In January, City Councilmember Andrew Ginther was selected as the new President of Columbus City Council.
We recently sat down with Councilmember Ginther for an in-depth interview on a wide variety of topics including entrepreneurial development, neighborhood issues, community involvement, transportation projects, Downtown development, the upcoming November elections, and other topics related to the future of the City of Columbus.
Walker Evans: First, congratulations on being selected for the new City Council President. I believe I read that you’re the youngest person to hold that position in some time.
Andrew Ginther: I think if I am the youngest Council President, it speaks about Columbus. Even the fact that I was born and raised here, there are not many cities across America that would give opportunities to a person my age to contribute and lead and help shape the future of their city.
WE: How old are you?
AG: 35. I’ll be 36 in April. [Laughs] The days of saying I’m in my mid-thirties are numbered!
WE: You’re still a young professional though, right?
AG: Yes, I’m still a young professional… barely! I might be able to convince the Young Democrats to push the age limit out… I think it is at 35 or 36.
But again, I think that speaks more about Columbus, you know. The fact that one of our city’s greatest Mayors is from Toledo, he’s not from here. I don’t know about you and your wife, but my wife came from Cincinnati. It’s a place that does a great job of welcoming people that aren’t from here and is willing to put those people to work in very high profile, meaningful roles in a very short period of time if they’re willing to work. That’s why I think Columbus is so special, and different.
I always tell the story that if you go to Cincinnati or Cleveland and people ask you where you went to school, they don’t mean college… they mean high school. Because they assume you are from there because everybody is. When you are in Columbus, people ask you where you are from. Because they assume you’re not from here because over half of the people that live here now weren’t born here.
WE: Ohio State does serve as a magnet that pulls people to Columbus from all over the state.
AG: You know, even though we’re two hours away from both those places – I would argue that probably the same thing is said in Toledo and Youngstown and Dayton – Dayton’s lost 100,000 people in the last decade. Columbus is pretty special, pretty unique. But you already know that.
WE: Yes, you’re preaching to the choir. In regards to your age, or other factors, do you think that there’s anything that you can tell us that will be different in the way that you lead Council as opposed to the way Mentel ran things?
AG: I do think the age difference will help some people in the community maybe deam Council a little bit more relevant in their lives because there is somebody that ‘looks like them’ or shares the same generational/cultural identity or whatever. Which is important. People in their 20s or 30s for the most part aren’t really engaged. Or if they are engaged, they are engaged every four years in the Presidential election. I tell people all of the time the Presidential races are very important. But this year we are electing a Mayor, a majority of City of Council and a majority of the Board of Education. These are the people making an impact in your life every day.
WE: And these local elections are people that we can more easily have access to.
AG: They are setting priorities that make a difference in your life. This is the year. But most folks are already peeking ahead to 2012. Or looking over their shoulder, if you are a Republican, to last year. [Laughs] So I think that will be different.
I think one of the things we have done very effectively here is to attract and retain young professionals and the focus on trying to get this huge amount of folks in undergraduate studies in Columbus, as you know, we’re second to only Boston in America as far as students in undergraduate study in the region. We need to have the entire attract and retain strategy fully incorporated into our economic development strategy. I think there are some folks who thought it was a pet project, or niche thing. Or something for either a young council member to talk about or an older one just to show that they are looking to the future. That’s not really why we are doing it. We’re doing it because that is the future of economic development. We know about demographic shifts and changes, and all of those studies play this out. Economic development was previously done by corporation shopping, finding the ‘best deal,’ planning, and then having the workers follow. The next 20-30 years is going to be about corporations and small businesses and entrepreneurs trying to find the highest concentration of skilled workers. And then locating their businesses there. We will also need to have a great quality of life, great neighborhoods, great parks, bike trails, hopefully mass transit, and all of the things that Rebecca Ryan and others have been telling us could give us the competitive edge in the future.
I guess in that respect I want to make sure that attract and retain effort isn’t a niche or something on the checkoff list. It is the future of economic development and we need to approach it that way. With this whole Columbus 2020! strategy and regional development; that has got to be a critical part.
WE: Do you think there is more that could be done by either City Council, the Columbus Chamber, or any other groups or organizations to keep more entrepreneurs here in Columbus to start new businesses, keep more artists and musicians and nurture the creative sector here?
AG: Absolutely. There is no one single solution, or a silver bullet. But there is having that be part of the strategy, which probably also means offering some support. Oftentimes when entrepreneurs and small businesses and enterprises are getting started, everything from utilities to building permits or simple zoning issues or other types of things that the city could do more to help out either by incentivizing or giving breaks to the creative class to make sure we are not making it too daunting or too huge of a burden for folks that want to do business and be part of the creative community in Columbus. I think removing barriers, offering support and incentives but also fostering a culture where that is a priority and a critical part of that retract and retain strategy.
WE: The Columbus 2020! initiative just received $700,000 from the 2011 Columbus City Budget. That represents just 2.3% of the overall Columbus 2020! fundraising goal of $30 million. For a smaller individual project like Wonderland, that amount of money could nearly complete that entire project. Do you think that type of funding allocation for development needs to be refocused on the smaller projects that have a bigger impact on a more grassroots, creative, and entrepreneurial level?
AG: When you have companies or enterprises that are growing organically I think there is also more capacity for growth or collaboration spinoff. Yes, incentivizing and trying to land an ‘AEP’ which Columbus did 30-40 years ago – that’s huge and it’s had major impacts in this community and will continue for some time. But what makes Columbus unique is exactly what you are talking about. So if we are investing just 2.3% this year — because Columbus 2020! probably wants $700k for the next ten years, so we are actually going to contribute $7 million toward that $30 million that they are trying to raise over a ten year period of time —what would a fraction of that do if focused on growing and supporting, encouraging, and incentivizing the local entrepreneurial spirit and organically growing some new companies here.
I was speaking with CORA and the Dine Originals group not too long ago and heard that something like 40% of Columbus restaurants are local. In Indianapolis it is 14%. You can see how culturally it is so much different than Columbus but also speaks to Columbus commitment to wanting to do business on a local level and interact and support neighbors’ growing businesses as opposed to other places very close by that are very similar to us making different choices.
WE: One issue that comes up from time to time on Columbus Underground is the concept of a ward district type system for City Council, which I know you’re opposed to. Is there any set of circumstances that would have to transpire for you to support the creation of a ward system?
AG: The bottom line is this. If you believe in an at large system, then no matter where I go, any neighborhood I walk in to, I work for and represent those folks. And I can be held accountable by those people. If we moved to a ward system, you will have folks that represent a fraction of the overall population. Some people say we’d have better constituent service and have somebody that is better at representing my own interests… and that’s fine. And you’d also have six others that were doing just that for other areas. And nobody, arguably if you went to an entire ward system, nobody would be thinking of the greater good or the greater whole other than the Mayor.
I think you have examples all over America that show, and quite honestly whether it’s Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati — your local government shouldn’t be a circus. And it shouldn’t be horse trading on Monday nights. Your city council should be focused on strengthening and supporting the great neighborhoods that we’ve got in Columbus and planning for the future. Not cutting deals on NIMBY projects, or forcing certain types of development into certain places in town just based on who happens to represent that ward. I have heard people make arguments about a potential at large and ward combination. There are cities that have that. Maybe four of their members at large and three that represent wards. In some cases I don’t think that satisfies either argument because folks that support ward representation – if we broke the City up into three wards, I’m not sure folks would feel they are getting the benefits of what they feel a ward system would provide.
WE: Because we are such a large city?
AG: Yes, because we’re so spread out. We’re a city of nearly 800,000 people. So with three wards, that would be over 260,000 people in each ward. So if you had a combined at large/ward system, I’m not sure you serve either argument well. Or meet any of the needs well. I think there is an argument to be made potentially for council to add some members, or to look at making council a full-time position. I can tell you when council members have to work a full-time job and serve as council members, it makes it challenging. You have to pay your mortgage, you’ve got to feed your kids.
WE: As far as part-time versus full-time, how does Columbus compare to other cities of similar size?
AG: Most of them, if they are part-time, pay quite a bit more. Council members in Columbus are going to make 42,000 this year and Council President makes just a little bit more than that. Other cities at least our size pay council members at least 60,000 per year so it makes it a little bit easier for that to be a full-time position for folks. And then obviously, some council members in smaller cities across the country make enough that that it is their full-time job.
The other issue is that we only have one and a half staff people. We only have one aide and we share a legislative assistant with another council member. We represent more people than a member of the State Congress does, and a member of Congress has far more people working for them. Not just in Washington, D.C. but also in their District office… they have on average four staff members.
So, not that there’s a direct correlation, but you know… people don’t call members of Congress when the trash isn’t picked up or their street isn’t plowed. They call them about a variety of other things, but we get a significant amount of situational calls, asked to attend neighborhood events, be involved in neighborhood issues and I feel the pull all the time. As a new dad, a full-time employee of a private company and as serving as Council President, I get it and I understand. I can see why people feel like they would like to see their council members more often in their neighborhoods. That’s also why we started something where we take the entire council out to certain parts of town. Kind of a ‘constituent night’ office hours type of environment. We’ve been to the south side three years in a row. We came to the King Lincoln, among other places. I’ve directed John Ivanic to set up meetings every month in every part of the city up through the August recess. My plan is to do that every year that I’m serving as president so that people in every part of town don’t have to come to City Hall to see their council member. Council members will do a very short intro and then all members will go to separate tables. Each of their areas will be identified and folks can just walk right up and talk to their member of council about anything on their mind or particular issues that their committee would oversee and we would have members of the administration as well. This is Council’s version of the Mayor’s Neighborhood Pride Events. The first one will be in March and we will rotate around to recreation centers. We’ve done a little bit of that in the past, but I really want to step that up. The only reason we have an at large system that works and serves us so well is because we have a great area commission system. We have folks who are elected at the neighborhood level that advise council on all types of things – zoning, safety, etc. So there is no way that I know what is on the minds of 800,000 people over so many thousands of miles. That is why those area commissioners are so important for us to go to and also for those area commissioners to come to City Hall to make sure that neighborhoods are at the table and shaping public policy. Their work is the hardest, but in our system, probably the most important.
WE: One of the specific neighborhood issues that many people on Columbus Underground are concerned about the Clintonville North Broadway/High Street turn lane issue. It has been tabled for now, but is the turn lane installation something you support as both a resident and as council president?
AG: The one thing I can tell you is that we cannot do nothing. It is an intersection I drive several times a day and I see first hand the dangers that are being caused by people illegally turning on to High St. Or cutting through other neighborhoods that are not suited for that kind of traffic, particularly because of the on street parking, children, bus stops, those types of things. So we must do something. My hope is with some facilitation and help and leadership from the city and the administration, we’ll be able to put together a solution that folks can live with. Nobody is going to be happy, but everybody can live with it. That’s probably going to be the solution in the long haul. There was a 4-3 vote in support of a turn lane by the area commission a year ago. Now the area commission makeup changed, so now there is a 4-3 vote against the turn lane. What paralyzes a bureaucrat more than anything else is uncertainty and a divisive community. So we are going to have to figure out something because it is not safe, it’s not sustainable. And quite honestly I think it is holding the entire community back by not having some sort of safe solution there and I think we can work something out where the vast majority of fair and objective concerns can be dealt with, but I guarantee you that everyone will not be happy.
WE: Another issue possibly facing uncertainty is the I70-I71 Split Fix. Many on CU have voiced concerns with the project, the scope, and the solutions. Have you been happy with the level of public engagement between ODOT, The City of Columbus, and Neighborhood Groups?
AG: It’s getting better, but I’m not satisfied yet. I think part of the reason that it’s better is because the Mayor and Council demanded that it be so. As you know, we got engaged in this pretty heavily last year and I think made some strong and positive improvements in how ODOT engaged the community and ultimately giving them the initial green light in moving forward but also demand that they come back and report to us before they go out to bid and every step alone the way to make sure that some of the promises they made to us concerning urban avenues and everything else are going to be embraced. One of the other things that we’ve demanded is that they incorporate and follow the lead of somebody that ‘gets’ what we’re looking for. Keith Myers of MSI Design is absolutely brilliant. I think he, better than anybody else I’ve met, understands what we as a community and folks that are interested in central city Columbus in what we need and what we want and what we deserve. We’ve made it very clear to ODOT that we want him in the room and we want him in the discussions about how they are approaching things. There are obviously limits to what we can do with respect to resources. And obviously with a new governor and a new director at ODOT I’m hopeful and cautiously optimistic that all of the work we’ve done will be honored and kept in place. It was a big loss with Jolene Molitoris leaving. She really got it and understood it and she improved this project dramatically under her leadership. Before she got on board and gave the directive and got engaged in this process personally, I’m not sure what we would have had. It wouldn’t have looked like anything we see today. I’m grateful to her for her service across the board, but on this particular project it is significantly better because of her.
WE: Governor Kasich has made it very clear that he will cancel transportation projects, is there any concern about this project?
AG: That it will come to a standstill? Maybe.
WE: Governor Kasich appointed Jerry Wray as the new Director of ODOT, who previously worked for an asphalt industry lobbying association. Is there any fear that under his leadership ODOT may remove or reallocate funding previously dedicated to street-level aesthetics and beautification and instead want to do the Split Fix as cheaply and as functionally as possible?
AG: Well the great thing about that part is they can’t do much of anything without our support. At the end of the day, ODOT has to cooperate and engage with us. I think it is going to be important with folks who are engaged with ColumbusUnderground and other folks who have been so involved with this project that they stay engaged. I know not everybody is happy or thrilled with what they’ve come up with, but we’re at a much better place than we were two years ago. I know full well that there are a lot of people who aren’t satisfied or who are unhappy with it. This project can deteriorate and go backwards and we could end up with much like we did when it was first done if we don’t stay engaged and stay on top of it. Hold the Kasich administration accountable but also hold the city government accountable. We need to make sure everyone is held accountable to make sure ODOT honors the changes and improvements we have made to this plan regardless of the budget situation. I have been told that this project has been put on hold. New folks at ODOT need to take a look at it, do some poking around, digging to do what they think they need to do to be accountable to taxpayers. But there’s not a more important project in the State of Ohio. I can’t imagine that this doesn’t get done. I don’t know how quickly it will get done, but it’s our job to make sure when they are ready to do it, it is done right.
WE: You mentioned a bit earlier about the building and permit approval process. I’ve heard from many entrepreneurs who have had plenty of problems and issues getting their businesses open in a timelin manner. What can be done to help streamline that process?
AG: Our hope was that new building services division would help with that. The whole ‘One Stop Shop.’ I know they worked on that for years before I even got to Council. I think things are better, but an awful lot of things still need to be worked out. We hear a lot of the same complaints and frustrations. I’m not sure if there is an external review process that we could put into place — something maybe made up of folks that deal with these entities on a pretty regular basis — find a way for the division to be evaluated and scored based on their performance. Based on the things that I am hearing from folks in the community, entrepreneurs, business folks, small and large, it is one of those areas that — whether it is zoning, permits or inspections — we are not as business friendly as we should be. Columbus has a lot of great things going for it, but if we become identified as a place that is difficult and cumbersome to do business in, we’re going to lose out on a huge opportunity.
WE: From my interactions with small business owners, it sounds like what a lot of their issues stem from legacy type issues with older infrastructure in and around Downtown. If you’re opening a new business, and you want to compare moving into a brand new strip mall in the suburbs somewhere versus moving into a 150 year old building Downtown…
AG: …good point…
WE: …you’ve got thirty extra concerns with the older building Downtown, and you’ve got a lot of things you need to update.
AG: The hurdle is much higher. There are far more hoops to jump through.
WE: To that effect you almost…
AG: That’s a good point. Particularly as we come up with this GreenFund and everything else that we are doing to try to encourage and incentivize LEED certification for new construction or renovation or revitalization as well as redeveloping brownfields. The way that our system is currently set up, it is easier to grow a new business in a greenfield as opposed to a brownfield. What does that say about our priorities as a city? That’s a very good point and I think it is something that we really need to take a look at. If we are really trying to encourage central city redevelopment.
I was recently speaking with someone about the Downtown Master Plan. We were talking about all of these surface lots Downtown and what Mayor Ed Rendell did in Philadelphia, which really made a dramatic impact in their central city is — they created a tax on property owners whether there was a building on their property or not. There was actually a greater tax if there wasn’t a building than if there was. If you took that same sort of approach to our Downtown, parallel to what we’ve been talking about here, we would be incentivizing people to build things as opposed to maintaining surface lots, which we have far too many of in all of the wrong places in Downtown Columbus.
WE: That is something you would support looking into for Columbus?
AG: Absolutely. I’m not sure it necessarily needs to be a separate process, but we shouldn’t have a higher expectation or put a greater burden on people who are trying to do what we’re trying to do in supporting our mission and revitalizing and doing business in Downtown Columbus than we would if somebody in Fairfield or Delaware County that might happen to be doing business in the City of Columbus but is doing it in a greenfield. Yeah. That’s something we’ve got to look at and fix.
WE: Speaking of “green” issues… the Mayor has put a plan on the table to roll out residential recycling in 2012. Do you have any thoughts on that program or other solutions that still need to be figured out for non single family homes?
AG: That’s a big issue, and one I hear about all of the time. I told my wife that I was going to make her register as a lobbyist if she continued to beat me up about recycling. She’s a huge advocate for increasing our pretty pathetic diversion rate as a community. There’s a lot of things that are broken around environmentalism in Columbus. I hear it from my friends, and folks like the owners of Northstar Cafe and from Elizabeth Lessner.
For example, at Northstar’s Clintonville location, they wanted to have recycling containers in their parking lot – a bin there in their lot. But they couldn’t get a variance because they have to have a certain number of parking spots for their restaurant. Different neighborhoods have different requirements and tolerances for off-street parking. So the owners of Northstar were forced to have the parking spots, but they can’t have the type of robust recycling program that they would like to have. That doesn’t seem to work and fit into our culture and our goals that the Mayor has with Get Green Columbus.
SWACO’s entire business plan is based on tipping fees. So they have a vested interest in doing very little, if anything in diverting trash from the landfill — things that do not belong in there. That’s a model that’s not going to work long term for the future and sustainability of Columbus and the state of Ohio. We ought to be doing all that we can to incentivize recycling. I’m a believer that we ought to seriously consider charging people that don’t recycle. This is the way you change behavior. Some people say, well if you offered free curbside recycling, than more people would recycle. But if you’re not charging for trash and you’re not charging for recycling, than is it really going to change behavior? I think in Toledo and other municipalities across the country – trash and recycling is free if you recycle. But if you don’t recycle, than we are going to charge you because you are costing us more; and you are being less responsible as a citizen than other people in the community.
So, what’s our diversion rate now? I think it started at 9% around five years ago, and it might be up to 12 or 15% today. I’ve heard the national average is as high as 28% in other cities. So we’ve got a long way to go. Some of these outdated, backward business models and policies and approaches to things aren’t going to get us there. I’m a big supporter of the Mayor’s recycling plan. But I think to change the long term behavior of people in Columbus, we’re going to have to incentivize. Either incentivize them with recycling or de-incentivize them from just throwing everything out in the trash that doesn’t belong there.
WE: Last question… you mentioned earlier the importance of this year’s election at the city level. Do you see any challenges with GOP or third party opposition, divisive issues, or problems with low voter turnout?
AG: The Republican party is feeling very confident about themselves right now. I think the election this year will dramatically impact the future of Columbus. Are we going to continue to grow and improve and become a city where, MORPC suggests 600-800k people are going to come here in the next 20-30 years? Are we going to continue on that track where more responsible and successful revitalization of our Downtown and strengthening our great diverse neighborhoods happens all over the city? Or are we going to choose another path that sometimes has some great political quips, and loves to tear down and attack? You are going to hear a lot of things during the course of the year attacking the Mayor and attacking Council. But I am reminded of President Carter’s quip about President Bush. “You cannot lead if you mislead.” If you’re really interested in governing and leading a city, than you’ve got to lay forth a vision and a plan in which you are going to do that. Particularly in a city that all in all is doing pretty well, you can’t tear down the leaders of that community without a plan and without a vision that people can buy into and follow.
The bottom line is that you’ve got to look at the results. You can’t look at where we are as a city and as a community in the face of all that has happened — two national recessions in the last decade, the last of which you and I and people of our generation have never seen the likes of, and where is Columbus right now? We stumbled, we had the wind knocked out of us, but we are back on our feet and moving forward and getting stronger every day. I think it’s because the people of Columbus, and working with their leaders have put us in a great position for this recovery. I think that extends to the Mayor’s race, the council races, even the school board races. We have a pretty clear choice in front of us and the voters will choose which way we will go.
WE: Council President Ginther, thanks again for taking the time today to sit down and chat with us.
AG: No problem, Walker. My pleasure.