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Interview: The Urbanophile Checks Back in on Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Interview: The Urbanophile Checks Back in on ColumbusAaron Renn – Photo by Daniel Axler.
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Many Columbus Underground readers are familiar with Aaron Renn, who writes the popular Urbanophile blog. The site, which features opinion, analysis and discussion on a range of urban issues, has showcased Columbus on a number of occasions.

Renn came to Columbus in late 2010 as a featured speaker of the Columbus Metropolitan Club – an appearance that generated plenty of discussion on Columbus Underground. That talk served as a starting point for a recent conversation with Renn, who was back in town this May to interview Mayor Coleman for his ongoing series of mayoral interviews.

Our full interview can be found below, broken into three pages:

Brent Warren: I just listened to your 2010 talk that you did in Columbus – did you revisit it?

Aaron Renn: I did and based on what I know it’s still very relevant. What did you think of it?

BW: I thought parts of it were almost like a pep talk, like, “You guys have to aim higher with your ambitions for the city.” Which I think is still relevant for today.

AR: Well, when you look at a lot of other cities in the northern U.S., and they don’t even have the opportunity; for a variety of reasons, some of which are not their fault, they are really struggling just to find the bottom. And if they turn it around, they’re never going to be what they used to be.

BW: Yeah, you mentioned that Cincinnati was like the fourth largest city in the country at one point.

AR: So even though Cincinnati is never going to be what it was again, I think Cincinnati is starting to really kind of turn the curve. But in Columbus – look at all that construction going on out there, everywhere, all over the place. One of the things to understand is you’ve got a real opportunity that not everybody gets. And do you want to go for that opportunity? Or do you want to play it safe? I’m the kind of guy that says “go for that opportunity,” but you’ve got to realize, that’s a value judgment. And if you don’t want to, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with what Columbus is right now. If you’re not hungry for the next level, then you don’t have to worry about that. But if you are, you’ve got the raw materials to take it.

BW: You said in Columbus, if all we’re trying to be is an affordable place to be with a high standard of living, a good place to raise a family with nice neighborhoods, there are a lot of cities like that.

AR: That’s like the suburban value proposition. And you know what, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s actually a good one. It’s certainly not going to put you on a first-name basis in the marketplace, but you’ll be successful, you can be very successful. You’re already being successful.

BW: So coming back now, four years later, what are your impressions being in the city again?

AR: I would say very impressed with the quantity of development going on. We were still kind of in crash mode, I think, back then, so the amount of construction that’s been going on here is very impressive. It’s spread across a fairly wide area. And I’m getting to see little things like the bike-share that wasn’t here before, the car-share that wasn’t here. And I’m not familiar with this car-share system. Living in Chicago there was Zip Car, I-Go Car, operating on different models, it’s kind of cool.

BW: Going back to that speech, you mentioned your “Urbanophile test” to see if anyone pitches you on moving to the city. Has anyone done that since? Have you been to a city where people have tried to convince you to live there?

AR: No, not really. When I was coming here I pinged Kyle Katz, who was one of the people that invited me the last time, and he’s like, “I can’t make it out, but in light of what you said last time, don’t forget, move to Columbus!” But I do find it odd that, you know, everybody talks about talent, talent, talent, talent, talent, but if I were coming in here with a warehouse that was going to employ 25 people on the fringes somewhere, the economic development group would be on me, because that’s the way we’re used to thinking; it’s corporate-centric economic development.

We want to compete for corporate locations but we don’t think about competing for the people. The missing link is sales. Everybody believes in the marketing and the product and this and that. But there’s a reason why companies employ sales; it’s to go out, press the flesh and make the pitch. You’ve got to make the pitch. Not that I’m saying there’s anything particular about myself, but if you’re inviting a guy from out of town to come speak to you about their city, you at least think that there’s some minimum baseline of value there. So I think just getting into that mindset of “always be pitching your city–“

BW: Have you run into any cities that kind of implement that sales idea, where they have people who go out and try to recruit creative entrepreneurs to come into their city?

AR: I see it only being done at a very small scale around the country. I see that Rahm Emanuel in Chicago has gone down to the University of Illinois, which of course is famous for its National Center for Super Computing Applications, good engineering school, trying to say, “come to Chicago, be part of our tech scene.” He did this Chicago tech week — it wasn’t called that, but it was around Lollapalooza time, they bring in a hundred of the top student engineering people from around the country and they just wow them, blind them with science for two or three days. It’s Lollapalooza but it’s also meeting with all the Chicago bigwigs in tech — it’s all these things.

Indianapolis has this thing called the Orr Fellowship, where its sort of a post-collegiate thing where they bring in students out of school and give them different assignments with different companies, but also there’s massive amounts of activities and mentoring and showing them the city and meetings and coaching from high-level executives and getting to engage at levels that most young people would not.

So those are smaller scale efforts, but that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. I think the connection is, you don’t have to have a big program sometimes. Sometimes you just have to be willing to just constantly be singing the praises of the city in a way that the person you’re talking to can imagine themselves being a part of that story, like “how do I fit into the Columbus story?”

Continued on Page 2 of our Urbanophile Interview…


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