Mayor's approach to leading Columbus is informed by his upbringing.
Mayor's approach to leading Columbus is informed by his upbringing.
Mayor Andrew Ginther sees stronger families and neighborhoods as key to strengthening Columbus.
For Andy Ginther, it all starts with family. That's where he learned life lessons he has brought with him to Columbus City Hall and the mayor's office. And families-stable families-are the focus of his efforts to make good on his oft-repeated vision of Columbus as the Opportunity City.
"Family stability is the key bedrock, (it) is the key to neighborhood stability, and neighborhood stability is critical to the city's future. It's all rooted in family stability," Ginther explains.
His own family story is well known. He grew up in Clintonville with three siblings while his social worker mother and lawyer father also cared over the years for 50 foster brothers and sisters.
Ginther's upbringing helped create an "others" focus that still drives him and is apparent when he talks about his first year as mayor.
"What gets me up every day-back to my belief in what government's role is-my mom was a social worker who never met a stranger and is still probably working a case for a couple dozen people out there as a social worker even though she's been retired for a while. My dad practiced law, a Vietnam veteran. Both (were) foster parents. We had foster brothers and sisters growing up.
"The reason I have loved local service and local government is you can make a difference in people's lives, and you can directly impact, contribute to and support people, help them improve their own lives, and be there to support, serve as a catalyst, convener, collaborator. I'm ultimately accountable for the quality of life in this city, the people in our neighborhoods. I couldn't ask for a better job and a better city to do it," Ginther says.
Just 41, the new mayor developed and honed his approach to governing as a close observer and eager student of Columbus' longest serving mayor, Michael Coleman. Ginther was a member and then president of Columbus City Council during the last half of Coleman's 16 years in office.
Throughout his campaign in 2015 and then again in his first State of the City address last February, Ginther has been a consistent and constant voice for strengthening neighborhoods as a way to strengthen the city. What couldn't have been foreseen during Ginther's run to succeed Coleman or even in the game plan he laid out in his first major address as mayor was the unprecedented platform for success that the city now has as the winner in late June of the federal Smart City Challenge.
The US Department of Transportation and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan invited mid-sized cities to vie for a $50 million prize to create a transportation model of the future using transit and technology to resolve common urban problems. Columbus was among 78 applicant cities and then became one of seven finalists, competing against Austin, Portland, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Denver and Kansas City.
"You know, as soon as we talk about our focus on neighborhoods, neighborhoods, neighborhoods, you have the likes of Steve Steinour (Huntington Bancshares Inc. chairman, president and CEO) and Doug Borror (CEO of Borror Properties) and other great corporate leaders stepping up and (helping) through the Smart City Challenge process. (AEP CEO) Nick Akins, (Ohio State University) President (Michael) Drake, (Battelle President and CEO) Dr. Jeffrey Wadsworth, were absolutely critical to our success with that," Ginther says.
Now, as Ginther works to implement his neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to city-building, Smart Columbus has become a key vehicle for solving challenges in Linden and the Hilltop while ultimately lifting the rest of the city.
And what helped Columbus win the national challenge is what Ginther also sees as a key strength for his administration-what he, and others, call the Columbus Way.
"Not too many cities have a course named after them taught by the Harvard Business School-The Columbus Way, because we do public-private partnerships better than any other community in the country," Ginther says.
He explains, "Many folks, including Harvard, view us as a best practice with respect to public-private partnerships. It's helped to transform the riverfront. It's helped to uplift neighborhoods like Weinland Park, American Addition, Northland. These public-private partnerships are truly helping to drive change and improving quality of life on the South Side of Columbus, the Reeb Center, and it's that type of approach and track record that our goal is to take to Linden and the Hilltop as well. These public private partnerships have also gotten the people of Columbus huge return on investment."
Previous mayors Greg Lashutka and Buck Rinehart had some success building relationships between the public and private sectors, Ginther says, but he credits Coleman with taking "public-private partnerships to a whole new level during his tenure."
It's one thing for a charismatic leader to create partnerships for particular projects or initiatives, but Coleman's efforts helped to build civic collaboration into the city's culture, Ginther asserts. That has become apparent as leadership at City Hall transitioned to him with no lessening in Columbus' collaborative culture, he adds.
Add corporate transitions into the mix-some with retirements and some with the passing of civic leaders including former Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe-and there could have been movement away from business and government leaders' willingness to tackle problems together, but that hasn't happened, the mayor observes. "We're not having a conversation in this community about whether our public-private partnerships make sense. We're having conversations about what's next, and I think the Smart Columbus application and what you saw during the Smart City challenge is another perfect example of that."
Ginther recalls it was a month after his State of the City address that he and Columbus Partnership President and CEO Alex Fischer were at the World Economic Forum in San Diego and had a conversation with USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx about the Smart City application just after Columbus had been named one of seven finalists. The conversation was pivotal and completely changed Ginther's thinking about Columbus' prospects for competing with the other finalist cities, some of which already had advanced local transit systems.
"What he said to us was, 'Don't think about where you are, but think about where this award, based on your plan and your partners and your local community's commitment to this process, where you can take your community by being able to invest and implement your program.' That really resonated with Alex and I. We literally came back, I think the following day or that week, and I met with Alex's executive committee and they were all in and stepped up in big ways."
Soon after, AEP's Akins hosted a luncheon with leaders of Vulcan-which had put up $10 million of the $50 million Smart City prize-to talk about electrification and reduction of greenhouse gases, Ginther remembers.
"There's some, I think, that were not cynical but skeptical that a community with such a major energy powerhouse like American Electric Power being based here, that they were truly committed to electrification and a different future. Well, Nick has a very different vision for the future than a lot of folks might think. So by having folks in from Vulcan to talk about that … the leadership from Vulcan truly began to understand how this community is different and how the Columbus Way and public-private partnerships work here and that they're imbedded into our culture," he says.
It is the city's collaborative corporate culture that Ginther is hoping to leverage toward his goals of raising Linden and the Hilltop out of poverty with all the accompanying challenges-including high rates of unemployment, infant mortality and violence. Some of those issues will be attacked directly through the Smart Columbus initiative. Progress is also expected through initiatives such as a commitment announced in late November by Huntington Bancshares to strengthen the Linden and Northland neighborhoods by creating 1,000 new jobs-mostly technology and back-office positions-and loan $300 million in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.
"Steve (Steinour) was one of the first people to talk to me about this even before I took office-how Huntington could take the lead in helping us to invest in the neighborhoods. I run into people like Steve all over the place. In nonprofits, K through 12, higher ed, a lot of our partners that are working with us to expand preschool," Ginther says.
Part of what the mayor says he learned in his first year in office is the goodwill across all sectors of central Ohio for Columbus to succeed.
"They all want to do their part. … I had several different people come up to me during the course of the year and say, 'hey, I hear your message about neighborhoods. It really resonated. What can I do? How can I roll up my sleeves?'" Ginther says. "It's one of the first conversations I had with Steve Steinour and then ultimately we had this fantastic announcement of 1,000 new jobs and reinvestment of hundreds of millions of dollars … into Linden and North Linden, which will help revitalize and transform those neighborhoods. (It's) another great public-private partnership with a great corporate champion in Huntington."
Ginther's efforts don't end at the city's borders. He is also conscientiously crossing into suburban territory to build relations with other local government leaders.
"Our suburban neighbors want to help make Columbus exceptional because they know that if Columbus is successful and it's thriving, then Westerville and New Albany and Dublin, Hilliard, Grove City, we all will benefit from a healthy, strong, vibrant city. I probably knew all that as council president. I know it far better now as I've gotten to know the mayors of those cities," Ginther says.
By visiting suburban city halls and meeting there with other mayors and their senior leaders, he says he has been able to "learn more about what's going on in their cities and communities and how we can work together. This has paid off huge. We had over 200 letters of support for our Smart City application, and an amazing number of them from our suburban neighbors."
Ginther has also traveled halfway around the world in his official capacity, paying a late November visit to one of 10 Columbus sister cities-Accra, Ghana. He took no press contingent but was accompanied by former Mayor Michael Coleman, who had signed a sister-city agreement with Accra Nov. 30, 2015, shortly before his term ended.
Especially impactful was seeing former slave castles on Ghana's Cape Coast, where millions of captured Africans were held before being shipped to the Americas in the transatlantic slave trade. "Just the power of that experience was something that I won't ever forget. I think it also reinforced for me the 35,000 Ghanaians that live right now in Columbus," Ginther says. "A lot of people don't realize how many Ghanaian Americans are here and in Columbus. It just reinforced to me the connection, the shared history, present and future, that Ghana and the United States have and particularly, Accra, our sister city."
Accra is the capital and largest city of Ghana with a population of over 2 million. Its experience with early childhood education offers lessons for Columbus.
"One of my top priorities is high-quality, universal pre-K (education) in Columbus, so spending some time with the teachers and educators there and the kids to see them in action and see the huge gains they are seeing, particularly (with) children who are poor and starting school at the age of 4 as opposed to 5 or 6" was one of the highlights of his trip, Ginther says.
The Columbus contingent also visited some businesses interested in doing work in the US and discussed opportunities to work together. Environmental health is a big issue in Accra, and Columbus has experience with its wet-weather management plan that could be helpful there, Ginther notes.
Heading into his second year in office, the mayor says he has especially learned the importance of the people surrounding him-his city family.
"I always knew how important your people are, your team, the members of the cabinet, staff in the mayor's office, employees across the board, the entire city family is, to making our city what it is and to continue to work on what we want it to be. I was reminded over and over and over again this year how important people are to helping to lead a city."
Q&A with Mayor Andrew Ginther
How do you deal with the pressure of your job as mayor?
We all have tough jobs, pressure, stress in our lives, whether you're the mayor or whatever your job is in this community. So like a lot of people, it's faith, it's family, it's exercise. I'm a big believer in exercise to help with stress. Nothing helps a day start off better (than a run).
You stress the importance of public-private partnerships. What are new examples in your administration?
We just announced with the Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing a great partnership on the south side of Columbus with affordable housing,workforce training actually in the same facility, training our neighbors on the South Side of Columbus for specific jobs. They know their title, what their benefits are going to be and they go through the training program right in the affordable housing complex.
How are you approaching workforce development under the recent reauthorization of previous federal law?
We engaged the private sector to take roles on the workforce development board. That had not really happened previously. You know, some of the leading talent management, HR professionals for some of our largest companies, to help set the direction, go out and select a top notch director… I asked my deputy chief of staff, Dawn Tyler Lee, to become intimately involved in that process because workforce development and that reset is absolutely critical to keeping our economy strong and healthy and continuing to grow. It's also critical to my goals around neighborhood development.
How involved will you be in the Columbus Women's Commission that your wife, Shannon, is chairing?
We've been married for 15 years. I can't think of anything that we've done totally separately that wasn't engaged or collaborative in some way, shape or form, and this work is far too important to me and to her that that wouldn't be the way we were going to work together on this. But it aligns pretty closely with my America's Opportunity City, shared prosperity, everybody sharing in our success. … I couldn't ask for a better partner and leader for this work that's going to directly impact some of my goals and mission for the city than her.
Mary Yost is the editor.