I was in Columbus last week, and while I was there I was able to sit down for an hour long conversation with Mayor Michael Coleman. We talked about Columbus’ economic out-performance relative to the rest of Ohio, its secret sauce as a city, how it can gain better brand recognition in the market, Rust Belt self-disparagement, the city’s bicentennial, the role of Ohio State, and whether the city needs to develop a signature claim to fame – plus more as well.
Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. You can also read the complete transcript.
When I asked him what made Columbus different from other places in the state, Mayor Coleman didn’t hesitate to tout his city:
I have nothing negative to say about any of the cities in Ohio. But the truth is that they’re part of the Rust Belt. And Columbus really isn’t. Columbus is an anomaly in the state of Ohio. While all of the other major cities in Ohio are decreasing in size and population, increased poverty, all those things that are representative of a Rust Belt city, Columbus is just the opposite. We have a tremendous amount of young people that have moved into our community. Our average age I think is somewhere around 33 or 34 years old. We have gone from a brain drain city to a brain magnet city. And economic growth has been incredible. We’ve had 40,000 new jobs in the past three years. And it’s a city that really is different from the rest of the state. And I think if you look at the state economy, there’s one major pillar in the state economy – and it’s the city of Columbus.
I asked Mayor Coleman what Ohio should be doing to bring the rest of the state up to Columbus’ level of performance. His take:
Be progressive, a lot more progressive than what it is. The state legislature is a pretty conservative body. To some extent, they’re pro-business, but when you’re not pro anything else it frankly impacts the business development in a state. We’re very pro a lot of things in this city. We’re pro-business. I’m a pro-business Democrat. I believe in the creation of jobs and the quality of jobs. It’s part of what I do every day. I view myself as the top economic development officer for the city of Columbus. So we’re very pro-business, pro-development. But we’re also pro other things. I’m pro-gay rights. I’m pro-reasonable, rational gun control. I’m pro-human rights and human dignity. You add that mix together, of good jobs with a good life, it really makes for a vibrant economy.
One of the things that was a difference for the city of Columbus a while back was our income tax increase back in 2009. Now some people might criticize me for encouraging taxes — some have failed and some have passed in the past — but that one tax was the one that made the difference for our community in many ways. The philosophy at that time, back when the country was in the longest and deepest recession it had experienced since the Depression — including the State of Ohio, including the City of Columbus – was, “Are you crazy for wanting to increase income taxes in the city of Columbus?” In fact, I heard some people say, “You’re going to drive off business in the city.” And we heard from statewide folks, “If the state did that, businesses would leave the state of Ohio – like that [snapping fingers].”
So after some major cuts of $100 million, changing things we’d done, huge budget cuts in the City of Columbus – and the public felt those cuts; they saw it in the streets; they saw it in their homes; they saw it in the community – there was a realization in Columbus that, you know what, no one likes taxes, but we really like our quality of life. And so what happened was, the business community rather than leave the community, helped support and fund the campaign for a voted income tax. Now mind you, at that time, we were in a very deep recession – high unemployment, high level of misery in the state and locally – and for people to vote for an income tax increase at the highest time of distress in the community, was a feat unlike I’ve ever seen in this community, in any community. And the business community supported it.
We have a very smart population in Columbus, very bright, they’re very discerning. And they’ve not supported some tax increases. So our folks, they were able to discern as to what’s right for them and what’s wrong for them at that time. We recently lost a couple of tax increases. I’ll look back on it and say, “Hey, it makes sense. I get that. I understand why those lost.” This is the one that passed, and this is the one that made all the difference.
We were at a point where we were going to have to lay off 500 police and firefighters. At that time we cut all kinds of things, like trash, leaf pickup, we closed recreation centers, we had significant layoffs, we had furloughs – we cut dramatically all over and everywhere. And the community said we want a quality of life. Those things are important to us. And once you cut safety, and crime becomes rampant in a community, you cannot come back for a long time. When the community isn’t safe, you can’t create jobs, you can’t have parks, you can’t have bike paths. None of those things can happen if the quality of life in the community is declined dramatically. So the community made a choice at that time to preserve the quality of life. And this made a difference. If we had had those cuts, if that income tax did not pass, you wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about the vibrancy of our city. You’d be talking about, what are you going to do about bringing the city back from the depression it’s in, the distress it’s in? And it would be like a lot of Midwestern cities that frankly are struggling, that are struggling beyond all measure.
You can’t be pro-business and not be pro anything else. I’m pro-business – unabashedly. Good jobs, business expansion, it means all the difference in the community where income tax is the driver of services and your budget and the vibrancy of the community. But you have to think two sides of that coin. One side is development of jobs, the other side is development of place – quality. What are the amenities? What are the things that people want to have in their state or their community that enhance its viability and its vibrancy?
While when it comes to population and jobs, Columbus has been growing much faster than the rest of Ohio, in terms of recognition in the marketplace it still lags Cincinnati and Cleveland. I asked the mayor what he thought Columbus should do to change that:
You don’t need a slogan. You need experience. You want to relay an experience. And the hard thing about Columbus is there’s multiple, solid experiences in our city that are valid and meaningful to the 21st century. Again, fashion, who would have thought? Now a brain magnet city, who would have thought? The largest city in the state of Ohio – by far. The next largest city is less than half our size, Cleveland. Who would have thought? That’s why we work really hard on a multiple strategy approach. One of them is really going to hit, and you’ve got to just keep going.
People are asking, “Why am I working hard to get Democratic or Republican convention in the City of Columbus? That’s just nothing but a hassle.” The reason is there’s this glass ceiling out there, and we’ve got to break through. We may or may not get a Democratic convention or a Republican convention, but to be considered, and to be viewed differently in the process, is important.
I’ll be posting further thoughts on the Columbus brand over the weekend.
I asked the mayor why people in Columbus persist in having a chip on their shoulder about being a “cow town” even though I’ve never heard anyone from outside Ohio use the term.
Because the truth is, there are some folks in this community that at one point viewed ourselves as a cow town. And for me, that’s a dirty word. So I had a strategy that we executed, and it worked great. It was our bicentennial, 2012. In 2007 I pulled the community together. We had the largest town hall meeting in the history of the universe at the convention center. We had a couple thousand people. We brought a couple thousand of our residents into the convention hall and we spent time on what we want to do. I had a mission; my mission was to help change the mentality of how we view ourselves. Because you can’t market yourself until you view yourselves a certain way. So what I started talking about then and I still talk about today is, this city needs to continue with a sense of modesty, but not modesty to a fault. Because frankly, we should have a sense of what I call swagger. And I’ve written articles on it. I’ve written op-eds on it. We’ve done all kinds of stuff, speeches all over the city – is that this city needs to have a sense of swagger. Because we have so much to offer, so much we’ve accomplished, and we need to feel that when we go on that football field we can win. And we got to walk, we got to talk, we got to feel as if we have swagger. And I pushed it hard. And frankly, I think that effort has changed how we view ourselves.
Mayor Coleman was the first black mayor of Columbus and is now the longest serving mayor of any race in the city’s history. I asked him about the way black political leadership in American cities has evolved since the days of the civil rights movement:
I think the early mayors’ focus was civil rights. The issues have changed over time. While civil rights continues to be important, people have an expectation that mayors deliver, mayors change the city for the better in every aspect of a community, from jobs, to housing, to streets, to police, to safety, human services, across the – water quality, sewers, potholes. Our role has changed from the singular focus of civil rights, which is important, to be an expanded role that includes civil rights but everything else that we have to change.
Mayors, especially African American mayors, need to be change agents – change agents for their city. I think all the mayors you mentioned are change agents for their cities – in every aspect of city life, not just in one or two. Every aspect. My favorite saying in this city, among my staff, is: the city that stays the same falls behind.
Listen to the whole thing above or read the complete transcript for more.