[ Columbus, Indiana has long been known as a special place. Which is too bad, since unlike most small industrial cities in America, it has actually been a success. Alas, despite its clear superior performance, few places show any interest in trying to replicate the things that made it successful.
National Public Radio recently ran a segment on Columbus’ famed architecture. In it was another telling quote from town patriarch J. Irwin Miller that sums it up: “Whatever you do in this world, you’ve got a responsibility and a privilege of doing it the very best way you can.” – Aaron. ]
This post originally ran on July 11, 2010.
North Christian Church, 1964. Eero Saarinen, architect. A National Historic Landmark.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia/Greg Hume
Barrett Crites, a huge mid-century architecture fan and proprietor of the blog Atomic Indy, arranged to have the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau sponsor a VIP architecture tour of city, including access to the interiors of many of these normally off-limits buildings and a special early-access tour of the Miller House and Garden, a landmark recently acquired by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I was fortunate enough to be able to glom onto this trip, which was spectacular. It would be easy enough for me to make a huge number of blog posts about the architecture of Columbus.
But this is not an architecture posting. Or perhaps it is, but at a more fundamental level. This is a post about people – the people of Columbus and their character. Because cities are about people, not buildings. As passionate as I am about good design, and for all the true and legitimate importance of design excellence, great architecture doesn’t make a city great. Great architects don’t make a city great. A great city, that is, a great people, is what makes great architecture.
First Baptist Church, 1965. Harry Weese, architect. A National Historic Landmark
Photo Credit: Wikipedia/Greg Hume
Today Columbus is widely perceived as a different sort of place in Indiana. Chicago journalist Richard Longworth summed it up when he said of Southern Indiana:
Southern Indiana, from Indianapolis on south, is Dixie – hilly, scenic, with small farms and small towns, more akin to Louisville than Chicago. It contains two of the Midwest’s gems, Indiana University at Bloomington and the architectural mecca of Columbus, but both are cultivated outposts not typical of their region.
As a Southern Indiana native, from along the Ohio River where I guess I was one of the uncultivated ones, and a graduate of IU, this passage struck me. It’s totally fair to describe Bloomington as a different sort of place. The Dali Lama’s brother lives there – case closed.
But Columbus? All I remember about Columbus growing up is that my grandparents loved to drive up there to have lunch at the Holiday Inn, hardly an upscale diversion. I know about the architecture, but what else is there? Curious, I decided to take a look, comparing Columbus to other small cities in Indiana – Anderson, Bloomington, Elkhart, Kokomo, Lafayette, Marion, Muncie, and Terre Haute – to see what is different about it.
The big one – and it’s big, no doubt – is college degree attainment. Other than Bloomington and Lafayette (home to Purdue University), Columbus has far higher college degree attainment than all of the other cities at 27.6% Given the importance of educational attainment as a predictor of civic success, some might be tempted to simply declare game over at this point.
Source: Census Bureau 2006-2008 American Community Survey
Cruising those thoroughfares, predictably, one finds the rest of the town as it is actually lived in: the fast food, the Kohl’s, the Lowe’s—all the interchangeable parts of our interchangeable sprawl….Certainly it’s not the fault of the town’s great Modern buildings that Columbus has fallen prey to the same commercial and pharmaceutical scourges that have plagued less designerly burgs. But it does cast Miller’s vision, and the wisdom of the Cummins patronage system, into doubt.
Tom Vujovich, chairman of the Columbus Redevelopment Commission, put it directly, “This is a blue collar town.” If the sine qua non of blue collar status is manufacturing work, then Columbus certainly qualifies. In 2008 Indiana was the most manufacturing dependent state in America, with 18.2% of its employees working in that field. But in Columbus/Bartholomew County it’s an astounding 36.1% – higher than any of those other small cities except Elkhart.
Source: BLS Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, 2008 Annual Average
One of the people on our tour said she would love to live in Columbus “if you had a Trader Joe’s.” Vujovich told her bluntly, “It’s never going to happen.” Columbus may be a place where you can find world class architecture, but you’re not going to find gourmet food stores, independent cinemas, or high end boutiques. (They do have a farmers market, however).
In short, Columbus residents are mostly just normal Hoosier middle class folks. Someone could move there from Kokomo or Marion and feel right at home except for the strange buildings and the thicker drawl.
I happen to think that’s perhaps the most exciting thing about it. Because if it is really a successful town – and that’s a big if we’ll turn to momentarily – it offers a model of success similar Hoosier cities can imitate. And, what’s arguably more important, a model that fits the values of people who live in Indiana. Telling Terre Haute to act more like Portland – or even Indianapolis or Bloomington – is purest fantasy. But potentially they could aspire to be a lot more like Columbus.
Also, I’ve been skeptical of the ability of places whose size is below a certain critical scale to compete economically. Columbus would be, perhaps, a counter-example to show that it is possible, and how it can be done.
Irwin Union Bank, 1954. Eero Saarinen, architect. A National Historic Landmark.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia/Reywas92
Unlike many other small manufacturing cities in Indiana, Columbus actually experienced population growth in the last decade, albeit at a rate a bit slower than the national average.
Source: Census Bureau Mid-Year Population Estimates
Gross Domestic Product
GDP is a base measure of economic output. I don’t have it for all of these cities, since it is only reported at the metro area level and a couple of them aren’t big enough to make the cut for having an MSA, but most of them are there.
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis. Data in 2001 chained dollars.
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis. Date range is the maximum available
Adding all the economic value in the world doesn’t help you if your job market is in bad shape. The Great Recession walloped America hard, and we experienced an overall “lost decade” of job creation. Small manufacturing cities got hit hard. Columbus has not been immune, but did far better than most other places.
Source: BLS Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages
Source: BLS Local Area Unemployment Statistics
I don’t have dollar numbers on this, but the Indy Partnership did put together a map of foreign owned business operations by city in Indiana grouped by various countries. Columbus clearly has a huge cluster of foreign investment. For example, it has 17 Japanese owned operations alone, more than any city in the state other than Indianapolis. The next closest on my list of peer cities, Lafayette and Richmond, only have five Japanese operations each. Clearly, Columbus is the preferred location outside of Indy for Japanese investment in Indiana. And businesses from seven other countries are also located there.
Hoosier incomes have long trailed the nation, and none of these cities reaches that level, but Columbus is closest at 95% of the US average. And with its low cost of living, that’s probably good enough.
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis
Lastly, let’s look at average weekly wages. Kokomo is famous for having some of the best wages in the country – it’s the number five metro area in the entire United States on this measure – because it has two large auto related plants that somehow managed to avoid getting closed. But Columbus is a close second here.
Source: Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages
Looking at the totality of the data, I don’t think there’s any dispute that Columbus is simply the best performing small city in Indiana economically. Bloomington is the only other one you could make an argument about. And it has a Big Ten university, putting it into the category of what Richard Florida calls “big government boomtowns.” While prosaic matters like jobs, income, and economic output may not impress East Coast aesthetes like Philip Nobel, these results suit the citizens of Columbus just fine indeed.
Mabel McDowell Elementary School, 1960. John Carl Warnecke, architect. A National Historic Landmark.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia/Greg Hume
Corporate Headquarters. Columbus is home to Cummins Engine, a Fortune 500 company, which clearly helps. But look closely and some of those peer cities have advantages too. Bloomington and Lafayette have Big Ten universities with over 30,000 students each and some of the world’s top minds. Muncie until fairly recently was HQ to Ball Corp, and the Ball family was as generous as the Millers to their town, even creating Ball State University, another major campus. Terre Haute is home to Indiana State University, a nationally elite boutique engineering school called Rose Hulman, and is the home base of the Hulman-George family business empire, whose assets range from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Clabber Girl baking powder. No one can doubt the Hulman-George family’s importance to Indiana. Kokomo has those two auto plants I mentioned, with top pay rates.
Columbus has no university. Cummins is still HQ’d there but probably has only about 50% of its peak employment. Another local company, auto parts supplier Arvin Industries, was bought out and closed its headquarters and laid off many workers. Columbus has not been immune from industrial transformation.
Educational Attainment. Clearly those college degree stats are important. But that just begs the question: why did all those college educated people choose Columbus, even without a university or a Trader Joe’s? It goes back a long way. Perhaps architecture did play a role here, and the recognition that talent was importance long before other places. Columbus understood the principle of the Talent Dividend 50 years ago, and how it is harvesting its crop.
Unionization. The last traditional explanation of Columbus exceptionalism is weak unions. As Longworth put it, “Southern Indiana is beginning to draw industrial investment, particularly in cars, but mostly for the same reasons companies invest in Alabama – no unions.” Except in limited circumstances, I think organized labor is overblown as an explanation for poor economic growth. Right to work is a red herring. Alabama is a right to work state, but that hasn’t saved Birmingham. Nor has being right to work and having no state income tax done much for Memphis.
I’m less familiar with these smaller cities, but in Indianapolis organized labor is with the program. Public sector construction with lots of union jobs is big there, with major projects like a new hospital undertaken in the recession timed partially as an employment stimulus. In return, you don’t see labor problems like what Wal-Mart experienced in Chicago, nor do you hear the complaints about work rules like at Chicago’s McCormick Place. I get the impression that Indiana labor unions are mostly pro-growth.
Also, Southern Indiana does have fewer unionized manufacturing centers than central and northern Indiana, but Evansville is a strong labor town, as is Louisville, Kentucky, which has much of Southern Indiana in its orbit.
I tried to get some facts around unions in Columbus. Cummins production workers are organized, but mostly by a company specific union called the Diesel Workers Union. The company characterized its relationship with its unions as “productive”.
Remembering that auto-parts supplier Arvin Industries used to be HQ’d in Columbus and still has a plant there, I thought maybe they would be a UAW shop. But when I called the UAW regional office in Indianapolis to inquire, they refused to speak with me at all. The UAW’s reaction to someone who was actually trying to debunk an anti-labor meme, I think, says more than any facts I could collect that Columbus probably is a weak labor town, and this, along with its educational attainment, does play a role in the city’s economic success at some level.
Miller House, 1957. Eero Saarinen, architect. Alexander Girard, interior designer. A National Historic Landmark.
Photo Credit: Indianapolis Museum of Art
What values do Columbusites hold that made them successful? They fall in three basic areas.
1. Bedrock Hoosier Values. Let’s not forget again that the people of Columbus are, above all, Hoosiers. And the best of Indiana values play a key roles in the city’s success. These include thrift, hard work, faith, patriotism, community, hospitality, modesty, family, and yes, that uniquely Hoosier orneriness. Urban sophisticates may mock these straightforward values at times, but they are many of the values that built America. They are ones that Columbus and Indiana can take pride in. Like Southern cities that shed off their previous torpor to become America’s great growth stories, Columbus positioned itself for the future, but it didn’t forget about the things that were really important to it. Its people didn’t forget themselves and their heritage. They know that a great city, a great people, like a great wine, has to express its terroir.
2. A Commitment to Excellence. Tony Moravec, owner of Blairex Laboratories, says he’s in Columbus “by choice, not by chance.” (I don’t know the entire backstory, but he appears to have moved the business there from Evansville). Why? He said he came to Columbus for two reasons. “One, it’s pro-business. Two, we do things first class here.”
As much as I love Indiana, I must repudiate its overwhelming tendency towards the active discouragement of the pursuit of excellence and improvement. This attitude is a disease that affects the entire Midwest, and does perhaps more than any single other thing to hobble it.
It’s a long standing condition. When my father came out of the service, he was berated by my grandfather for deciding to enroll part time in college. My grandfather thought it was a total waste. Thank goodness my dad had enough Hoosier orneriness to do what he wanted. Last year I ran across an old neighbor who went to my high school about a decade before I did. He recounted how, upon telling the guidance counselor he planned to attend university, he was told there was no way anyone from such a small school could ever make it in college and he should be a welder instead. Today he has a master’s degree and a significant professional position. I remember myself in school hearing a repeated refrain of how there were lots of people “with book learning but no common sense.” Admittedly, in my case that might have been true, but I think it shows an attitude that doesn’t just not value education, but actively despises it.
Fast forward to today and I think of all the discussions on sites like the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Property Lines blog. For every lousy to mediocre project that comes along, there are a chorus of people defending its merits. People who ask for better design – and keep in mind many of these projects have heavy tax subsidies – are told that they have no right piping in or, “it’s just student housing” or some other complaint that doesn’t just indicate a lack of personal concern with low quality urban development, but outright irritation at anyone who does. Try to ask for something better, for something truly worthy of a great city or town, and you’ll be told that we can’t afford any “gold-plated projects,” notwithstanding that good design can actually cost less than mediocre, even on up front costs. (It’s like Jaime Lerner said, “If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget.”)
Indiana doesn’t just accept mediocrity, it actively embraces it and actually demands it of its people. Indiana and the Midwest require that anyone who lives there surrender his ambitions, or else be subjected to endless questioning, discouragement and ridicule.
But Columbus is different. In Columbus, excellence is not a byword. That’s not to say it is a luxury or high end community, because it is clearly not. But it is a place where choosing what you want to do, and then doing it well is valued. J. Irwin Miller could have simply hired some local politically connected architecture firms to churn out facsimiles of modern architecture. Instead, he sought out the world’s foremost architects for his project. He wanted Columbus to be the original, not the cheap imitation.
This spirit continues. Back to Moravec, he recently bought up an old turn of the century soda fountain called Zaharakos and restored it to pristine condition, including acquiring a rare collection of top quality antique soda fountains and self-playing musical instruments. The guy must have invested millions. Let’s just say the food and ice cream aren’t exactly gourmet, but the prices can’t be beat – he knows his Hoosier customers – and the place was mobbed when I was there. Moravec picked the battle he wanted to fight, then he went out and won it.
And it isn’t just something that affects architecture. You can see it in the way the tour guide from my very first architectural tour of Columbus some years back pointed with pride to the trees in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart, the result of a landscape ordinance designed to beautify the town. Or the first class playgrounds donated by citizens. Or the top quality design of the new Mill Race Park. This is a place with high standards for itself.
This pays huge dividends in the economic development sphere. In a competitive world, only firms that deliver excellence can survive the brutal global competition. Which workers are more likely to produce excellent products, ones that demand excellence in their own communities, or ones who disparage it? How can any investor believe that residents who tolerate a run down, mediocre community for their own family to live in will suddenly start taking pride in the products coming off their employers’ production lines? It makes no sense at all.
Also, I believe this belief in excellence played a particularly crucial role in establishing Columbus’ role as a hub of Japanese business. The Japanese are notoriously fastidious about quality. They certainly don’t compete on the basis of labor costs. I can’t prove this, but I’d also speculate that the architecture itself has affected Japanese investment decisions. The Japanese are hugely design conscious, and Japanese aesthetics have heavily influenced modernism generally.
Think about it. When a foreign company is deciding to open a major overseas operation, they’ve got to convince some of their executives to move there, usually meaning their families and children will be with them. I’ve got to believe that seeing the architectural and overall excellence of Columbus, the Japanese simply decided this was a great cultural fit for them. The people of Columbus shared their values and their passions. It was a place they believed would deliver good work, and where their families could find a home.
Today, of course, Columbus has a mini-community of Japanese residents, which creates a huge draw by itself. That’s the self-reinforcing nature of industry clusters. Today Columbus/Bartholomew County is 3.6% Asian, trailing only Bloomington and Lafayette, and its 2000’s growth in Asian population of 85% blows away any peer city.
Unfortunately, too many of the folks in this part of the country just don’t get it on this. J. Irwin Miller said that “a mediocrity is expensive.” For all too many Hoosier towns and families, the price of their embrace of mediocrity has been staggeringly expensive indeed.
3. A Broader Vision. Columbus just also seems to have a broader vision than the rest of the state. This goes back to Miller and his embrace of a modern architecture very different from Hoosier traditions. He knew what was going on in the world and was willing to embrace the new, something Columbus still does today.
Contrast with Kokomo. Economist Morton Marcus recently lamented Kokomo’s inability to convince factory workers there to live in town. Marcus actually has it wrong on his framing of the problem, but take it at face value and consider this. Kokomo’s mayor had to publicly pledge in the local newspaper not to consider a modern roundabout at a local intersection after a local uproar at the thought of one. Just 25 or so miles south by four lane highway, Hamilton County is the nation’s leader in embracing this new and better approach to intersection design. This difference in attitude tells you everything you need to know about why those high wage workers aren’t living in Kokomo, and why Kokomo is struggling while Indianapolis is thriving.
But you see it in other ways. Reading articles about Midwest towns, I’m frequently struck by the bitterness about NAFTA. Longworth has described NAFTA as a “code word” people use to talk about what’s happening to them. But NAFTA is yesterday’s news. The plants are now decamping from Mexico and heading to the Far East. The real competition isn’t just Mexico or Japan, it’s global.
Columbus gets that. Describing a new Cummins office building, Vujovich told me, “They could have put that facility anywhere. It could have gone to China or India.” Columbus knows it is competing on a global level. Too many Indiana towns think they are still competing against their high school basketball team’s next door arch-rival. Or, you’ll hear about competing against Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois.
This is easy to see in some respects. Indiana and Iowa are like the two best houses on a bad block. They are more pro-business and cheaper than places like Michigan. With a certain amount of inbound Midwest investment that will happen anyway, this leads of a mindset and economic development strategy of, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”
This is naive thinking. As David Waymire at Michigan Future put it:
The lesson from the Gateway job contraction is that even in South Dakota, the state with the lowest state and local tax collections per capita in the nation, the Gateway factory couldn’t survive. Ditto Tennessee. When Americans, no matter how “skilled” they may be in factory work, have to compete against $4 an hour labor overseas, they lose the competition.
I’m less pessimistic on industry that Waymire, but that’s a legitimate point. Columbus is actually overly dependent on manufacturing, but at least they get what’s going on out there. Too many other places don’t.
Nothing shows Columbus’ broader vision on this more than its approach to public sector expenditures. As Hoosiers, Columbusites are as thrifty as they come. But they take a life cycle view of costs. They look at things, as private sector businesses do, on a total cost of ownership basis. They know that their town isn’t going out of business tomorrow. They will still live there, and one day their children and grandchildren might still want to live there. And they think about what the long term implications are of decisions they make today, where it is taking them. They know that saving a nickel today can lead to higher costs down the road. They know it’s not a good idea to be penny-wise, pound-foolish.
They also get that their town is already cost advantaged versus regional competition, and that there’s little competitive marginal return to be gained through slash and burn economics. The places where they are at a cost disadvantage to, like China, are those where the gap can’t be closed in any material way. So Columbus has chosen to fight a battle on different fronts.
This can be summed up simply by the data in the following table. I could do an entire other series of charts on it – and someone should. But in the interest of space, I’ll just leave it in tabular form.
|City||Residential Property Taxes as a Percent of Income||2010 Municipal Property Tax Rate*||2009 City Spending per Capita**||2010 County Assessed Value per Capita|
|Columbus/Bartholomew County||1.21% (3rd lowest)||2.57 (2nd lowest)||$2391.09 (2nd highest)||$50,797 (highest)|
|Terre Haute/Vigo County||1.27%||3.60||$888.36||$34,042|
Source: Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, proprietary analysis.
* Tax rate is unweighted average of reported municipal rates. District names were not always clear, but a best effort mapping was undertaken.
** 2008 data for Munice and Lafayette
It’s pretty clear. Columbus spends more – significantly more than the Indiana median of $827.89 – but its tax base is the biggest and its tax rates just about the lowest. Huh? How is that possible?
Alexis de Tocqueville said Americans practiced enlightened self-interest, not simply raw, naked self-interest. They understood the need for a system in which everyone could thrive together. Similarly, Columbus practices “enlightened fiscal conservatism.” While other Indiana cities and towns simply reduced the quality and quantity of services, or otherwise cut corners – such as through subpar designs that won’t stand the test of time – in a short term quest to save money in the now, tomorrow be damned, Columbus took a different path.
I am a fiscal conservative. Make no mistake about it, I think we’re spending too much money on too many bailouts in Washington. But I’ve also always said there are two separate questions: service levels, and efficiencies. You can’t confuse cutting service levels with efficiency gains. That sounds nice in theory, but can it work in the real world? Places that start growing public sector spending tend to turn into runaway trains. The risk of the targeted investments approach is that it will end up devolving into bloat, as a sort of incarnation of the “true communism’s never been tried” dilemma. But Columbus shows a real life example that it is possible. And perhaps Indiana is actually the ideal place for it, since the fundamental conservative nature of its residents will be a bulwark against excess in most cases.
The people who live in Columbus are as frugal as those anywhere else in Indiana. But they understand that the best way to keep their tax bills low is to keep general prosperity high. It goes something like this:
An aggressive, pro-business attitude +
A commitment to excellence +
High quality, efficiently delivered public services +
Competitive costs +
A rich awareness of the global world we live in +
Striving to create a community outsiders might choose to live in =
Economic growth (jobs, output),
Tax base growth,
Quality infrastructure and services,
This is no secret formula. I talked about the exact same thing in suburban Carmel, Indiana. But since Carmel is a wealthy suburb, its approach can be seen as that of an outlier that isn’t more broadly applicable. But Columbus shows how a blue collar, workaday Indiana city can put the principles to work.
Other cities should be studying the Columbus example and taking good notes. I don’t suggest that anyone run out and just hire a famous architect or spend a bunch of money. In this recession, new spending programs are clearly not on the table.
But again, the real lesson of Columbus isn’t about architecture, or spending, or anything else on the outside. It’s about what’s on the inside, about the values that produced the results. It doesn’t take any money to engage in self-reflection. And unless there’s a transformation of people’s approach to civic development, and their thinking about what they want their community to be, simply aping the surface elements of someone else’s strategy would be money down the drain. The real change that needs to happen is the hardest change of all: changing ourselves.
Time will tell if Indiana and Midwest cities can pull it off. In the meantime, mediocrity and short term thinking will remain as stunningly expensive indulgences Indiana can ill afford.
First Christian Church, 1942. Eliel Saarinen architect. A National Historic Landmark.
Photo Credit: Flickr/pntphoto