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First Person: With its Economic Future at Stake, Columbus, Ohio Invests in Itself

Kenny McDonald, Chief Economic Officer at Columbus 2020, explains how a public-private coalition has come together to take a firm grip on the Columbus region’s economic future.

Q3 / Summer 2013
AD: You came to the Columbus 2020 organization in July 2010 after the Great Recession had officially ended. In what condition did you find the region’s economy?

McDonald: The Columbus Region is very diverse, so although it was damaged, it was not broken. All of the pieces were in place and the recession created a sense of urgency from both the private and the public leaders. The entire region came together around the common goal of economic growth.

AD: Columbus seems to have recovered more quickly from the recession than many other U.S. cities. Why is this so?

McDonald: As mentioned, the Columbus Region is very diverse. It is a hub of finance and insurance with companies like JPMorgan Chase and Nationwide. It’s also home to Honda’s North American manufacturing headquarters, a large automotive sector, and hundreds of logistics operations. Columbus is also the state capital, boasts one of largest universities in the world, and is a center of young, talented people — something that is becoming more and more important to growing companies. There are nearly 150,000 enrolled college students and more than 50 college and university campuses throughout the region. The region also offers great amenities at a very affordable price.

Last, but certainly not least, we’ve recovered quickly because of a lot of hard work and incredible commitment from our communities.

AD: An October 2012 Time magazine article talked about Mayor Michael Coleman’s 2009 plan to increase taxes in the City of Columbus in order to retrain workers, invest in infrastructure, and develop the city’s downtown in order to attract knowledge workers. How did he convince the city’s business leaders to back his plan?

McDonald: The future of the City of Columbus was at stake. The cuts that had been made weren’t enough, and any additional cuts would have caused generational changes to our neighborhoods and psyche. The city has always been very financially conservative and well-managed, so business leaders trusted that action needed to be taken. All of those facts, coupled with a plan to get aggressive through the Columbus 2020 effort, built a coalition to move forward.

AD: With 11 counties comprising the Columbus Region, what kind of economic diversity does this offer to companies considering investment in the area?

McDonald: There is very little that the Columbus Region cannot legitimately compete for. As Ohio’s largest and fastest-growing urban area, it can compete for labor-intensive headquarters and back office projects. And as a noted manufacturing and logistics hub, the region makes a lot of site selectors’ lists. Plus, agribusiness makes up more than 15 percent of our economy. The major employers in our region read like a Fortune 500 list — Boeing, DuPont, Rolls Royce, Honda, Greif…the list goes on.

AD: What roles do the region’s educational resources play in attracting investment to the Columbus Region?

McDonald: All of our area’s colleges and universities are great economic partners. Ohio State University has one of the largest alumni networks in the world and is one our region’s top employers. The university is second in industrial research, and involved in solving some of the world’s toughest problems.

There is very little that we do without the direct support of Ohio State, Columbus State, and the many smaller colleges and universities that dot the region’s landscape. Obviously, these institutions bring young talent to the region, but they are important in so many additional ways.

AD: In 2012 JobsOhio was charged with leading the state’s economic development efforts. How has the Columbus Region benefited from the state’s initiatives?

McDonald: The Columbus Region’s decision to get aggressive and to take a firm grip on its future was followed soon after by the state of Ohio doing the same thing. The creation of JobsOhio has increased the state of Ohio’s coordination and flexibility when dealing with corporate leaders. Unlike other privatized statewide efforts, it has a long-term plan for funding and it is also very focused on existing businesses. Governor Kasich is very involved, but he has also been adamant about putting the organization in the good hands of some of our state’s most respected business leaders.

AD: I understand local business leaders took the initiative in efforts to get IBM to locate its analytics center in Columbus. Can you explain how Columbus has become a hub for “big data”?

McDonald: With 15 Fortune 1000 companies, renowned education and research institutions, and a burgeoning tech sector, a lot of IT work was already occurring here. The growing demand for advanced analytics created an opportunity that our business leaders seized through their existing relationships with IBM. IBM was not only responsive, but has continued to prove that it intends to grow and be a part of the solution, creating a talent pipeline that will help local companies and grow our economy.

AD: Columbus is the only U.S. city to be named on the Intelligent Community Forum’s Top 7 Intelligent Communities of 2013. What qualifies it as an “intelligent community”?

McDonald: Columbus prides itself on being both smart and open. The investment made in broadband and other smart infrastructure here is far above average. Most importantly, the Columbus Region continues to invest in itself, by carefully building a sustainable economic base. We are a place where bright minds come to make their mark.

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