The Columbus Partnership is on the verge of achieving its audacious jobs, income and capital investment goals. What will it do next? “Economic inclusion” could be a focus.
Mark Kvamme came to Columbus to push an ambitious economic development agenda for Ohio, but even he thought the Columbus Partnership's goals were far-fetched. In one of his first meetings as Gov. John Kasich's economic development chief in January 2011, the former Silicon Valley venture capitalist met with Columbus Partnership President and CEO Alex Fischer and Columbus 2020 President and Chief Economic Officer Kenny McDonald to talk about their plans for the region.
Fischer and McDonald shared with Kvamme their economic targets: 150,000 new jobs, $8 billion in capital investment and a 30 percent increase in per-capita income. And they hoped to hit those goals by 2020, just nine years away. Kvamme was stunned. Ohio was coming out of a recession in which it had lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. The outlook was bleak, to say the least. “I'm seeing companies just exit the state like crazy,” Kvamme recalls. “I'm not seeing a whole bunch of interested people coming in across the state. And these guys come in, and they want to create 150,000 jobs? They wanted $8 billion of investment? I'm going, ‘Holy criminy, good luck.' ”
Now, with 2020 just two years away, those economic targets do seem a bit off: They might have been too low. The 11-county Columbus region has already secured $8.9 billion in capital investment, surpassing that goal two years early. It's also nearly at both the job creation and per-capita income goals, and it's on pace to surpass both of those targets before the target date.
As the leader of JobsOhio—Kasich's nonprofit economic development agency—Kvamme eventually learned that Columbus had more to offer than he realized. In fact, he was so impressed with the city that, after leaving JobsOhio, he co-founded Drive Capital, a $550 million Short North-based venture capital firm making huge bets on Columbus and the Midwest. He was invited to become a member of the Columbus Partnership in 2014. “One thing I think [Partnership leaders] figured out—and I figured out after a while doing the JobsOhio thing—is they've got a lot of assets here in Columbus,” Kvamme says. “We've got Cardinal Health. We've got Huntington Bank. We've got L Brands. We've got Abercrombie & Fitch. We've got JPMorgan. We've got all these core building blocks to do some special things.”
The economic success has had a huge impact on the city, from Downtown revitalization to big investments from the likes of Amazon, Facebook, BrewDog and Sofidel, an Italian tissue maker that spent between $300 million and $400 million on a new factory in Circleville. Fischer says creating 150,000 new jobs is equivalent to a significant city, if you think about it in people terms. “That's 150,000 families that have been impacted and are better off,” he says. “I'm a big believer in the power of a job, and the power of an opportunity that comes with economic opportunity, and then it's a ripple effect to everything in society and a community.”
Partnership leaders set those ambitious goals to create some firm metrics to measure success and to hold people accountable. As the economy tanked in late 2007 and 2008, the Partnership refocused its mission around economic development, which led to the creation of its sister organization, Columbus 2020, a regional economic development nonprofit that coordinates with state and local government officials and business leaders throughout the 11-county region. McDonald, the president and chief economic officer of Columbus 2020, says the growth and success of the past eight years has created a “greater ambition” in central Ohio. “A lot of our own businesses now realize this is actually a really great market to be in,” McDonald says. “We can get talent here. And while the labor market is tight, it is tight everywhere.”
Partnership leaders are now exploring the creation of a new set of economic goals. Alex Shumate, the managing partner for the Columbus office of Squire Patton Boggs and a member of the Partnership's executive committee, says the organization has launched a strategic planning process to examine its economic development strategy and expects to announce new economic targets by the end of the year.
Though details on those goals are sketchy at the moment, it appears they'll continue to focus on job and capital investment growth, with a few new wrinkles thrown in, as well. McDonald says the Partnership could focus on more sustainable jobs and capitalizing on the increased visibility the region has earned thanks to such victories as beating out 77 other communities to win the $50 million Smart City Challenge. “We want to raise our hand and let the world know who we are now,” McDonald says.
Another priority could be “economic inclusion,” as Shumate calls it. While the region is thriving overall, pockets are not. The city of Columbus, for instance, has retained a stubbornly high poverty rate, and a 2015 University of Toronto study identified Columbus as the second-most economically segregated major metro area in the U.S. “We want to make sure we're even more focused on [the fact] that not everyone has benefitted from the growth that we've had in central Ohio, whether that's neighborhoods within Franklin County or some of our rural communities in the region,” McDonald says.
Nick Akins, chairman, president and CEO of American Electric Power and a member of the Partnership's executive committee, says the Partnership is not just an alliance of business leaders; it's also a partnership with the community itself. And through initiatives such as Smart City and strengthening ties with other community groups, it can “ensure that the net is cast as wide as it possibly can be to benefit everyone.”
“I think we need to remember that it's about economic development primarily, and I think we've done that,” says CoverMyMeds co-founder and CEO Matt Scantland, who joined the Partnership in 2017. “But I think as we become an even more successful city, we should be thinking about how to make sure that economic development is as inclusive as it can be, so that everyone in central Ohio benefits from a rising boat, not just some people.”
McDonald talks about improving workforce transportation options and bringing jobs closer to those in need. “We're never going to alleviate poverty—and some of the issues are well beyond economic development—but we can be more thoughtful, and I think we can do something to get at that. We're not sure what that is yet, but I know that will be part of the next plan.”
Dave Ghose is the editor.