Successful port authority wants to expand focus to include neighborhood-anchoring.

When the Columbus-Franklin County Finance Authority was founded in 2006, it was not the first port authority in Ohio. Toledo and Cleveland had already formed similar authorities 20 years earlier.

It may have arrived late to the party, but the Columbus-based authority has made up for lost time. With a small budget and staff managed by President Jean Carter Ryan, the authority has issued $1.6 billion in bonds over the last decade, including a record $290 million in 2017 to support 18 projects.

CFCFA assistance proved crucial to many landmark projects throughout central Ohio, including:

• $119 million in two rounds of tax-exempt bonds for Grandview Yard infrastructure improvements and project financing.

• $157 million in bonds for Dublin's Bridge Street District, including parking garages, condos, apartments and retail space (older port authorities in Toledo and Summit County also invested).

• $10 million in bonds for a parking garage serving the Short North's Hub on High.

“We're one of youngest port authorities with a fulltime staff out of 56 port authorities in Ohio,” Ryan says. “Ohio's port authority law is one of the most flexible statutes in the country. We have big ports and even small ports acting as the economic development agency for their community, each with a different focus and local objectives, and that makes sense.”

The CFCFA has evolved from financing purely public projects to a wide variety of nonprofit and mixed-use projects, and it hopes to expand its scope to include more neighborhood anchoring developments.

Fitness equipment manufacturer Rogue Fitness obtained financing from the authority for its 600,000-square-foot facility in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood, an economically depressed area just north of Downtown. The authority provided $31 million in capital lease bond financing, holding title to the property and leasing it back to Rogue Fitness.

“It's a former industrial site that wasn't productive,” Ryan says. “Now it's manufacturing world-class athletic equipment you can see when you watch the CrossFit games on ESPN. They're growing and pulling in people into a neighborhood where you really need investment.”

Neighborhood impact is why the authority became interested in financing innovations under the federal Historic Tax Credit and the New Markets Tax Credit programs. But federal tax legislation pending last year would cut both those programs, just as the authority was applying for $40 million in New Markets Tax Credits for projects in Columbus.

“Within tax reform, they're talking about eliminating private activity bonds. It falls within financing non-profits and 501(c)3s,” Ryan says. “We worked with OCLC on five different financings for $120 million, and under this bill we could no longer provide them with financing.”

Bill Brennan, executive vice president and chief financial officer of the Pizzuti Companies, has worked with the CFCFA almost from its very beginning, and Pizzuti recently built an 800,000-square-foot distribution center at Rickenbacker West.

“Part of that required public infrastructure improvements—street extensions, signaling, interchanges and sidewalks. The authority was able to issue bonds so we could obtain TIF (Tax Increment Financing) to get capital for those improvements up front.”

In many cases, Brennan says, without TIF, sales tax incentives, leasing or tax-exempt bond financing, developers could not offset rising labor and material costs to make projects a reality.

“But it's also my job, when folks come to me, to direct them to a place where potentially they can get help, says Ryan. “So when I sat down with Scott Arnold and Central Ohio Youth for Christ, we didn't have a program that fit, so I sent him to the Finance Fund, which did help them.”

Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.