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A Fresh Start on Columbus Economic Development

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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The futuristic-sounding year of 2020 is less than a decade away, and Alex Fischer wants to make sure that the city of Columbus is firing on all cylinders by the time we get there.

As the President and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, Fischer has helped to spearhead the Columbus2020 project, which is a new regional partnership with a new focus on regional economic development.

We recently sat down with Fischer to learn more about why Columbus2020 was started, how it will differ from previous efforts, and what lies ahead in the coming years.

Walker Evans: To start, can you give us some background about the 2020 initiative?

Alex Fischer: It really started with the Columbus Partnership. Eighteen months ago, or maybe even longer now, the Partnership had a bit of a frustration on the heels of NetJets… about their public perception on how economic development is done in Columbus. NetJets ultimately decided to locate here, but came dangerously close to leaving. I think everybody sitting around the Partnership table was saying “wow”. At the last moment, the city and the county and members of the Partnership all got involved, put a great package together, and ultimately NetJets made the right decision and stayed. But it started a conversation around the Partnership table about how best should we do economic development.

WE: So how did your own involvement with the Partnership begin?

AF: At that time I was at Battelle and I was spending more time in Korea and China and Asia and India than I was in Columbus. Carl Kohrt, our then CEO at Battelle, was on the Partnership and was a part of these conversations taking place. He walked down to my office one day and said “Hey, you used to do a lot of this for the state of Tennessee (it certainly wasn’t what I had been doing at Battelle the last seven or eight or nine years), would you come to dinner with some members of the Partnership and have a conversation around economic development?” And so I did. We had ten or twelve CEOs talking about communities that did economic development well. It was less about Columbus because, candidly, I had been living here for sixteen or eighteen months, but I was only around on weekends for soccer games. The next day, I left to go to China and I was reflecting on the long flight about that interesting meeting at Les Wexner’s house. It was a fascinating group of people. I didn’t give it too much more thought until about a month later when Carl comes back down the hall, wonders into my office and says, “Hey would you be willing to co-chair with Dan Rosenthal and Kerry Clark (the CEO of Cardinal Health at the time) a study that takes a look at economic development.” So, I said sure. It would be a fun thing to do here in the local community.

WE: So that’s when the initial research for what would become the 2020 project began?

AF: Yeah. We started looking at economic development. The first thing we did was research into the current strategy and plans. We found where twelve or thirteen studies had been done in the past but no real strategy put in place for the comprehensive nature of economic development. We found a bunch of organizations, a lot of them doing fantastic work, like TechColumbus. But again, not all of them connected from a strategy standpoint. Not all of them connected between the people that were involved. And certainly they weren’t connected from a funding standpoint. We did an analysis of the funding of economic development in Columbus and I rapidly concluded that we don’t even fund it very well. It’s severely underfunded. So we started digging in to both how economic development was done right now and the past. We were looking at metrics and there wasn’t a lot available in terms of goals for job creation and whatnot. We began to form some early opinions that Columbus’ economic development efforts aren’t aggressive and since they are not aggressive, they haven’t yielded fruit… or at least there was a perception out there that they weren’t as successful as some other communities.

WE: Columbus seems to have a decent foundation of existing corporations, so what you’re talking about in terms of economic development is more for attracting new companies, correct?


AF: Well… there was a story that we heard from a former Mayor of Columbus in the 70s, where Ford Motor Company came to town and wanted to locate a 5,000-person manufacturing operation here. The Mayor said no thank you, you’re not welcome here. Everybody we started talking to and interviewing said that there was a sense that economic development had never really been a priority in Columbus. We had Ohio State, we had state government, we had a great corporate environment that had grown up here, the likes of Dave Thomas and Les Wexner, and Nationwide, and Battelle, and a lot of others. They’re home-grown and very active here, but at the same time there wasn’t an active effort to recruit new companies to relocate here. We’re certainly not a model for economic development.

WE: So which cities are good models for economic development?

AF: As a part of our research, we organized trips to Austin, Raleigh, Nashville, Indaianapolis, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis. We took twenty CEOs at a time, and Mayor Coleman attended every visit. We had a series of conversations in these cities. In Austin we met with their Mayor and City Council in the morning, with Michael Dell at lunch, with small business leaders in the afternoon, and with the University of Texas that evening. We spoke about how those various communities did business. It’s not as if we took a silver bullet from any of those communities, but we learned a lot of lessons. We learned that those that are doing well get lots of people engaged. Public-Private Partnerships between government and the private sector are very important. And that’s an important message because the Columbus Partnership is all about big business shutting the door and having its own conversations without government in the room. We don’t apologize for that… it’s one of our uniquenesses, but certainly not how economic development gets done. We also learned about how a lot of other communities are marketing themselves. Selling themselves, organizing, and how they measure their results of economic development. We brought all of that home.

WE: Having attended a few Columbus 2020 meetings, I’ve heard some of the specific interactions you’ve had with Michael Dell and others. Can you share those stories for the readers of Columbus Underground?


AF: Sure. In Michael Dell’s conference room over lunch, we had asked him if he’d ever considered Columbus as a major manufacturing operation. Michael and I knew each other when I was at the state of Tennessee. His first ever North American operation outside of Austin was done in Nashville. Anyway, his answer was “Hell no.” He said that Columbus is a big union town in the rustbelt. He went on to continue to describe us as being Cleveland. Shame on Michael Dell for not knowing his geography, but shame on Columbus for not doing a better job of selling itself.

When we took a group to North Carolina, we spent the day with four-term Governor Jim Hunt. He really was the person that put together the Research Triangle Park and acted as the glue that kept North Carolina focused on what is now an amazing economic success that is leveraging technology. At the end of our visit, he says to our group, and I’m paraphrasing… “Go get back on your airplane and get back to Columbus and get busy doing it rather than talking about it.” He went on to describe our assets better than we could. He said that 40 years ago when he was starting out, we had Ohio State, one of the biggest academic institutions in the world, and he didn’t. He said we already had Battelle and he didn’t have that and created the Research Triangle Institute to model Battelle. He explained that he had been busy building everything from scratch while in Columbus we haven’t done anything about all of the tremendous assets we already have.

That was kind of a rallying cry. Our butts had been kicked at some level, and we rolled all of that up into a report that we gave to the Columbus Partnership.

WE: So what were the outcomes of that report?

AF: Let me first say that along the way, we’d been having some conversations with the Columbus Chamber and TechColumbus and the leaders of Compete Columbus and all the various organizations around town. But this report was still primarily a Columbus Partnership effort. I remember standing up at the Columbus Partnership meeting and going through a list of findings… here’s what we’ve learned about economic development here locally, here’s what we learned on the various trips… here are the ten things that other regions do well and here’s what we can learn from that… and everybody was ready for me to give the final recommendation. Let’s do X, Y and Z, set up this new organization, we’ll fund it, and we’ll go do it.

Instead I said, “Let me also tell you what we’ve heard about the Columbus Partnership.” People don’t know who we are. They respect our work but they question the process by how conclusions and priorities get made. We’re viewed as a mystique, people don’t understand us, and maybe even use some harsher words than that. I said that I’m not going to give a new set of recommendations. I had a copy of all thirteen studies previously completed and I laid them out in a dramatic fashion. Then I said that my recommendation is, if economic development is going to be different in Columbus, all of the strategies and answers are already in these previous thirteen studies. We’ve got to ask ourselves a question… why is it that we are still having this conversation? All of you have seen this movie and you all know the ending. So how is the ending going to be any different this time?

WE: So then what was the difference that came after that?


AF: I proposed a series of Leadership Roundtables. We now have 1400 people who in some form or fashion have been through those Leadership Roundtables. We started out with twenty people at a time, with a mix of people, big business and city council members, community organizers, and whomever else we could find… all mixed together. Twenty people at a time to make sure we had a diversity of opinions going through a three-hour conversation on economic development. After you’ve done thirty or forty of those, you start to get a perspective and you start to see a common thread. Those common threads were: we have amazing assets but we don’t market ourselves well; we don’t have a lot of swagger (a term of the Mayor’s); we have this Midwestern modesty that is a set of values that would rival anybody in the country; and we have diversity. So we had these conversations about our assets. Half of the people in every room wasn’t originally from Columbus. So you start seeing the trends of how many people had relocated to Columbus. Everybody had the same story… “I didn’t want to come, and now you can’t make me leave”. I was the same way.

We also started talking about some challenges. The fact that per capita income ten years ago was $1,500 dollars wealthier than the national average and today it is about a thousand dollars poorer. Which begs the question, “Can you be a great American community if in fact you are below the national average in wealth?” Not that wealth is the end-all goal, but it’s one important measure of what makes the world go ‘round.

We also looked at new startup companies. We found that we were starting new companies at half the rate of our peer communities. We looked at venture capital levels and found that while we’ve been making some great strides through TechColumbus, we were still lagging on many measures on the entrepreneurial access to capital.

We challenged the whole idea that Ohio State University is a Top Ten Research Institution. I can’t tell you how many times I put my arm around Gordon Gee either literally or parenthetically and said that we’re one of the best football teams in the country, but nobody knows that we have the number two math and science programs, number three materials engineering program, number seven research and development organization, number two in industrial research, and so on down the list. This powerhouse is also located right across from the street from Battelle, the world’s largest research and development institution, but have we really done anything to take advantage of it? When you look at the numbers, you see that commercialization, the output of all of that research, ranks in the top ten from a research standpoint, but in the bottom ten as it relates to the use of that technology and the leverage of that intellectual property from Ohio State. We had some fighting words in terms of saying that we’ve got to demand that Ohio State gets better. Incidentally, one of the early successes that I believe we’ve already seen is the process that is going to transform tech transfer at Ohio State. Dean Poon and Carol Whitaker were put in charge of reviewing commercialization and have come up a year later with a very aggressive plan to completely transform how the University organizes around technology transfer and commercialization. It’s caught the eye of four or five Columbus Partnership members who are also on the Board of Trustees. It’s coming from a Board of Trustees standpoint, it’s got Gordon’s attention, and it’s bubbling across colleges. I would argue that it is an early success of Columbus 2020 because we were daring to have the conversation very publicly with lots of people about the challenges of Ohio State. Yes, OSU is great at many things, but this previously wasn’t one of them.

Then in the those same conversations, we talked about all of the various organizations. We got input on the questions of “Where do you go when you do economic development? Who do you see? Do we do it very well? Are we aggressive about selling?” And then we talked about a series of strategies. We did those for the better part of six months as a part of our engagement strategy. The danger is that you can never engage enough people. I’m not going to suggest we’ve done anything other than scratch the surface. But we did scratch it a whole lot more than had ever been done before, and in a very candid and open and inclusive style. We got the Chamber heavily involved and we got TechColumbus involved and we got the city and the county involved.

WE: So where does the Columbus 2020 effort go from here?

AF: In the beginning of this past year we formed a transition team. The transition team is made up of The City of Columbus, Franklin County, MORPC, The MidOhio Development Exchange, TechColumbus, Compete Columbus, The Columbus Chamber and The Columbus Partnership. This team was formed to take a look at how to move to a different paradigm. And the different paradigm is what we’ve called Columbus 2020.

Now we get to the punchline… Columbus 2020 isn’t trying to be a new organization. In fact, Compete Columbus has now gone out of business. We’ve declared it success and we’ve done a lot of good work with it. Columbus 2020 now becomes the first ever integrated strategy on economic development for the region. It is governed by a set of metrics, both target and stretch goals. The target goal around job creation is 150,000 net new jobs over the next decade with a stretch goal of 180,000 net new jobs. That would be a doubling of job creation over the next decade. Columbus 2020 isn’t something that happens overnight. So many people want to stick a shovel in the ground, turn the dirt, cut the ribbon, and say we’re done. This is about changing our culture. This is about a decade long commitment to economic development.

WE: There’s been some buzz lately about the fundraising efforts behind Columbus 2020 as well.

AF: We’ve analyzed how much other communities invest. We are woefully behind. We are launching a fundraising strategy and campaign aimed at raising $30 Million over the next five years to aggressively fund a series of strategies around retaining existing companies here. The easiest business to get is the business you already have, and we want to focus on existing businesses. That’s going to be the new role of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is in the process of re-purposing itself to be very focused on that activity. We’re going to share the Partnership’s offices with the Chamber of Commerce to have a collaborative open spirit. It will all be in the Lazarus building where the other economic departments of the city and county already are. We’ve also hired Kenny McDonald from Charlotte, North Carolina to help us think about how to staff up. We are going to do some of that this fall. Candidly, we’ve got to raise a lot of money and make sure that we can afford it. We’ll find out people’s temperance for really coming down and doing this. There’s currently 71 people and organizations in Columbus that invest more than $100k in economic development and we really need 700 of them. Columbus Partnership members currently fund 92% of everything that happens in economic development. We’re asking them to step up but we’ve also got to broaden the base. We’ve got to get the city and the county and our regional partners to invest more. And then we’ve got to put an aggressive program in place that gets out there and sells this community.

WE: We’ve had several interesting conversations on CU recently about selling our community and how to go about developing our brand. I’d say you’ve got a tough job ahead of you on that front.

AF: The dialogue that’s been going on around imaging has been great. The New York Times picked up on it, which was great, but they absolutely got one piece wrong. This isn’t about a tagline. It can’t be about a pithy slogan. Because if it is, we’ll fail.

What the New York Times article shows is that outsiders don’t have a negative impression about Columbus… they just don’t know anything about the city. That’s good news because we can begin to mold them. So how do we start selling to people our key messages? We stumbled across the imaging project of the Bicentennial Project that Mayor Coleman had started several years ago. There was some great citizen input. Thousands of people providing their own voices and ideas about how we should market our community. We found out that this is a tricky game… everybody has an opinion and everybody is an expert in marketing. On some level, that’s absolutely right. So we started listening and looking at the body of work that had come from that. The folks over at Experience Columbus have been selling a lot more aggressively than we are and we should be connected with them as well. We should get connected to Ohio State because it’s selling itself every day. If we really get to nirvana, the public sectors and the private sectors could combine to form a public marketing approach. So if Experience Columbus is going to market to visitors, tourism and the like, and Columbus2020 is going to market to site selectors and CEOs, and Ohio State is going to market to students… wouldn’t it make sense if we all marketed and all sold from a common platform and a common storyline? That’s what the imaging campaign in my mind has been all about. And yes, we’ve got to ultimately decide upon what that platform will look like and we’ve got to start doing it now.

WE: Do you find that to be one of the biggest challenges with imaging and marketing… the fact that the communication scope is so wide between institutions that are selling to different types of audiences such as visitors, potential new residents, students, families, etc.

AF: I did economic development for a long time in the state of Tennessee, and grew up in Nashville. My first image of branding was when I was seven years old in a hotel lobby in Las Vegas. My family was doing the cross-county station wagon tour. I’m in the hotel lobby where we had stopped for the night and somebody comes up and says, “You’re from Nashville, Tennessee.” I thought it was amazing that they knew I was from Nashville because I had a “Music City, USA” shirt on. It didn’t say anything about Nashville. The city wasn’t marketing itself as Music City, USA for economic development. That was not a story told on Nashville’s economic success. So you’ve got to be careful not to boil this down into a tagline. It’s about aggressively getting out and telling the full story of this community. Telling the story of 125,000 college students. Telling the story about our great gay and lesbian community. Telling the story of our great corporate community. Telling the story of our collection of great neighborhoods like German Village, Italian Village and Upper Arlington. You’ve got to be careful in marketing to target those messages correctly, so yes, that is the challenge. But you’ve got to build it all on the same platform of storytelling.

But again, I love what’s going on with the discussion on branding because we’ve started the debate for the next decade. We might come up with our own version of the Live Music Capital or The Big Apple… but more importantly, we keep the conversation alive and get busy doing things and trying things. We’re going to try some things that don’t work and we won’t make apologies for it… and we’ll try some things that do work and we’ll run with them. We can’t worry too much about defining ourselves because we have to let the marketplace and residents define our names and slogans and programs. So this imaging activity is about the authentic story of Columbus and that requires a lot of citizen input. The danger of inclusiveness is that we’ll create this movement and there will be some naysayers. But who cares? Let them talk about it. Get engaged. Make us better. We need a better internal story.

WE: Alex, thanks a bunch for taking the time today. Anything else you’d like to wrap with?

AF: My whole wrapping theory is that we need to just keep after it and keep everything inclusive. Let’s keep the authentic voice going. Let’s not be afraid to do some things. Let’s put some people in place, and let’s get after it, while simultaneously keeping the community dialogue. That’s going to be the interesting juggling act right there. But that makes it fun.

More info can be found at Columbus2020.org and ColumbusPartnership.com.

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