In preparation for his 60th birthday, Mayor Michael B. Coleman invited Columbus CEO to his office to measure the city's progress, revisit moments of crisis and consider Columbus' future.
Following his election in 2000, a two-hour meeting with then-Senator George Voinovich made a lasting impression on Michael B. Coleman. The four-term Democratic mayor of Columbus says that conversation has stayed with him through nearly15 years leading the 15th largest city in the U.S.
"What I walked away with was: First of all there's nothing like being a mayor, because you get things done. It's the most important position in America, being a mayor," says Coleman.
Coleman also took seriously the advice of the former governor and two-term mayor of Cleveland to secure business community allies in order to achieve his goals.
"When I became mayor, I reached out to the business community deliberately and intentionally," says Coleman. Coleman sought fresh ideas and laid the foundation for future partnerships within the city's boardrooms and barbershops. "I'd already had the relationships with the barbershops; I wanted to make sure I had it in the boardrooms, too. Bringing those both together has been important to the vitality of our city."
Coleman's partnerships-with businesses, civic leaders and across party lines-have been the pillars upon which he has lifted Columbus's historic inner-city neighborhoods from poverty to prosperity. He has led the Downtown renaissance. He has tackled an education system in crisis, a public-safety division in crisis, an economy and a citizenry in crises-all while keeping the potholes filled and the winter freeways plowed. And with characteristic swagger.
Under his leadership, the city's profile has exploded. Columbus is frequently cited by city-watchers as one of the forerunners in what has been termed the Metropolitan Revolution-the post-recession economic rise of city-regions in response to faltering state and federal governance. Coleman was a founding member of Columbus 2020, the Columbus Region economic development effort that has been recognized nationally as a public-private model.
Any day now, the Democratic National Committee will announce whether Columbus has been selected to host the party's 2016 national convention. Win or lose, it's an opportunity that his mayoral predecessors wouldn't have entertained for the Midwestern state capital once known only as a Cowtown.
In preparation for his 60th birthday, the city's longest-serving chief executive invited Columbus CEO to his office to measure the city's progress, revisit moments of crisis and consider Columbus' future. In keeping with Coleman's frank public persona, everything was on the table-except lofty reflections on his legacy.
"I can't think about legacies. Whatever my legacy ends up to be is not done. I'm always thinking about the future," says Coleman. "At some point, I'll pass the torch to somebody. I just don't know when that is. It's not now."
You've built many partnerships with the Columbus business community: How have those business relationships helped the city?
I believe in partnerships, that everyone needs to be vested in the vision of the city. It's not just the city by itself. It needs great partners to create the business environment and the environment that promotes prosperity and progress for its citizens.
The partnership begins with the city and the business community and others working together in a common vision-whether it be creation of jobs, whether it be education, whether it be neighborhood redevelopment. Those partnerships work when we buy into the vision.
I believe in partnerships. For example, the South Side has one of the highest poverty rates in the city, highest unemployment rates, vacant and abandoned housing rates, healthcare issues. We have a partnership with several business leaders in this city that have resulted in a transformation of the South Side. Same way with the Near East Side, same way with Downtown, same way with Weinland Park. It is those partnerships at work in Franklinton.
No one can do anything alone by themselves. W can only do it together. Our city works best when we work together.
How have your many neighborhood revitalization efforts helped the corporations and small businesses located in those neighborhoods?
They gain a better community, a more prosperous community, a more prosperous citizenry, a more prosperous neighborhood. I believe in sharing the prosperity. We're a city that has been blessed with great business expansion, a lot of wonderful assets, great vitality and I just believe it needs to be shared with everyone.
How closely do you work with the executives of Columbus's large companies to meet your mutual economic goals?
Very closely. I can give you example after example where I've reached into the top levels of the business community, and they have readily agreed to be helpful and to be part of the vision. That's the way I've operated for a long time on many areas of the city.
The real hard area that we worked on is education, and we continue to work on it because it's such a tough area for us. I called the CEO of Cardinal Health, George Barrett, who readily said, 'I will be helpful.' There's a man running one of the largest corporations in the world who rolled his sleeves up to help us maneuver through the maze of education and is still helping us to this very day, because the work's not done. He's very engaged in these issues.
Downtown, multiple business leaders-it just goes on and on and on. Many business leaders and executives have been extraordinarily helpful. There's talent in the business community I want to tap, and resources that we have been successful at gaining.
In your experience, do business leaders in other cities share that spirit?
You know, what I'm finding out is it's pretty unique to Columbus. As I travel the country and talk to mayors from around the country it seems that this is unique to the city of Columbus. It's good thing for our community. A really good thing when you can bring in the talent and resources of the business community to bear on issues of the future of our city.
How would you assess the current climate for the city's small businesses?
It's the best it's ever been since I've been in public office. That's 22 years (since 1992). I think it's the best it's ever been. It's been cyclical.
In 2009, it was really tough. Small businesses were struggling. I'd meet with them and there was not much I could do because of the economy at the national level. It was good in the mid-90s. I think right now we are beginning a renaissance in the city of Columbus with respect to small-business development and prosperity in our city.
For a lot of different reasons, today we are at the precipice of that renaissance. Still, there's much more to do for small businesses, but the small business community is in the best position, I think, that it's ever been in the city.
We have venture capital: For the first time, we have access to capital that hasn't been around for 20 years. The young-entrepreneur spirit is real and alive in our city. Our deliberate and intentional effort of retaining young talent is beginning to work. We're now a brain-gain city, no longer a brain-drain city. Those young talents that are staying in Columbus, they're opening their own businesses, largely in the technology, innovation and creative environment.
It's an amazing thing to see happen before our very eyes. I'm looking in the area of Franklinton, I see all these young folks who have an idea. They're promoting it and they're making money. This is part of the renaissance of the youth that exists in our city. I'm excited, I'm charged!
What are you hearing from the minority and immigrant small business communities-what matters to them?
Opportunity to be successful. That's all they ask for, and that's what we should provide them.
What are your peers in other cities, states and nations saying about Columbus?
Those who watch cities are very enlightened by Columbus. There are kind of two categories. There are those who are city watchers, planners, folks like me that pay attention to cities around the world (and) around the country who look at the city of Columbus and they're in amazement of how strong we have become in such a short period of time. These past few years we have been on every list of good things for a city at the top of that list. It just goes on and on. I go to these meetings around the country, conferences with my peers. There's a little envy, and I'm OK with that.
Then there's this other category. (In) the other category are those folks who are not city watchers pay(ing) attention to economic environments-that's common folk. They don't know very much about Columbus. There's this interesting coin here, one side with those who are engaged in government and policy and politics, urban planning and cities know that the city of Columbus is one of the top cities in the country and becoming an economic powerhouse for the country.
Then on the other side are those folks who don't pay much attention to that, the average person in America. They don't know much about Columbus. We've done a good job with the opinion-makers and those who watch cities and watch economies and understand growth and prosperity. But we have to do a better job with those who are in the media, and the common man and common woman about what great cities are all about, and Columbus is one of those. That goes to why we're starting to emphasize our convention business.
That's why we're really working hard on this DNC convention effort. It breaks a glass ceiling for us, beyond the experts to everybody else-the ordinary average person. We want to break that ceiling.
(In November), the DNC will be announcing their decision. Either way, how do you feel about the bid Columbus made?
It's a win no matter what. Win or lose, we win. Here's why: If we win the DNC, it's because we should-because we're the next Great American City that should have received it. If we lose we win, because we were in contention when nobody had even thought about this as an idea for our community. The Democratic National Convention: 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago this wasn't even on the horizon. It wasn't even considered a possibility. It wasn't even anybody's dream. And here we are in serious contention (for the) largest convention of the world and we're down to the last straw.
(Even) if we lose we're a player, and we win as a result. So win or lose, we win at this point.
Do you remember a turning point, when Columbus crossed over to a metro meeting its full potential?
There are a number of turning points. Our biggest turning point was facing a crisis. That was our biggest turning point in the city, and it really distinguished us from the rest of the nation.
In 2008, there was a national financial crisis...by January of 2008, the bottom fell out of the financial markets. If you recall, we were headed towards disaster. So was the city of Columbus. One-hundred million dollars we were projected not to receive. I had to cut that money-cut it, cut it, cut it. I cut so much my next cut was going to be police and fire, about 500 of them. I cut all kinds of city services, closed recreation centers. I cut everything that moved during those years.
Then I made a decision. I was standing at the crossroads.
Going down one road, I could continue to cut. As a result, I would cut hundreds of police and fire, make the city less safe. It might take a generation, maybe longer, to come back. We'd come back eventually as a city, maybe not in my lifetime. Neighborhoods would decline, our downtown would decline, our community would decline, our quality of life would be nonexistent. Our jobs would leave, businesses would leave.
I had that choice or go for a tax increase. I went for a tax increase at great risk. The business community supported it to a business. Every single business did; every single one supported me and they helped finance a campaign and the citizenry voted itself a tax increase. Since then, we use that money in a very smart, even way and by maintaining and continuing to build efficiencies. We continue to save money.
It put us in a different position than a lot of American cities at the time. As a result we've been really focused on job creation. When we create jobs in this city it improves not just the city budget, it improves neighborhoods, households, the whole works. Now we have the lowest unemployment in the state. We've increased our number of jobs (by) some 80,000 now in the region. We have increased our per capita income, and now we're going to start knocking down poverty…while improving education.
Did you have some sleepless nights back then?
Every night was a sleepless night. Imagine standing on the crossroads and knowing (in) this direction is a disaster-it was probably the easiest way to go, to not ask for a tax increase. Just continue to cut. In cutting, I was hurting the city, knowingly hurting the city.
Then down that (other) path was the road less traveled: a tax increase. And it was a significant tax increase the public voted for. I had many sleepless nights. Standing on the crossroad when I made the choice to go down the path of a tax increase, I didn't know if it would pass. I thought there was a strong possibility it wouldn't...if it didn't pass we'd be going down the other road.
I do not want to live through that again ever. It was a major crisis for our city.
Was there a moment when you knew you had to take that risk?
I can tell you there were many sleepless nights. There wasn't an exact moment that I can recall. It was the sleepless nights, the praying.
Whenever I listen to my sixth sense, I'm usually right. And I listened to my sixth sense and said, 'This is the right way to go.'
What other proud or challenging moments have you had in office?
There were many challenging moments. The job of a mayor is one-third dealing with crises, one-third picking up the trash and making sure that the potholes are filled, and then one-third thinking about (and) executing for the future. That's what my everyday is like.
When I first came into office, I came in under crisis. When I came into office in the year 2000, 15 years ago, the city police had been taken over by the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice had intervened in the city for a lot of reasons, and I had to work that out. And I did...it worked out just fine. That took out most of my first year in office. I walked into crisis.
Every day (since), one-third of my day is putting out a fire. The other third is making sure the potholes are filled, the other third is planning for the future.
I've gone though two major recessions. Another crisis was 9/11.
9/11 was a terrifying day for this city. Although we weren't attacked, we didn't know we weren't being attacked. That was a crisis. The three years after that were crises as well, because that was the longest and deepest recession since the Depression, up to that moment. Our economy changed. We talked about small businesses-they were struggling. Anything that touched the airline industry was a failure.
I've had many crises I have dealt with over my years. Before this day is over there will be a crisis-there'll be afire I'll have to put out. …an issue I'll have to deal with that's immediate, and I'll have to make the right judgment.
As a mayor I can't honestly tell you which one is the worst. I can tell you that crisis is a way of life in this office. That's one third of the time. It's all how you handle it and all about the quality of people that you have around you. That's a major part of it. If you don't have good people, you don't make good decisions.
How do you go about selecting the best people to help you make those decisions?
I rely a lot on my directors, my chief of staff and my deputy chiefs of staff in the mayor's office. If something comes up that is out of the realm of their experience or knowledge or skill, I will reach out beyond them to the business community or the civic community to get advice. It depends on the circumstances who I turn to and why I turn to them.
When I hire people, I try to hire the best and the brightest. They go through what I call the 'skills and feels' test. They have to have the skill to do the job and then they have to have the connection with me and the trust with me for the process of performing the job. They can have the skills, but if they don't have the feels they're not hired.
What advice would you would pass on to other leaders dealing with crises?
I think crisis management is stay(ing) calm, cool, calculated. That means don't get flustered. Look at the facts, look at the situation. What calculating means is, try your best to analyze and evaluate the circumstances you are in and the consequences of the decisions you make.
Seek advice. Because there's always somebody smarter than you on a particular topic. Figure out who that is and get them in the room and engage with them on what the problem is.
If not for your successful career as mayor, what do you think you'd be doing now?
If I weren't mayor, I don't know, some lesser office. Maybe governor or president (laughs).
As the mayor, I really have enjoyed participating in the designing of things we've built. I get great joy out of it, whether it be a building or a park or a riverfront. I spend a lot of time helping the professionals design what's ultimately going to be there. That's the one thing I get great joy out of. I think if I weren't mayor, after being mayor, what I would do is be an architect or land planner or urban designer.
As your 60th approaches, are you looking back on your legacy, or are you looking forward?
I think 60 is my 40. I'm feeling good, I'm feeling like I've got a long road ahead of me and a lot of challenges to conquer and a lot of things I have yet to do for this city. There's a lot to do. I wake up every day and say, 'Man, we need to do this, we need to do that.' And I'm excited about it! I'm as enthusiastic about this city as I was in the year 2000.
When you first took office what was your number-one goal?
First thing was get good people. I really worked hard in pulling together my first cabinet 15 years ago. I spent my time and effort getting great talent to run this city. I had an agenda and I needed them to execute it.
The first major policy thing I did was deal with this crisis of the DOJ. We dealt with that, and then I moved over to creating a new housing policy in the city. Since then we have financed thousands of affordable housing units in the city of Columbus, in our neighborhoods. Then I shifted to Downtown.
Did you ever think you'd say that about yourself?
Actually when I was much younger, I wanted to be an architect. I went for politics instead, so here I am doing both. It's the best of all worlds.
What list do you want to see Columbus top next?
I want us to be the number-one city to live, work, play and raise a family. Number one.