The region's CEOs pursue the critical work of keeping Columbus competitive

Mark Williams
Columbus CEO
Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership: “If you had asked me a year ago, I would have been pretty darned scared about what the year ahead would look like. To sit here, to have a pipeline and a level of activity as busy as I’ve ever seen it suggests that the growth agenda is going to continue.”

A year ago, the crises were piling up and Columbus Partnership leader Alex Fischer was worried.

Along with a public health emergency, the coronavirus pandemic was inflicting heavy damage on the central Ohio economy. Then came the issues of social justice and race following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests in Columbus and other cities.

“We had to survive. If you can’t survive, you can’t live to work on a lot of other tough things,” says Fischer, the president and CEO of the Partnership, a nonprofit, public-private economic development group led by 75 area CEOs and executives. “Every time we got the right-hand punch, we got a left-hander coming right at us.”

Surviving meant working with state and local government leaders and CEOs weekly or even daily to help businesses navigate the economic uncertainties caused by the pandemic. It also meant working closely with federal partners on stimulus programs that provided badly needed cash to help businesses and consumers manage through the darkest days of the pandemic.

Now that the worst days of the pandemic are over, the Partnership has put its sights back on why it was created to begin with: economic development and making the region a more prosperous place for everyone.

“If you had asked me a year ago, I would have been pretty darned scared about what the year ahead would look like,” Fischer says. “To sit here, to have a pipeline and a level of activity as busy as I’ve ever seen it suggests that the growth agenda is going to continue.”

One Columbus, the region’s economic development agency, has never been busier with better prospects and shorter time frames, he says. That’s even with all the uncertainty around COVID-19.

“Economic growth is occurring. We’re continuing to drive a competitive agenda. That hasn’t slowed down,” he says.

But that mandate is now layered with an additional charge to address issues of race following the protests that started last summer after the death of Floyd.

“We have systemic racism in corporate America and corporate Columbus,” Fischer says. “Now if I can admit that and say we’re going to work on it, could we not admit that in other segments of our society as well?”

Over the past year, the CEOs who make up the Partnership have had tough conversations about race and racism and what to do to make the economy most inclusive, he says. CEOs have never been more committed to a single issue, he says.

Beyond addressing issues of race, building a more diverse economy means including those with disabilities, people of different religious faiths, veterans, members of the LBGTQ community and others, local CEOs say. Inclusivity is the right thing to do—and it’s critical for economic development.

“The more diverse the community and the more we talk about it, it’s just going to attract new business here,” says Mike Kaufmann, CEO of Cardinal Health and a leader in the Partnership’s diversity efforts.

“Ensuring the workplace mirrors the diversity of the marketplace that we live in and work in is just good business and good for business,” says Kirt Walker, Nationwide’s CEO. “If we want to attract the best and diverse talent we’re going to need, we need to be intentional about building a workforce where people from all walks of life can kind of see themselves in the Columbus family photo.”

Keeping talented workers and drawing more to Columbus is a top issue for Columbus, Walker says.

“We need to make sure we keep the talent that’s already here while we continue to make central Ohio the destination for the best diverse talent who want to move and settle down here,” he says.

Nick Akins, chairman, president and CEO of American Electric Power, says the definition of economic development is becoming broader.

“It’s not just on jobs and industries and attractions, but also the brand of Columbus. What’s the culture like? What’s the tax situation?” Akins says. 

Columbus is seen as more progressive when it comes to environmental issues, he says. Building consensus on issues such as education and race in a nonpartisan way has helped build a brand for the city, he says.

An emphasis on a clean energy economy and a reliable power grid is drawing interest from businesses that have become more focused on environmental, social and governance issues, he says.

“Columbus has put itself on the map with electric vehicles. It’s a precursor of a major shift, and Columbus is leading the way,” Akins says.

Companies considering locating in the region are demanding renewable energy. At the same time, most members of the Ohio General Assembly have been resistant to expanding renewable energy in the state.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” Fischer says. “We’re either going to grow and move forward or be left behind. If we get left behind in the renewable energy business, other industries will be right behind it because they want renewable energy.”

Fischer says Columbus is blessed with several advantages that should power the economy in the years to come.

“We are in the sweet spot of the types of places that people are going to want to live in the future, to raise a family, to live and work and play,” he says.

Ohio State University and the other colleges and universities here offer a continued pipeline of talent for central Ohio companies, he says. 

The region is becoming a hub for life sciences, including the creation of the $1.1 billion Columbus Innovation District by Ohio State, Nationwide Children’s Hospital and JobsOhio, and Battelle’s recent announcement that it is opening a $200 million gene therapy startup along with other investors.

Venture capital investments, whether it is firms such as Drive Capital or Nationwide’s $350 million venture capital operation, are helping drive investments in technology and innovation, he says. The Scioto Peninsula project extends Downtown over the Scioto River.

“If we could do this locally, everybody wins,” Walker says of Nationwide’s $350 million fund. “We support the local economy, the needs of the community and our members, and we help startups and small businesses.”

Steve Steinour, chairman, president and CEO of Huntington Bancshares, says the region’s success around insurance, healthcare, tech, retail and education give it an edge when it comes to luring companies here. The startups and venture capital money that is flowing to the region are strengths for the region.

“We believe with the success of the vaccination program and with the course of events we’re poised to move forward,” Steinour says. “There is a tremendous amount of optimism. There is a lot of pent-up demand.”

Steinour says he would like to see the influx of federal stimulus dollars be leveraged in a way to address long-term issues Columbus is facing, such as affordable housing.

“Let’s make it an invested dollar and do good for the future of Columbus and help residents come through the pandemic,” he says.

One thing that Fischer does worry about is the nation’s political divide and whether it will harm the regional economy.

The Partnership always has prided itself on working with Republicans and Democrats locally, statewide and nationally to get things done, Fischer says.

“I’m worried that’s shifting,” he says. “I’m worried that’s changing at the local level. I’m worried that it is changing at the state level.”

mawilliams@dispatch.com

@BizMarkWilliams