of the City address that Columbus, now in its 200th year, is on the "precipice of a renaissance."
Under Coleman's leadership , Columbus has leveraged its assets -- its cultural diversity, world-class research institutions, fine arts colleges, healthy business environment and creative workforce -- and is emerging from the recession as a stronger city. A newly released study
that was conducted by the economic development consulting firm Praxis Strategy Group rated Columbus the eighth best city in the nation (and the top city in Ohio) for technology jobs. The study found a 31.4 percent gain in Columbus’s tech sector over the past ten years.
Such growth is no accident. Columbus’s civic, academic and business leaders anticipated the challenges of the new tech economy, and they have spent the past decade since Coleman’s election preparing the Capital City to lead the state into the future. “A city cannot thrive without adapting,” Mayor Coleman said in an email interview.
“We are very fortunate to have many older, stable businesses in Columbus that have contributed to our economy and the leadership of our community for decades. But in order to be one of the great cities of the coming decades, we need to nurture new business and industry," Coleman said.
Yet civic leaders in Columbus have nurtured more than the business community. They have also increased community pride by investing in neighborhoods. They've attracted young professionals to stay in Columbus after college by incentivizing a variety of small, service-oriented businesses and startups.
Once dismissively nicknamed Cowtown, Columbus's rebirth as a technology center for Ohio is evident to any pedestrian who walks the renovated cityscape of this mid-sized metropolis and sees the growth and new ideas flourishing here.
Mayor Coleman has overseen the curation of Columbus’s historic neighborhoods into a vibrant, restored collection of unique districts that reflect the culture of the city as a whole. This tour is best begun at the Lazarus building
at the city’s center.
Located a few blocks south of the Ohio Statehouse, the flagship store of the Midwestern retail giant (later to become a founding partner in the Federated Department Stores group and rebranded as Macy’s) opened its doors in 1909. The original Lazarus department store was expanded into a block of buildings and eventually anchored the development of Columbus City Center Mall in 1989.
Yet the mall, an island of new investment surrounded by a high tide of growing urban disrepair, soon fell out of fashion. Retailers shuttered and moved to high-end suburban developments. Government employees stopped visiting the mall’s restaurants on lunch break; gangs of rowdy, bored teenagers took over. By the early 2000’s, the building was vacant and contaminated with asbestos.
In 2002, Mayor Coleman proposed a new vision for the city’s center. Then he built strong public-private partnerships, worked with small businesses and collaborated with Columbus residents to achieve it. Today, the Lazarus building stands as an upcycled landmark. One of the largest sustainably renovated buildings in the nation (certified by LEED, or Leadership in Energy, Efficiency and Design), it is a prime example of the sort of urban redevelopment embraced by Coleman.
The building’s new tenants including the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, Ohio EPA, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Franklin County Board of Commissioners, Hewlitt Packard, a variety of restaurants and coffee shops, and the Ohio State University Urban Art Space
. Downtown's growing vibrancy as well as the short, easy commute have convinced many downtown workers to live here, thus fueling the increasingly popular apartment and condominium market.
Downtown denizens enjoy the new Columbus Commons
, a central park and greenspace to the east, and the Scioto Mile
riverfront parks to the West. The gem of the Scioto Mile is the rehabbed Columbus Central High School—now the ultra-modern Center for Science and Industry (COSI
), a hands-on science and technology center popular with Columbus families and tourists.
Neighborhood by neighborhood
The rest of the city has been redeveloped as methodically as downtown and the Scioto Mile. “We have neighborhood revitalization efforts across the city and we have private sector partners in most of them,” said Coleman. Public-private partnerships are the foundation upon which the mayor is renovating the city.
The mayor credits Columbus-based American Electric Power for leading a number of corporate contributors in funding the Scioto Mile
; the Waggonbrenner Company for contributing to revitalization in the Weinland Park
area; Nationwide Children’s Hospital for building and rehabbing houses in the neighborhood south of Livingston Avenue; the Ohio State University for leading a revitalization effort surrounding University Hospital East on the city’s near east side
; and Donato’s Pizza for leading a number of corporate partners in helping to create the South Campus Gateway
, which houses OSU’s Tech Commercialization center
The preservation of historic German Village
and the transformation of the Short North
into a vibrant commercial arts district during the 1980s and 90s presaged the development of downtown’s Arena District
, Gay Street thoroughfare and Discovery District. The once vacant storefronts within these districts are now buzzing with busy tech startups, design firms and studio spaces during the day and pulsing with the energy of restaurants, galleries and clubs at night.
Attracting the entrepreneurs
Coleman's office works in partnership with Columbus 2020
, a public-private initiative whose mission is to grow Central Ohio’s regional economy by overseeing the continued growth of existing companies, attracting new industries and promoting the commercialization of home-grown entrepreneurial innovation.
As Columbus 2020’s managing director of strategic development, Victor Thorne’s primary goal is to “identify and network with the region’s most promising and fastest growing emerging companies (startups), connect them with our community’s resources and assets, and help them get positioned to rapidly grow.”
In his previous position as director of the Ohio TechAngels Fund
, Thorne led the administration of OTAF's grants from Ohio Third Frontier
. Thorne’s endgame with Columbus 2020 is to attract investment capital, “ultimately fulfilling our goal of adding jobs, per capita income, new capital investment from within and outside the state, and achieving significant milestones that are globally noteworthy.”
Yes, Thorne thinks big: he wants to see startups like Facebook, Groupon and Instagram emerge from Columbus. Columbus 2020 works closely with the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Coleman's office to achieve this goal, ensuring a close relationship between civic leadership and local accelerators (The Ohio State University's 10xcelerator
), incubators (TechColumbus
, Dubin Entreprenurial Center
and New Albany’s INC@8000
) and investors (TechColumbus, Ohio TechAngel Funds, Fast Switch and Founders Factory
Mayor Coleman shares Columbus 2020’s goals of increasing job opportunities in the years ahead, and says he’s committed to working to reach those goals. “The great thing about new start-up businesses is not only do they contribute to today’s economic climate, but they are an indicator of future success.”
The fascination factor
To be a vital city in today's startup economy, it’s not enough for Columbus to provide tax abatements, offer job creation incentives and encourage research within the tech sector. Fostering service-oriented startups, restaurants and retailers that will serve the city's creative class is as important to the city’s growth as courting technology jobs and design firms in the Arena and Market Exchange Districts.
The next phase in downtown development is the Coleman's “Mile on High” initiative, a strategy to draw retailers to the heart of the city. This program will offer state and city grants, tax incentives and microloans to qualifying job creators in the retail sector who rehab old buildings and relocate downtown.
The new effort is simply the next leg of recasting Columbus as a startup city.
“In recent years Columbus has become one of the best cities in the nation for attracting young, smart, creative people,” said Coleman. “The success we are seeing in the technology field and other start-up ventures is a product of that.”
All Photos by Ben French
Photo 1: Scioto Mile
Photo 2: Mayor Michael Coleman
Photo 3: Downtown Columbus
Photos 4-5: The Columbus Commons
Photos 6-8: The reinvented Lazarus Building