South Side lays foundation of housing and training as industrial and commercial businesses reinvest in the area.

South Side advocates are hoping that public-private partnerships, new retail and housing facelifts will spur redevelopment and ease the area's poverty, unemployment and education problems. In an area that shed industrial jobs for decades, there are recent signs of hope.

One harbinger of improvement is that demand for Columbus Castings' rail car parts and state aid have expanded, while tax breaks have helped plant owner Protostar Partners add 550 jobs.

New housing within the area includes Parsons Village, with 56 senior units at Reeb and Washington Avenues, as well as Career Gateway's 58 apartments and town homes on Reinhard Avenue, just east of Parsons Avenue. Private investors, like Patriarch Partners, are also rehabilitating South Side housing, and increased foot traffic has caught the interest of franchise restaurants deciding to locate nearby.

Public sector investments are also on the move, with a larger Parsons Avenue branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, a new crime lab on Woodrow Avenue for the Columbus Division of Police and a new fire station on Greenlawn Avenue.

A resurrected jewel of the area is the Reeb Center, a former Columbus elementary school soon to be home to a dozen nonprofit groups. The Reeb Center was at the top of the agenda in the Southern Gateway Initiative, launched in 2012 by Mayor Michael Coleman to head off the area's decline with enhanced social services, housing and job training.

In addition to more than $6.5 million from the city and $2 million from the State of Ohio, the Reeb Center has received $4 million in private contributions, including $1.5 million from Donatos and the Grote family, $1 million from the Crane Group and Crane family, $500,000 from developer Donald Kelley, and sizeable donations from Kids Come First, Nationwide, the Columbus Foundation and Grange Insurance.

The three-level Reeb Center, which board members Tanny Crane and Jane Grote Abell call a "hub of hope," will become the home to a Boys & Girls Club, along with nonprofits offering job readiness skills, adult education and GED prep, family social service programs and eight new early childhood classrooms. A new South Side Roots Cafe & Market will operate in the center, with support from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank and Community Development for All People.

Both Grote Abell and Crane say they believe the area must rebuild its economic foundation with quality housing, educational opportunities for both adults and children, and job skills. After all, the Southern Gateway Initiative's Roadmap to Revitalization report pulled no punches about crime, infant mortality and unemployment in the area, which are generally double or triple the levels in Columbus overall.

The 2014 report recounts a job exodus and pattern of neglect for more than 20 years. The former Lockbourne Air Base (now Rickenbacker Air National Guard and airport) lost nearly 12,000 jobs in US Air Force transfers of operations in the late 1970s. Dozens of retailers and thousands of residents vanished, leaving one in five houses abandoned in this area south of Downtown, Mayor Michael Coleman noted in launching the initiative in his 2012 state of the city address.

Coleman's Southern Gateway Initiative added synergy to a South Side Renaissance effort focusing on housing rehabilitation. Started by Community Development for All People, a project of the United Methodist Church, the South Side Renaissance involved prominent South Side businessmen such as Don Kelley, Jim Williams, Jim Grote and Bob Yoakam and won expanded support from Nationwide Children's Hospital's Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Families campaign, which began in 2008.

"We've had the benefit of some overlap with the Reeb Center development, working closely with the South Side Renaissance," says Nationwide Children's Community Relations Director Angela Mingo. "I think we're going to fill in development between us over time. It takes more than one institution to do this work."

"It's not one person, because one person can't do everything," agrees Curtis Davis, vice president of the Columbus South Side Area Commission and chair of the area zoning board. "It's a combination of partners." He points to Nationwide Children's Hospital, the Crane Group, the Grote family and Donatos, Jeff May (Scrambler Marie's and Fitness Lofts), Bill Ezzo of Ezzo Sausage and Columbus Castings increasing employment, with Superior Die, Tool & Machine Co. also adding jobs.

Davis calls about five businesses a week to initiate or pursue development leads for the area. The special skills of his fellow commissioners have been crucial to this bootstrap effort, he says, including a push for repaving Parsons Avenue, with turn lanes to ease traffic flow from SR 104 to Livingston Avenue. Columbia Gas is already shoring up infrastructure to get ready, he says, adding "Everyone's coming together to make it a better place."

Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.