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At its bicentennial, the city is young, vibrant, but also poor, low-paid compared with peers
Sunday February 12, 2012
You can tell a lot about a city by the company it keeps.
Community Research Partners compares the Columbus region with 15 other metropolitan areas. Some of them, such as Charlotte, N.C., and Indianapolis, are economic competitors. Cleveland and Cincinnati are in-state rivals. Some are places with qualities we aspire to: Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore., for example.
Nobody is quite like us, said Roberta Garber, executive director of Community Research Partners. “We’re a growing area, but we also have some of the challenges and issues of communities that are declining.”
Central Ohio ranks right in the middle among the peer cities in population growth. But people here are more likely to be young, employed and professional than those in most of the peer cities. In those categories, we’re comparable to fast-growing places such as Austin; Raleigh, N.C.; and Nashville, Tenn.
On the other hand, people here are also more likely to be poor or obese or to lack health insurance. That’s more like slow-growth cities such as Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee.
Community Research Partners released its fourth benchmarking report in November to tell us about the region’s strengths and weaknesses relative to other cities. The group is funded by the Columbus Partnership and the Columbus Foundation.
The poverty-rate numbers, which put the Columbus region last (poorest) among the 16 cities studied, got the most attention in November. But they don’t tell the whole story.
“We’re kind of in these two camps,” Garber said. “We have the problems of declining cities, but we have resources they don’t have to address those problems.”
Bill LaFayette, an economist with Regionomics in Columbus, said two features stand out to him in the benchmarking study. The first is that, despite relatively high employment, people here don’t make as much money as those in many of the comparison cities. The second is that Columbus ranked near the bottom in small-business startups and at the bottom in the number of small businesses.
On the wage and poverty side of things, LaFayette has recommended a focus on worker training to Columbus City Council members and anyone else who will listen.
“What drives a low wage rate is low productivity over the long run,” he said. “If the productivity is high, the market over the long run has got to force you to pay them what they’re worth. The way to cure the productivity problem has to be by giving these people the tools they need to succeed in the workplace.”
On the startup side, he said: “I refuse to believe that we are less entrepreneurial here than average.”
We’re not, said Michael Bowers, regional director of the Ohio Small Business Development Center at Columbus State Community College.
The small-business numbers in the benchmarking report come from U.S. Small Business Administration data from 2006, 2007 and 2008. And Columbus’ rankings made sense then, Bowers said. But since then, small-business startups and support for them have increased rapidly, he said. “We’v e been busier than I can remember.”
Each month, a program at the center that accepts 40 new business owners for mentoring fills up, Bowers said. Another program, called 1492, that chooses five startups to receive $20,000 in funding and 10 weeks of mentoring started last year. The third class will be chosen this spring. Ohio State University has a similar program that takes 10 businesses in each class.
All told, he said, "We deal with about 1,000 businesses and individuals throughout the year."
Kenny McDonald, chief economic officer for Columbus 2020, came here from Charlotte two years ago to develop this region’s economy. He says the Columbus region “has every advantage” over its peer cities.
“You have a lot of levers to pull to make things happen,” he said.
We have a wide variety of industries, including logistics, business services, high-tech manufacturing and consumer services. We’re close to one of the best markets in the world, in the eastern U.S.
Even the “soft” benefits of the region — easier commutes, diversity and a high level of representation by women in business and government — help draw employers here and keep them here, he said.
Columbus 2020’s goal is to move two numbers. By its namesake year, McDonald said, the region’s per-capita income should rise 30 percent, and the region should add 150,000 net jobs.
That net is important, he said. “It all starts with taking care of and growing our existing economic base.”
Add those jobs, and the rest will take care of itself, he said. “The No. 1 way you can increase that per-capita income is if your net new-job growth is accelerating.”
Everyone is struggling to do that, so any advantage helps. Already, he pointed out, Columbus State has done a good job of training workers for the logistics industry, giving us a strong advantage there. Figuring out what other industries need will keep the trend moving, McDonald said. “If we can crack that code, we can have a real advantage, and those jobs can be created here.”
Other cities already are looking at Columbus for answers. A delegation from Lexington, Ky., including the mayor, Jim Gray, and the University of Kentucky’s athletic director, visited in August to check out the Arena District. They’re trying to figure out how to create an entertainment district around the university’s downtown basketball arena.
Gray told the Lexington Herald-Leader that Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman had this advice for him: “ Dream big. You can adjust later.”
So what city should we aspire to be?
“If we aspire to be someplace else, then we lose our own identity,” LaFayette said. “I would much rather have us think about what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are, what makes this place unique, and leverage all that. I’d want us to be the best Columbus we can possibly be.”