Interview: Michael B. Coleman Reflects on 16 Years as Columbus Mayor

Walker Evans Walker Evans Interview: Michael B. Coleman Reflects on 16 Years as Columbus MayorPhoto by Lauren Garms.
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On January 1, 2016, Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman will depart from public office after 24 years of elected service. The most recent sixteen of those years were spent as Mayor of the city during a very transformational time in its 204-year history. The city’s population has grown by nearly 18 percent (over 124,000 people) since Coleman took office, and the Columbus image has matured on the national stage with accolades that include the #1 Intelligent Community, #1 City for Wage Growth, and a laundry list of other #1 titles.

Columbus Underground was given the opportunity to sit down recently for an extended conversation with Mayor Coleman to reflect upon the past sixteen years, and to discuss some of his administration’s most significant policies, projects and initiatives along the way.

When Coleman first took office on January 1st, 2000, he had little idea that he would go on to become to longest serving mayor in the city’s history. He said that he didn’t even have specific sights set on the Mayor’s office when he first took on the role as a Columbus City Councilmember in 1992.

“I didn’t have any expectation of longevity or expectation of what office I’d end up in,” he explained. “There was some talk a long time ago about the governorship and the presidency, but none of those panned out because they weren’t meant to be. My ambition was to serve in the best way that I could, and to do the best job I could do wherever I was at the time.”

In 1998, Coleman had served on Columbus City Council for six years, and shortly after a failed run for Lieutenant Governor with Lee Fisher’s gubernatorial campaign (Fisher lost the race to Bob Taft), Coleman held a press conference in his home and announced his plans to run for Mayor in the following year’s election.

“Former Mayor Greg Lashutka announced that he wasn’t going to run, and I decided that was best place for me to serve,” recalls Coleman, who claimed his first of four mayoral election victories in 1999.

In 2000, Coleman set to work immediately on big transformational ideas for the city. One of the most significant moves was to focus on the redevelopment of Downtown Columbus, seeking to turn it from a sleepy nine-to-five business district, into a vibrant destination neighborhood. He said that the inspiration came from a pool of other cities.

“I went to Los Angeles for the 2000 Democratic Convention, and I walked around to really see that it’s a big city with no center,” said Coleman. “I went from LA to San Francisco, and went to a park in the heart of Downtown, and there were a thousand people hanging out. There were waterfalls and emblems of sister cities, and I knew we had a lot of possibility for Columbus to build something new and make it feel like this.”

Coleman said that his research continued in Chicago and Toronto, where he reexamined these familiar places while looking at them through a new lens. He said he spent about a year in the research phase, working with stakeholders and consultants to examine why no one was living Downtown, why the region’s suburban retail market had become overdeveloped, and what type of public assets could act as catalysts to drive private development.

“We formulated a point of view that the residential part was the key to everything else,” he said. “The retail market, the activity and the entertainment will follow where the people are. So we focused on housing and parks as the first thing.”

The effort got off to a quick start in the early 2000s, boosted by tax abatements for condo developers and a renewed interest in urban living. While the national recession disrupted the housing market across all US cities, the Downtown Columbus rebound continued post-recession with new apartment communities that are adding hundreds of new residents each year, with more units under construction for the future.

Coleman attributes some of the interest in the densification of Columbus to revamped policies that he put into effect during his tenure.

“In 1954 — the year I was born — Mayor Jack Sensenbrenner put into effect the policies of annexation, and it paid off well,” explained Coleman. “It was good policy for that time, but in the 70s and 80s and 90s, the urban areas were paying for the new infrastructure development in those outer areas. There was a big growth spurt, but it was all on new land without roads, sewers, schools, parks or fire stations, and there was only so much money to go around. That didn’t become apparent until I came into office.”

In its place, Coleman enacted the “Pay As We Grow” policy which required real estate developers to help foot the bill for new infrastructure if choosing to build the city outward on new land. He said that the policy has helped to slow outward annexation and focus development into existing neighborhoods where infrastructure already exists.

While Coleman has certainly attracted critics for his efforts to curb suburban sprawl and focus on urban development, it pales in comparison to some of the heat that he has taken on social issues over the past sixteen years. When the State of Arizona enacted anti-immigrant laws in 2010 that allowed police to racially profile Latinos and demand they show paperwork at any time, Coleman announced that Columbus city employees were banned from traveling to Arizona to do business.

“It was the right thing to do, because I was disgusted over the anti-immigrant reaction of those folks,” recalled Coleman. “I remember it well, because local radio station 610 WTVN — which was very right wing at that time — they came up with a game in response where the winner could travel to Arizona and chase immigrants in the desert. I was very offended by that and the local Latino and Hispanic communities were offended as well. The station agreed to apologize and withdraw the contest.”

Even though Coleman is nearly finished with his final days in office, some of the political rhetoric remains the same in 2015. Many politicians — both locally and nationally — are calling for restrictions on Syrian immigrants. Last month, Ohio Governor and GOP Presidential Candidate John Kasich said he would ask President Obama to keep all Syrian immigrants out of Ohio. Coleman went on the record to disagree, saying that Columbus would still accept immigrants who have gone through the expected federal screening processes.

“The screening process is a very difficult one,” said Coleman. “They’re just playing the blame game with a whole nation of people, saying that they have the genes for terrorist activity. We know that’s not true — it’s just fear mongering of the worst kind. Who’s next? What country is next? Where do you stop? That’s not who we are as a country.”

While Coleman has dealt with many serious issues throughout his time in office, he’s also kept a sense of humor about the lighter side of life in Columbus. Coleman has often preached that the city needs to have more “swagger” when touting successes and showing city pride, but isn’t afraid to take part in sillier photo opportunities while riding horses down Broad Street in a cowboy hat, or taking the stage at Highball in his Blues Brothers Halloween costume.

“You can’t be serious about everything all the time — you’ve gotta have fun with it,” said Coleman. “I loved being mayor, and I think people figured that out. There were a lot of good times and bad times, but definitely more good days than bad days.”

Looking ahead, Coleman sees a bright future for the City of Columbus, as he hands the reigns over to new Mayor Andrew Ginther following the transitional ceremonies that will close out 2015 and ring in 2016. When asked what challenges lie ahead for Ginther, Coleman points to several examples, including public education, income inequality, and mass transit.

“We should have a greater emphasis on mass transit in this city,” he stated. “That’s something for the next generation of community leadership in the city. We’ve already started with the work on the high speed rail line to Chicago. I think that’s going to happen, and would be a good thing for our economy.”

While Coleman will step out of the public spotlight in 2016 with his return to the private sector at the local offices of Ice Miller, he plans to remain involved in some capacity in community affairs.

“I’m not going off to Never-Never Land,” he said. “I’ll continue to stay involved in the civic life, business life and political life of this city. But getting back my privacy is really important to me. I’ve lived in the public life for almost a quarter century. I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like be a normal regular joe.”

“Maybe I’ll get an ear ring and some tattoos,” he added with a laugh.

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