Sunday, June 29th, 2014

Columbus: Getting Fit For the Competition Ahead

This is the last of my entries prompted by my recent trip to Columbus. I’ve noted before that Columbus and Indianapolis are twin cities in many ways, though with some important differences.

One of those differences is that the civic discussion in Indianapolis today is heavily driven by the urgency of reversing the decline of Marion County as the city of Indianapolis increasingly loses out demographically and economically to its suburbs. In Columbus, by contrast, I didn’t sense nearly the same concern about suburban competition. While again I only have limited data points to go by, what conversations I did have if anything suggested to me that the city of Columbus thinks it’s holding most of the cards in the region. I suggest letting Indianapolis be a cautionary tale, and that Columbus should be much more focused on how to manage future suburban competition than it presently seems to be.

By the late 1960s Indianapolis had, like most cities, been steadily losing ground to suburban development. The response was a city-county merger called Unigov* that in effect annexed all important contemporary suburbs are well as most of the empty land that would be urbanized in the next two decades. This allowed Indianapolis to capture that suburban tax base and avoid many of the problems that plagued other older cities during the 1970s.

Fast forward to the present and it’s clear that the Unigov model is out of gas. Marion County is now largely full apart from some areas in the southern parts, and has a fairly flat growth curve in population. Most the growth is now in the collar counties. What’s more, there’s been a huge employment shift as well, with the city losing 41,000 jobs since 2000 and the suburbs gaining 78,000. I gave an overview of the dynamics in a previous post.

Today Indianapolis has a serious problem on its hand. How did this happen? It’s pretty simple. Unigov bought he city 40 years. But what did it do with that time? It built up its downtown to one of America’s best, a legitimately impressive and important accomplishment. But beyond that it was basically business as usual. Unfortunately, the 5.5 square miles of downtown can’t carry the rest of the city’s nearly 400. The city should have been aggressively preparing for the day when Unigov would reach exhaustion. But it did not.

Columbus utilized a similar technique to Unigov by aggressively annexing suburban development. And it had fairly similar results, doing well and avoiding the problems. But it seems to be widely accepted in Columbus that the city is nearing the end of its growth by annexation phase. While unlike in Indiana, Ohio makes it fairly easy to annex across county lines, and Columbus extends into multiple counties already, annexation has slowed to a crawl. In part I’m told that they are now reaching into territories that have other sources of water than the city of Columbus water utility, and thus the city has less leverage to annex than before. While technically not hemmed in, Columbus has less room for growth than before. This raises the question of when the dynamics of decline will set in within the newly stagnant city.

Columbus appears to be in better shape than Indy right now. I’d say this is for a few reasons. First, Franklin County, Columbus’ home base, is geographically bigger than Indy’s Marion County, giving Columbus a larger area of natural historic dominance. Columbus is also home to newer office/retail suburban development than Indianapolis. For example, Indy’s Keystone Crossing area is based on edge city and power center templates that are dated, while the corresponding Easton area in Columbus is newer and built to a lifestyle center type template that’s a bit more up to date. Columbus similarly has the relatively new Polaris area inside its borders.

What’s more, Columbus’ suburbs are comparatively underdeveloped and thus aren’t rivals as of yet. Indianapolis has five suburbs with more than 50,000 people – two of them with more than 80,000. Columbus has none. Only Dublin, which has 43,000 people, 9.5 million square feet of office space, and major downtown development ambitions, appears to be a full scale competitor at this point. Most other suburban municipalities are much smaller (e.g., New Albany has less than 10,000 people) and/or enclosed by the city of Columbus and thus limited in growth. Favored quarter suburban Delaware County has 185,000 people (some of which are in the city of Columbus) vs. nearly 300,000 for analogous Hamilton County, IN. What’s more, Hamilton County is far ahead in infrastructure vs. Delaware County. Delaware County has next to no upgraded east-west or “crosstown” arterials. Two reservoirs there make developing them difficult, with one of them separating I-71 from the developed parts of the county. Thus the county is even lacking in north-south “radial” movements.

These factors and others have essentially kept Columbus from facing any significant suburban competition. But unless the city wants to somehow double down on annexation and try to restart that engine, at some point these dynamics will change and the city of Columbus will find itself physically constrained and competitively disadvantaged vs. newer and now more powerfully developed suburban entities. Dublin is likely a preview of coming attractions.

I don’t have any particular policy suggestion in mind here, nor am I saying that anything the city is doing is necessarily wrong. But given what has happened in Indianapolis, I would certainly encourage the future prospect of suburban competition to be top of mind. The city of Columbus should be aggressively scenario planning for how this will play out, and use the runway that it has left to be preparing for the era of more intense intra-regional competition to come. Better to err on the side of paranoia, because the risks of waiting until you’ve got a serious problem on your hands are too high to ignore.

* Unigov also ensured a white majority in the city

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Life in Columbus

While I was in Columbus the other week I didn’t just interview the mayor, I also was interviewed by Columbus Underground, and the transcript of our discussion is now available online. Lots of stuff in there is not specific to Columbus, so it’s good reading even if you don’t live there.

Also, Experience Columbus, the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, is launching a campaign targeting 25-35 year olds in cities like Chicago and Washington, DC. They are going to be running ads in those cities, etc. with the idea of attracting those people to Columbus.

They also put up a site for that audience called Life in Columbus which is mostly content aggregated from various community sources like Columbus Underground, and thus is always changing. But the centerpiece of the site is a one minute video about the city, which I’ll present here without commentary. If the video doesn’t display for you, watch at Vimeo.

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Columbus, Know Thyself

After my “Checking In On Columbus” post last week I was surprised that quite a number of people in Columbus, though a minority, took great exception to it and posted a number of negative comments about the post and me. I had thought it was a mostly positive take and I’m long on record has being bullish about the city and its future.

I asked someone I knew there about this and he suggested that Columbus had a history of insecurity, highlighting an incident a while back in which, upon visiting a fantastic Japanese restaurant in a suburban strip mall for an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show, Columbus native Michael Ruhlman made a throwaway remark about it being surprising to find such a place in “Applebee’s country.” This provoked quite a firestorm of blowback in Columbus, leading Ruhlman to respond that he was only referring to the suburban setting, not Columbus as a whole, or so he claimed. Earlier this year the Columbus Dispatch, saying that “if there’s one activity Columbus loves, it’s cheerleading,” reported on a Reddit forum created as a safe place for unpopular opinions about Columbus.

When people who highlight good things about Columbus but aren’t 100% positive about it are attacked, that will hardly inspire anyone from out of town to want to cover the place. But beyond that it shows that Columbus is still laboring under insecurity about itself, for not much good reason if you ask me given that the city is very solid. It also shows this is a place unaccustomed to out of town press beyond the always positive travel piece genre.

I bring this up because today is my promised post about branding Columbus. Changing and elevating the brand position of a city or a company in the market is difficult in the best of times. It really challenges us to get out of our comfort zone. These experiences suggest – and I do mean suggest as I don’t want to read to much into limited data points – Columbus may not be ready to take that step. And it might explain why I hear leaders voice some of the same frustrations today that they did three and a half years ago.

If a city can’t accept any judgments from the marketplace that deviate from its self-perception, it’s going to be hard to move that market. Also, when you want to be known on a first name basis nationally, big a “world class city,” seen as a top tier urban player, etc. the scrutiny and the expectations are just going to be at a higher level. You can believe everything that happens in New York gets put under the microscope and poked at by people near and far. If you want to play at that level you have to accept that, flash in the pan hot cities of the moment excepted, there’s actually going to be more negativity about you than when the rest of the world didn’t care much about who you were. It comes with the territory.

As for my post, I corrected my misspelling of Franklinton and am happy to correct any other factual errors. It’s also clear that my perceptions are rooted in only a short visit. Nevertheless, I stand behind what I wrote.

What Is Your Ambition?

One of the Twitter responses to my post from someone named Craig Calcaterra brings up an interesting point, however:

The truth is that Columbus doesn’t have a powerful brand in the market outside of Ohio. Having said that, the city is growing rapidly in population and jobs, is extremely livable and improving day by day, and seems to make its residents very happy. Is there any reason the city has to be better nationally known in order to be complete or something?

I say No. As I said in my 2010 talk, there’s nothing really wrong with what the city is today. It’s a valid choice to simply stay with the status quo.

But while many citizens may indeed feel that way, the city’s leadership doesn’t. This was hammered home in a 2010 New York Times piece on the city’s rebranding efforts. That desire to be seen as a high caliber city at the national level clearly came through in my most recent trip, even from Mayor Coleman himself.

So I’ve been operating on the assumption that’s what the city wants. But it’s certainly not the only valid answer. I also tend to be personally biased towards high ambition, particularly in a place where it’s obvious that the ambition can be realized. Places like Detroit and Cleveland are really struggling to rebound from severe problems. And no matter how successful they are at it, they’ll never been as important and prominent places to the comparative level that they used to be.

By contrast, Columbus is both operating from a baseline of strength, and also at a point where it is still on the way up as a city. Whatever the deficiencies in its marketplace recognition, Columbus has never been a larger, more important, more prominent city in the world than it is right now – and it has the potential to reach still higher. For so many cities, their glory days will forever be behind them. But Columbus has the opportunity for its glory days to be ahead of it. Not every city and not every generation is granted the opportunity that Columbus has right now. So before taking a pass on going after it, think hard about it. Be sure you’re comfortable asking the “What if…?” questions years down the road.

Finding Columbus’ Mojo

But assuming the answer is go for it, then what needs to be done? I previously talked about the need to go beyond the checklist. Today I’ll more about the how to get there.

As I said, the first is to really be committed to change and going after the brass ring. Because I can tell you, this is not an easy journey to make. Some of the things you are going to have to do are really, really hard because they involve looking those civic insecurities right in the eyes, and also questioning perhaps your most fundamental and cherished truths, especially the truth about what you’re best at.

It’s very hard for cities to admit where they are weak, but it can actually be even harder for them to admit where they are strong.

One of the sayings of the Greek oracle was “Know Thyself.” Sage wisdom, indeed. Knowledge of yourself is often the most difficult to come by but valuable of commodities. Because as the saying goes, “Without awareness there is no choice.”

Where does a city get knowledge of itself that’s useful for branding? I argue it very often comes from the past. Cities didn’t just take their present form overnight. They are the process of a long process of growth and change. In particular, the founding ethos of a place profoundly stamps its character, usually in a permanent way. The Dutch trading culture and spirit of openness of New Amsterdam is still present in contemporary New York, for example.

When a new creative director comes in to revive a failing fashion house, what’s the first thing he does? He goes to the archives. He investigates the history of the house. What does this brand stand for? Who were the people who founded it? How did they become who they were? What happened along the journey of that house?

To use a hackneyed phrase, that new creative director wants to understanding the “Brand DNA,” and the key to the brand DNA is in the past.

I think that’s as true of Columbus as anyplace. Columbus certainly had good luck in getting where it is today, but I’d argue there’s more to it. One of their historical keys to success was a fateful decision in the 1950s to pursue an aggressive annexation strategy. You can say that was one mayor’s choice, but I believe the fact that it happened in Columbus and not elsewhere in Ohio was already signalling that there was something different about the city. What is it?

Midwestern cities always profoundly struggle with questions of identity. What is the identity of Ohio? It can be hard to articulate. Yet visit Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland and it’s clear they are three radically different cities. It hits you immediately. It’s like a cold bucket of water in the face. But we have trouble putting that uniqueness into words.

Why is Columbus an outlier in Ohio? How did it get that way? Why did Columbus choose to annex? How and why did Columbus become so gay-friendly ahead of many other cities?

There are tons of questions, but at the end of the day what you want to do is distill down the essence of the city’s mojo, Austin Powers style. And when you have that vial of mojo, that’s the secret sauce on which you build your future brand presence in the marketplace.

This is cultural spelunking. It’s an anthropological, archeological, historical deep dive into a city, its people and its culture. I’d suggest tapping into Ohio State’s cultural anthropology resources. There might even be a dissertation in it for someone.

Aspirational Narrative

One you have the mojo, you not only use it to build the future reality, you also sell it by telling the story of Columbus to the world. You need to create an aspirational narrative of the city that people can imagine themselves being a part of.

Think of the story of New York. TV shows like Friends, Sienfield, and Sex and the City have created a contemporary positive narrative of life in New York. People know what it’s about. If you can make it there, etc. (This wasn’t always the case. Escape from New York, Death Wish, and Fort Apache the Bronx told quite a different narrative in a previous era). Portlandia tells a story about the place where young people go to retire. Think about the Bay Area, LA, Miami, etc. and the stories come to our heads without much thinking.

What’s that story of life in Columbus? You create that story around the authentic mojo of the city.

Missing Genes

Beyond finding the mojo, there’s another key task that goes along with the investigation. That’s finding the missing or defective genes in the civic DNA that have been or will sabotage the city’s ambitions.

Everybody’s got a rap sheet. The only question is whether or not we know what’s on ours. When I was working in corporate America I’d tell people working for me that they should be expecting me to be giving them 3-5 substantive things that they need to improve on to make to the next level. My thought process is this: if I’m getting nothing but glowing feedback from my boss, if I’ve got nothing I need to get better at, why am I not the CEO of this company? Clearly, there’s a reason why I am where I am and not the President of the United States or something. If I’m not giving that same tough feedback to my own reports, I’m not doing them any favors.

It’s similar for cities. When a defect is external and easy to fix – say, building bike infrastructure – we tend to be pretty open to hearing it. But when things start getting into our character, our behaviors, things that are more personal in nature, it’s a lot harder. It gets uncomfortable. We’re probably blind to what others are seeing and thinking. We probably can’t see it ourselves. Change can be really, really hard. I dare say nearly every top level executive in America has turned to outside, professional coaching for at least some things they needed to get right. As my old boss once put it, even Tiger Woods has a coach. If elite athletes need coaches, how much more aspiring cities? That’s why I say the Ohio State history and anthropology departments might be good resources.

So Columbus needs to understand not just checklist items it is missing like a major transit investment, but also cultural items that are holding the city back and what they are rooted in. Then it can attack them with a change program that can hopefully work, like the civic equivalent of therapy.

On a related note though methodologically different, the city needs to be willing to take a hard look in the mirror and realistic assess its assets and accomplishments and how compelling they are in the market. The cold reality is that while Columbus is a great city in many ways and has lots of great stuff, what it has doesn’t add up to a nationally or globally compelling story. You need to take the marketing glasses off and ask how people who aren’t in or from the city are are going to see things.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you recategorize your assets as bad. But you have to understand that checklist items that lots of other cities are doing (e.g., bike infrastructure) are probably not going to set the city apart in the marketplace. If you don’t have it, you’re in trouble. But if you do, it doesn’t win the game. These things are just the new urban ante.

Illustrative Applied Examples

I want to give a quick examples – and let me stress this is provisional and speculative to some extent – illustrating these three points.

On the mojo front, the city’s previous branding effort that identified “smart” and “open” as two key civic attributes is right on in my view. It’s a good start. But why is Columbus open? That is, why is it easier for newcomers to acclimate, penetrate networks, accomplish things, etc. in Columbus than in many other places?

I speculate it’s rooted in being the state capital and is one legitimate advantage of that. I’ve seen a similar trait in other capitals. I speculate that because people from all over the state are coming to Columbus on political business, and because there’s always churn in elected office, civic networks don’t become closed and calcify in a sort of “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown” effect.

For the missing gene example, I think it’s very possible that one reason Columbus didn’t create a compelling, unique product in the market is that it doesn’t have the civic mentality to do so. It’s just not in the civic DNA. One local leader I talked to speculated that the city’s values were shaped by those of Ohio State football and Woody Hayes. That is, the secret to success is to work relentlessly at the fundamentals and always be pounding the ball ahead with the running game – “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Not exactly the West Coast Offense. This may be too facile, but it is clear that Columbus excels at the fundamentals, at the blocking and tackling of city stuff, but hasn’t thrown the civic equivalent of the long bomb. This may be a DNA issue.

For the asset evaluation example, I think Columbus needs to be realistic about Ohio State’s stature. Ohio State is a great school, but it’s not Harvard or Stanford. I went to Indiana University and I’d say the same about them. Now, obviously you’d never come out in public and downplay Ohio State, which legitimately is a power house for the city. But you don’t want to mistakenly believe it’s doing to spawn the next Cambridge or Palo Alto without some major change either.

Forget It Jake, It’s Cow Town

I said earlier that it can be harder to acknowledge your strengths as a city than your weaknesses. My belief is that is doubly true for Columbus. To truly discover the secret of its mojo, Columbus needs to be willing to stare into the abyss of cow town.

Talk to people in Columbus and you’ll hear them claim that they are not a “cow town” anymore or how people used to refer to them as a “cow town.” I have seen this as an analogy to the case of Indianapolis and “naptown.” I’ve always doubted that hardly anyone outside of Indianapolis itself ever used the term Naptown historically as an insult. No one would ever have cared enough about the city to even bother insulting it.

Similarly, I’d never heard the term cow town until somebody from Columbus told me about it. I strongly doubt it’s ever really been a term of derision nationally, but it’s possible it was for some people in Ohio. I definitely know there’s a strain of Cincinnatian who loves heaping abuse on places like Columbus and Indy. As Columbus has grown while other cities in Ohio wandered in the wilderness, it’s easy for me to believe there’s been a lot of sniping. So while the market would never think of Columbus as cow town, there may be some legitimate in state reasons for them to be sensitive to the term.

The impression I get, again provisional based on my limited experience, is that in an attempt to rid itself of the stigma of being a cow town, Columbus has sheared off its past, in effect repudiating everything that happened before 1990 or 2000.

I observed to Mayor Coleman that Indianapolis in recent years has downplayed the 500 Mile Race. I asked him whether or not Columbus was similarly neglecting its greatest brand asset in the market by downplaying Ohio State football. He said, “No. There was a time in the 60s and 70s and the 80s, and even the 90s, where Columbus was nothing but Ohio State football. And I love the Buckeyes; I love the football team. It’s better than any professional team in the state of Ohio. And they’re still amateurs. That’s good. But having said that, Columbus is no longer just the Ohio State football team. We don’t view ourselves that way anymore [emphasis added].”

This is just one statement but it seems consistent with what I hear from other people. There’s an embedded idea here that there’s little to nothing of value in the city’s past and in fact that past is something to be embarrassed about or outgrown. I have never heard anyone from Columbus brag about their city and tout it for anything related to the past, apart from historic architecture. There may be historical things that are mentioned, but they are seen as valuable in reference to what is happening today. For example, the mayor went on to talk about the importance of Ohio State in terms of its contemporary research impact. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a city talk less about its heritage. I’m certain there is a proud heritage worth of celebrating, but I haven’t heard about it from people there. That lack of historic rooting may be one reason why the city can come across as somewhat generic.

As I’ve noted before, this is normal for us to go through. When we go off to college, Mom puts our high school letter jacket up in the attic. We try as hard as we can to fit in at the new level, and treat the stuff we left behind as little kids stuff.

But eventually we become comfortable in our own skin. We learn who we are and what we stand for, and we stop becoming so concerned about what other people think of us. Of course we are social creatures and will never stop caring about others’ perceptions of us. We keep growing and yes, follow fashions. But we find a healthier balance.

The same is true of cities. And as I noted at the top, from the insecurity I sense I’m not sure Columbus is far enough along in its growth path to really be comfortable being itself, and acknowledging and embracing its past.

This doesn’t mean Columbus should be or ever was a cow town. What it does mean is that things from its past that Columbus thinks are cow town are actually its strongest brand assets and things to be proud of and build its future on.

Let’s give some examples. The Midwest has a history of local, low grade lager brands. Virtually all of these were abandoned and ceased production. The hip, cool thing to do was to drink microbrews, not even Bud or Miller Lite, to say nothing of Sterling (my dad’s brand).

Then one day the hipsters on the coasts started drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, and all of a sudden back in the Midwest, we started drinking it too and now are relaunching or re-embracing all those old blue collar brands (including Sterling). The same thing happened with workwear clothing, which is now selling for quite a premium in some places and very popular among the Bearded Ones.

In effect, we had to re-import our own heritage after a bunch of other people elsewhere saw the value in it – the same heritage we rejected as “cow town.”

The clearest example of this is agriculture. The Midwest is all about ag. Ohio State is a huge ag power house. Columbus could have owned urban agriculture, farm to table, organics, etc. But it didn’t. And now it’s doing them, but it’s doing them as the follower, not the leader. It’s also listed “AgBioScience” as one of its economic clusters, but that’s an industry it could have gone after a long, long time ago.

Unfortunately, it was impossible for Columbus to ever have embraced agriculture until it had been reduced to a checklist item because to do so would have meant almost literally embracing “cow town.” It had to wait until the cognoscenti pronounced it safe. But then it was too late.

This is one of the tragedies of the Midwest. We turned away from our heritage and a bunch of guys in Brooklyn bought it from a thrift store for a song.

The South avoided this. Look at Nashville. Did they turn their back on country music as “cow town”? No, they embraced it as central to their identity past, present, and future. Of course they are more than country. But they kept it front and center. But they also updated it. It’s not the old AM radio country. It’s not Hee Haw. They respect those people and institutions and see them as in continuity with today, but they have evolved. Today’s it’s glitzier, more Hollywood. It’s “Nashvegas.” Think Carrie Underwood, not Minnie Pearl.

This is what it means to know thyself and build the future out of the authentic mojo of the past. Columbus surely has many things in its past and in its historic civic character that are of immense value. The question and the challenge to the city is being willing to find out what those are and own and embrace them and champion them as a key part of the mojo on which it will build its future reality and aspirational civic narrative.

I believe the potential is right there. The question is whether the city is ready and willing to step up and grab it.

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman

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.

If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

Mayor Michael Coleman. Image via City of Columbus.

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.

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Checking In On Columbus

Fountain in a park, Victorian Village, Columbus, Ohio.

I was in Columbus, Ohio for a couple days last week. I hadn’t been there since my late 2010 Columbus Metropolitan Club presentation, and so it was good to get to check in and see how they were doing.

I once called Columbus “the new Midwestern star,” noting that they were one of those Midwest cities that’s doing far better than the region’s reputation would suggest. It’s been growing at a reasonably rapid clip in both population and jobs, beating the US average significantly, though not measuring up to the Sunbelt boomtowns. Home to Ohio State, it’s educated to significantly above the national average, has a diverse white collar employment base, and is also an emerging logistics center among other good things.

One of their biggest sources of frustration is that they aren’t better known in the marketplace. If I were to sum it up, they’re sick of people always putting the “, Ohio” after their name. (As I’ve written extensively about Columbus, Indiana in my own home state, hopefully they’ll forgive me if I do so in order to reduce ambiguity). Part of the reason is that while they check all the boxes, they haven’t really gone beyond the checklist to create things that would be truly compelling in the external marketplace. Columbus is basically what I mean by the “best practices” city – they are implementing all the best practices in the marketplace, but haven’t yet developed a compelling, unique brand positioning. I wrote about this in a post called “Rebranding Columbus” and focused on it at length in that presentation above. I’ll soon be back with another round of thoughts.

Short North

But today I just wanted to share some photos of various things going on about town. Like a lot of places, Columbus has seen a sizable amount of housing construction of apartments in its urban core in recent years. According to Walker Evans of Columbus Underground, there are about 5,000 units recently completed, under construction, or soon to break ground. That’s not going to reverse suburbanization, but shows that the urban center is showing significant signs of a more healthy market.

New construction on High St. in the Short North, Columbus.

The majority of the construction appears to be happening on the near north side. The first neighborhood north of downtown is called the Short North and is a very nice retail district that sits between downtown and the Ohio State campus. The picture above shows the High St. spine of the Short North with its signature arches.

You’ll see buildings under construction on both sides of the street, both showing increased verticality versus the existing building stock. This illustrates the densifying trend in arguably the city’s most desirable district, which has been provisionally welcomed though not without controversy. The building on the right is a Le Meridien hotel. The building on the left is for offices. It will also house a two-story Anthropologie store, which is very controversial for this neighborhood that has successfully fended off most major chains, including Starbucks.

Victorian Village and Italian Village

Short North is not exactly a neighborhood per se, but rather a commercial spine that joins (or splits depending on your point of view), residential neighborhoods on either side, Italian Village to the east and Victorian Village to the west.

Street in Victorian Village

As the name might suggest, Italian Village was originally the more working class of the two. For a part of its length its only a few blocks wide because it’s pinned in by railroad tracks.

Walker Evans graciously gave me a tour of new development and I took a lot of snaps, but didn’t make notes so I’m going from memory as to where these are. Apologies in advance if I make a mistake as to location in these photos. Here’s new development in Italian Village:

This neighborhood also has a pretty large industrial brownfield site that a developer tried and failed to tackle some years back, which is now moving forward again with what will be quite a number of units:

Development in Victorian Village:


Grandview Heights Area

Columbus is famous for having annexed a large amount of territory. One result is that there area handful of independent municipalities that ended up entirely surrounded by the city, including Bexley and Grandview Heights. Because these have their own independent school districts, they’ve retained a lot of housing value and have a pretty high quality residential stock. The closure of some industrial plants led Grandview to try to replace the lost tax base by redeveloping them as mixed use residential/office/retail. Here’s a picture under development:

On the Columbus side of the border there’s also related development, though out of mercy to the city I won’t show it, as it includes a gigantic strip mall. I believe this area is all being developed by Nationwide Realty. Nationwide Insurance is HQ’d in Columbus and employs over 10,000 there. One thing insurance companies do is invest premiums collected in order to earn a return, and real estate is a popular choice. Nationwide just happens to be willing to bet a significant amount on its hometown. That’s a huge benefit to Columbus. They previously led the efforts to develop the successful Arena District downtown, and this is their latest foray. As with the Arena District, it appears to be solid, though not in any way distinctive, perhaps in keeping with an insurance company’s conservative mindset. This is part of the Columbus “reasonably best practices but not innovative or externally compelling” approach. It all has a vaguely “Sim City” feel, something that is by no means unique to Columbus. This development is far from complete:

Easton Town Center

I’ll make a brief diversion to a suburban type location (albeit within Columbus’ sprawling city limits). This is the lifestyle center Easton Town Center on the Northeast Side. It’s Columbus’ most upscale mall and also some to some associated apartments and a bit under three million square feet of office space. This gives the appearance of having been a completely master planned development. While it’s nice, it’s also sterile – “Stepford” as my one friend might call it – and also exudes the “Sim City” effect.

An interior street of the Easton Mall.

Parking lots only steps from the interior street above.

The extensively landscaped main access road at Easton, with new urbanist style apartments in the background.


Columbus has a number of great and thriving urban core neighborhoods like Short North and German Village. Its downtown, by contrast, has been on the dull side, a stereotypical government and finance center. I didn’t see that a huge amount had changed since my last visit. Indeed, most of the development in the core seems to be outside downtown.

One exception is the site of the now-demolished City Center Mall. When the city scrapped it, I was not a fan of the idea of replacing it with a park, saying:

There seems to be a reverence for green space in cities bordering on the religious. But green space is only useful to the extent that it functions well in the urban fabric. If you take two blocks and grass them over like this, what you are really doing is just institutionalizing a vacant lot. Now a plaza or square of the European style is quite nice, but it is quite nice because those places are able to draw people. If 1.3 million sq. ft. of shops wouldn’t draw people, why will this park? That’s the great unanswered question. Plazas work in Europe because of the density of offices, retail, residential, and tourists. The activity on the plazas draws more people to be part of it, which forms a virtuous circle, but unless there is critical mass of activity to begin with, the spark will never strike. The intensity of development here is just not going to make it. In effect, this is another build it and they will come plan. What’s more, the city is permanently taking the land off the tax rolls and since, unlike a mall, it’s a non-revenue producing asset, there is a significant operating tail to fund as well.

City officials are correct that cities have to get their public spaces right. But the key part of a public space is the public. If you don’t have people, you haven’t built a true public space. I suspect that they will be forced to program events there near continuously to fill up this space.

My prediction appears to have been entirely vindicated. Here’s the park they built:

Looking the opposite direction:

This was an overcast but not especially gloomy weekday afternoon. I expect this to be close to the normal state of the park when programming is not in progress.

On the other hand, this is one area that has seen development. Only part of the site was reserved as a park. Various other sections were penciled in for development, which has been occurring. Here are some apartments that have attracted quite a bit of urban design criticism locally, but I find notable as being erected by an out of town developer, showing the increasing attractiveness of the local market for national investors:

The adjacent intersection of High and Rich also has significant development going in on all corners. All told, there will be about 1,000 units just in the area of this intersection. Fill up every intersection with that kind of density, and perhaps the park will be more regularly used sans programming.

Sadly, some of this involves demolishing historic buildings. I believe the site above was demolished and the buildings below will be as well. This is disappointing, but I do think there are value conflicts that can’t always been resolved neatly. Destroy and replace has been part of what it means to be a city forever. The judgement of history is whether the balance of preservation and redevelopment is right.

I was told the building at the corner has serious problems that this photo doesn’t do justice to.

Riverbank Restoration

One other interesting thing going on downtown involves changes to the Scioto River. Previously the city had redone the existing banks of the river with parkland and trails called the Scioto Mile that is quite nice. We had drinks at a tavern that overlooked the river in a way that was both urban and scenic.

However, sometime in the past the river had been dammed. Nobody is quite sure way, but the best guess is that it was to widen the smallish, non-navigable Scioto to make it more impressive. The result is that the river ran through a channel within retaining wall through downtown. Trails and such were built along the top of that wall.

The city recently blew up the dam in order to restore a more natural riverbank and greenery to the Scioto. Although in this case “natural” clearly involves a lot of restoration work to help.

You can easily see the retaining wall in that pic and the resulting expansion of green space that is going to result from this.


Visiting Columbus you might be tempted to ask, “Where’s the urban blighted part?” Candidly, I’ve seen remarkably little of it compared to many cities I’ve visited, and I tend to go looking for it.

One exception is a neighborhood just west of the Scioto River called Franklinton that is the thing that has almost everybody I talked to most excited.

Franklinton has a classic Midwest post-industrial wasteland look, but this includes plenty of high quality older buildings. One of them has already been converted into something like 100 artist studios – all full as artists are getting priced out of their traditional home in the Short North. Another has been turned into a large “maker space.” I saw a brewery under construction. Apparently the majority of the land in the area is under “friendly” control, and The Powers That Be have christened this the next It Place. Results already appears to be happening, and the historic building fabric that exists suggests this will be different in style than the Sim City developments I highlighted earlier.

Bike and Care Share

Columbus now has a downtown bike share up and running, though I didn’t actually see anyone using it. It appears to be industry standard type stuff. They also have a car share system, this one from an outfit called “car2go” that I wasn’t familiar with. It’s apparently owned by Daimler Benz, so naturally features Smart Cars:

This has some neat features. Cars don’t have to be picked up and dropped off at fixed points. You find one with your smart phone based on GPS, and drop it off anywhere in the service area you can find a spot – even at a meter. These cars aren’t required to feed the meter so you get free on street parking while using them. I was told this system was put in place on a market basis without subsidies – and that the vendor actually pays the city for the use of the meters.

Bicentennial Brand

One new thing since my last visit was a new city logo:

I’ve got to confess this threw me for a loop when I saw it. The different color of the “US” was clearly intended to convey something. My first thought was it meant United States. My mind went directly to the “Cincinnati, USA” brand and I thought maybe this was the city’s way of trying to get that “, Ohio” monkey off their back. The star over the U made me smile, thinking of the umlaut over the N in Spinal Tap, but obviously as a state capital, it made sense, and the forward positioning doubly highlights the “US” as well as suggesting forward progress.

Or so I was congratulating myself for having figured out. Apparently this logo was created for the city’s bicentennial, which had a theme of self-celebration called “The Story of Us.” There was even a book with that name issued (along with a commemorative coin, CD, and other celebratory things). The highlighted “US” is actually the pronoun “us.”

While I think this works great as a bicentennial theme (and also explains the red white and blue, even though those aren’t the city flag colors), it renders the logo unparseable to anyone on not on the inside, i.e., everyone not from Columbus. Especially foreigners are unlikely to make the connection. Unfortunately, basically every major civic group has adopted variations of this for their own materials. The graphic uniformity is admirable, but it’s a confusing graphic.


I hope this gives a bit of a feel for what’s going on in Columbus, though it’s by no means complete. The city continues to grow at fairly robust levels. Construction in the urban core looks healthy. But there hasn’t been any upward inflection point in the trajectory that I see. Nor have they cracked the code on brand, marketplace recognition, and transcending the best practices city model. I’ll share some thoughts in coming posts that will hopefully help with the latter items.

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Taking Columbus to the Next Level

It’s always a bit risky to look at a video of something you did 3-4 years ago, both from a content and style perspective. But since I’m off to Buckeye land next week for another visit to Columbus, I dug up and uploaded this talk I gave at the Columbus Metropolitan Club in December 2010. The topic was branding Columbus and ideas for taking the city to the next level. I hope you enjoy. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

In-State vs. Out-of-State Migration

My recent repost of an article on Columbus, Ohio’s brand blew away the all time comment record for this blog, with 271 as of this writing.

One the discussions was around the extent to which Columbus and other Ohio cities draw mostly from the state or from a broader area. Obviously with Ohio State University, Columbus has a massive in-state draw. But what about people from out of state?

To try quantify this, I used the IRS migration data in my Telestrian system to sort out net migration into that which is with the state of Ohio, and that which is with other states. Before the data, a couple caveats. First, this is based on tax return data so probably understates student movements as many (most?) undergrads aren’t filing their own returns. Second, for multi-state metros like Cincinnati, someone moving from Ohio to the Kentucky or Indiana part of the metro area still counts in the total. The metro area is considered a unit. Also, movements within the metro area are ignored. With that, here’s the chart (click to enlarge):

As expected, Columbus has a huge in-state draw. But what surprised me is that Columbus actually has negative migration with the rest of the country. In effect, Columbus gains people from Ohio and exports them to the rest of the country. I’m sure the university has something to do with this, but it’s interesting nevertheless. Cincinnati shows the same pattern, only at a smaller scale. And Cleveland is bleeding people both to Ohio and the rest of the country. Keep in mind with Cleveland that a lot of the in-state outmigration is probably in effect suburban because of the nature of the way Northeast Ohio metros are set up.

To put this in perspective, I ran the same analysis for various other similar sized metros:

This was a shocker to me. Look at Nashville and Charlotte. It’s not so much that they have large net migration from out of state, but that they have very low net migration from inside. Though Nashville is the boomtown of Tennessee, it seems not to be sucking in people from the rest of the state.

Portland is also an interesting case. It appears to be like Nashville and Charlotte, but what this doesn’t show is that overwhelmingly the net migration to Portland is coming from California – 53,000 people worth. If you exclude both Oregon and California, Portland only drew a net of 21,000 people from the rest of the country. Contrary to what you might think, vast quantities of people (on a net basis) are not streaming into Portland from all over the country. It’s a regional draw.

Austin parallels Columbus a bit in that it has a huge in-state draw, possibly again because of the university. It also as a huge migration with California – 30,000 people. If you look at Texas plus California, that’s about half the total. Charlotte has a similar effect with New York and New Jersey migration.

Indianapolis is sort of a control with Columbus. It is primarily an in-state draw but does have a positive balance with the rest of the country. Keep in mind that it will inevitably lose some people to Sunbelt states for retirement. There’s not much you can do about that. But it’s an effect say North Carolina may have less of. The contrast with Columbus in out of state migration could be due to the lack of a major school there. I don’t know for sure.

Looking more closely at the 3C’s, here is their net migration with each other:

And here is the gross migration, which is the total number of people moving back and forth:

And here’s the percentage of metro area population that is living in the state they were born in:

There’s no radical difference. In fact, by my eyeball calculation, the difference between Columbus and Cleveland is almost entirely due to the former’s higher percentage of foreign born residents (again, partially an artifact of OSU). In their domestic population they are similar. Cincinnati is in the corner of the state and a three state metro. It’s easy to see that its born in state of residence figure is lower because of people who crossed a state line while not leaving the region, though I can’t quantify the exact figures.

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Replay: Rebranding Columbus

This post originally ran on August 15, 2010. Some anachronisms have been left in the piece, so keep the original date in mine.

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Columbus, Ohio, one of those under the radar cities that’s a whole lot better than its external brand image would suggest.

That frustrates local civic leaders, who’ve undertaken a major re-branding effort, as discussed in a recent NYT piece, “There May Be ‘No Better Place,’ but There Is a Better Slogan:”

Quick, what do you think about when you hear the words “Columbus, Ohio”? Still waiting…. And that’s the problem that civic leaders here hope to solve. This capital city in the middle of a state better known, fairly or not, for cornfields and rusting factories has a low cost of living, easy traffic and a comparatively robust economy….What Columbus does not have, to the despair of its leaders, is an image. As home to major research centers, it has long outgrown its 1960s self-concept as a cow town, and its distinction as the birthplace of the Wendy’s hamburger chain does not quite do the trick these days. The city lacks a shorthand way to sell itself — a signature like the Big Apple or an intriguing tagline like Austin’s “Live Music Capital of the World.” As a result, those working to attract new companies, top professors, conventions and tourists have a hard time explaining how Columbus differs from dozens of other cities that likewise claim to be livable, progressive and fun.

As I’ve said many times, branding isn’t marketing. It isn’t about tag lines, messaging, or talking points. Yes, there’s an element of that and getting your message out. But branding starts with what’s on the inside not messages to the outside. It’s about who you are, what your values are, what you stand for, what you aspire to be when you grow up. The marketing part just helps communicate that.

I won’t reprise my general prescription on branding, but here are a few pieces you can review if interested:

Despite what the title of the NYT piece might suggest, I think Columbus gets it on this:

How do you stoke the imagination of outsiders and the enthusiasm of residents? Columbus, starting from relative obscurity, has found that you cannot just hire an advertising agency, like New York and Las Vegas did, and come up with a slogan. It needs to find something real and heartfelt to trumpet, a task force of business, educational, political and arts leaders here concluded.

Your brand has to be something that is authentic, that’s true to the place. It has to resonate with the people who are there. That’s not to say it can’t be aspirational. That’s how we grow. But to simply chuck your past and trying to be something completely different is overwhelmingly difficult and often fails. So kudos to Columbus for trying to find something true to the character of their city.

Apparently they’ve been at this a while, and one of the techniques has been involving residents in helping to define the new brand: “But this time, three years into their inner journey, city leaders expect to succeed by drawing the whole population into the process and teasing out shared points of pride.”

When I read something like “drawing the whole population into the process”, alarm bells go off. It’s not PC to say this, but too much public involvement at the wrong stage is a bad idea. Clearly, it’s important that the public buy in and that the results be shared and genuine input solicited without delivering a fait accompli. But design by focus group almost never works. I’ve seen a lot of civic visioning efforts that tried to be maximally inclusive – I even served on the steering committee for one – but I’ve yet to see one that produced compelling results or moved the needle. Think about it. Did Steve Jobs design the iPod by asking people what they thought about music players? No he did not. Apple, and all the best product companies, succeed by giving us the thing we didn’t even know we wanted until they gave it to us.

That’s not to say you ignore market research. There’s certainly an element of archeology and anthropology here. And it certainly has to go beyond simply hiring a fancy pants advertising firm, something Columbus wisely avoided. But community involvement isn’t probably going to get it either. Partially that’s because people who are too close, who are on the inside, probably have difficulty articulating the uniqueness of a place. I don’t have enough personal experience with Columbus to go into depth there. I’d have to get more deeply embedded in the community to really understand the place at a deeper level. But I’m confident that the qualities they are looking for are there to be discovered in Columbus. The city is doing well in a tough region. There have to be reasons why. It’s going to require digging deep though.

The Fallacy of Awareness

I gather from the NYT piece that the people in Columbus think they’ve got a pretty great city, and that if they could only get other people to see how great it is, their standing in the league tables of public estimation would go way up. I believe the first part is true, but not the second.

Wanting to have your city taken seriously is likely wanting to be a member of the cool kids club. How do you get in? Well, it goes without saying that you need to have the qualifications – to be good looking, rich, to suck up to the right people, etc – but is that enough? Sometimes yes, but more often not, particularly for people who don’t score overwhelmingly high.

Think about it, the defining characteristic of a clique is exclusivity. If it was too easy to get in, membership would lose its value. So if you think about cities, the urbanists, media types, academics, activists, etc. who are the arbiters to the public at large about what cities are the coolest and best generally all pick the same ones – cliques also enforce conformity of mindset – and it just so happen that those are the places that contain most of the said taste arbiters. Why would any of them choose to champion Columbus, unless they had some personal connection there?

People who are members of an elite clique generally spend most of the time talking with and about each other, and little time about anyone else, even to put them down. To be ignored is the ultimate penalty of being an outsider. This is true of almost any field.

Here’s a classic example from the blogosphere. There was a minor kerfuffle a while back about Andrew Sullivan using “ghost bloggers.” Fellow Tier One blogger Ann Althouse took extreme umbrage at this in a way I find very revealing about the mindset of members of an exclusive clique:

I seriously believed I was interacting with Sullivan, a writer I have respected for maybe 20 years. I wouldn’t have bothered with Patrick (or Chris). I really don’t care what they think. If they insult me, they are to me like any number of bloggers who insult me and whose bait I don’t take. I would always take Sullivan’s bait, because Sullivan is important. Not to know whether it’s Sullivan or one of them makes a mush out of the whole blog.

Of course when she says Andrew Sullivan is important, what’s she’s really implying that she’s important, and can’t be bothered wasting her time on anyone who isn’t also on the VIP list. To have fooled her into debating mere peons – whose writing she admits she can’t tell from Sullivan’s himself – is treachery of the highest order.

In fairness to Althouse, she does link to lesser known bloggers (including, once, me). The point is not that she’s evil, which I don’t think, but that this is how the world really works.

If you are the Columbus, Ohio of bloggers, how do you get Ann Althouse, Andrew Sullivan, etc. to care about you? I can actually share a personal story in that regard. The first two and a half years of this blog was almost exclusively about Indianapolis, and I had very wide readership there. But I received very little recognition or acknowledgment in that city. Quite the opposite in fact. As an example, one journalist I assisted with a story told me flat out I wasn’t authoritative enough to quote in the piece. While I hope I’m getting better over time, I don’t think my content was that much less compelling then than it is today. And it was obviously being read. So why the difference? It’s the same dynamic I’m talking about. They might not have known who I was, but they knew who I wasn’t – and that was one of the boys. Quality product and awareness had nothing to do with it. Having experienced that end of the spectrum is one reason I try to be a champion for new voices.

There’s an industry out there that creates the myth or fantasy of the instant or overnight success who achieves fame and glory when their talent is finally seen by the public or the right people. Susan Boyle for example. I’m sure that does happen from time to time. But is that the way it ordinarily happens? And how much staying power does fame and recognition have in those circumstances?

I’d suggest that this sort of thing happens far less than we are generally led to believe. I read a lot of magazine profiles of people and when I hear them talk about how they got their big break, I’m always amazed at how often there are one of two basic tales. The first is, “I was sitting in my office one day wondering how we were going to pay the rent when my phone rang and it was Frank Gehry asking if I could design some lighting fixtures for his new Guggenheim Museum”. The second is, “I just showed up at Vogue and lied that I was sent there by Steven Meisel and they interviewed me and I got the job.” How likely is it that most of these stories are true? Or at least that they are the whole truth?

One of my guilty pleasures is the New York Observer. One of the things I love about it is, that due to the gossipy nature of the publication, they always give you the back story on who the people they are talking about are. That 27 year old chief curator at the top tier museum? Yeah, his mom was an heiress. He wouldn’t advertise that fact in most of those other magazine profiles. I’d bet most of these stories would fare similarly under scrutiny, though perhaps in different ways.

Clearly, awareness, and awareness by the right people, is critical. You really do have to get out there and knock on Vogue’s door – probably getting it slammed in your face the first few times you do it. Everybody needs lucky breaks. I have no doubt that if my personal promotional skills were better, I’d be further along in achieving my own ambitions.

But there’s a lot more too it than that. You want to be a member of the club? You’ve got to break the door down yourself. You’ve got to make it so that they can’t ignore you. If Columbus wants to be taken seriously, it’s going to have to force itself into the conversation. That takes relentless hard work and creating a product so compelling that the urbanist elite has to respond to it and take it seriously. Simply being a great place to raise a family, having a relatively good economy, high quality of life and low costs – a value proposition virtually identical to lots of other cities regardless of what locals might think – is not going to get the job done.

One Columbus official said, “Candidly, we believe we are one of the brightest stars in Ohio’s future.” One of the brightest stars in Ohio? I’m sorry, that’s not going to cut it. It’s like I tell the people in Indy when they get excited about being the “Diamond of the Rust Belt”: that sounds an awful lot like bragging that you won the loser’s bracket in the JV playoffs again this year. There’s nothing wrong with being in Ohio – and Columbus would be ill-advised to try to pretend they are something different from the state. Columbusites can be proud of Ohio and their role in it. But if they want America to pay attention to them, they need a message and reality to match that ambition.

That’s what Portland did. Portland didn’t get to be Portland through superior marketing and talking points about having the lowest costs and quality of life on the west coast with all those natural amenities to boot. They went out and did nothing less than define a new vision of what a small city in America could be. And they delivered on it through relentless hard work and actual execution over the course of decades.

Staking Your Claim

If Columbus wants to raise its profile, then it has to start setting the agenda. That’s not to say they have to try to be the next Portland or anything. But they’ve got to find areas where they can stake their claim and create something that compels the world to pay attention.

I’ll be the first to admit that this section will be unfair to Columbus. I’m going to compare it to its “twin city” of Indianapolis, a place I know far better. So keeping in mind that I just probably know more about what’s going on in Indy, and that I’m clearly a partisan of that city, I’d like to note a few things.

First, Columbus just seems more with it than Indy on a host of matters. In fact, when it comes to things like urban design, density, public transit, and many other matters, Indy is almost worst in class. It’s hard for me to even name one urban infill project that exhibits proper urban design, for example, while in others cities I tend to note that the majority of new developments do. Columbus, by contrast, just seems to get it on most issues, from urbanism, to pedestrian investments, etc. Yet why is Indy much better known?

One reason is that while Columbus does a very good job of ticking all the boxes, I can’t name many areas where it has gone above and beyond the checklist. And therein lies its problem. Columbus is a quality follower and implementer of the right things, but isn’t an urban innovator or a place that has carved out a distinct and compelling offering versus broadly similar peers.

A lot of people from bigger cities don’t care for Indy much. If you want walkable neighborhoods, tons of independent restaurants, etc. it is not your place. But time and again Indy has gone out and pulled things off that many other cities can only dream about, and put themselves in the spotlight.

The NYT notes of Columbus leaders, “One model they have studied is Indianapolis, which raised its profile by describing itself as the amateur athletic capital of America.” The NYT gets it completely wrong. Indy didn’t raise its profile by describing itself as anything. Back in the 1970’s a group of glum city leaders sat around a table wondering what they were going to do about a city best known, if as anything, as “India-no-place.” They hit on the idea of amateur sports. But rather than a marketing program, they instead committed themselves to going out and making it a reality, a process that continues to this day, though not limited to only amateur sports.

Indy built a downtown arena in the 1970’s. They built a domed stadium at the bargain price of only $80 million in 1983 without a team to play in it in an era before widespread pro sports franchise relocations. This let them pick the Colts up in 1984 on the cheap. Yes, that was a lucky break, but one they were ready to exploit. They put the domed stadium next to the convention center, not just to help conventions, but anticipating that major sports events would have ancillary activities that would use the co-located space. They created the first of its kind Indiana Sports Corp. to oversee all aspects of luring and hosting events. They saw the benefits of industry clustering, and recruited sporting sanctioning bodies to town, culminating with the NCAA headquarters. They started off with unglamorous events like the trials for the 1984 Olympics. They took risky bets when opportunity presented itself such as jumping in to host the 1986 Pan Am Games when the original host city backed out. They built state of the art facilities for sports few people gave much though to like swimming and bicycling.

In effect, Indianapolis created the entire industry of using sports events hosting as an economic development platform, and they did it in a holistic, extremely intelligent way that involved putting some major chips on the table for projects with an uncertain outcome. And they are still at it today, 35 years later after, as all successes do, everybody and their brother has tried to get a piece of this pie. The competition is brutal, and Indy has spent big – some say too big – to stay at the front, such as by going full out to host a Super Bowl in 2012. Indianapolis is arguably still the best place in America to host a sporting event.

I’m a believer in all the research that suggests sports investment is a bad idea with a dubious payoff for cities. But Indianapolis is an exception. There’s no doubt this was a major force in transforming the city – and getting its name out there. How much would the city have had to pay for all the de facto advertising impressions they’ve gotten from all this sports investment?

Is Columbus willing to stake a similar claim in another speculative area and put big money behind it, staying with it over the course of decades? Is Columbus ready to pile $3 billion in chips on Red 14 the way Indy did?

Indy also conceived many other similar types of programs that not only add to local quality of life, but also get the city’s name out. Consider the quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, one of the most prestigious such competitions in the world. Why would anyone take seriously a fine arts competition in Indianapolis? Well, they wouldn’t, all things being equal. So when the city did it, they had to come up with an unbeatable package. First, they partnered with the world-renowned Indiana University School of Music to give them musical credibility. And they set up for the winner a year’s loan of a Stradivarius violin, a recital at Carnegie Hall and other places, intense coaching from some of the world’s best violinists, and more. That certainly got people’s attention.

Or consider the Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation. Again, why would anyone think of Indianapolis in this field? They wouldn’t – except that they city anted up and made it the single biggest cash prize in this field in the world and recruited a top international nominating committee and jury.

Or look at the currently in progress Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which is taking over 8 miles of downtown street lanes away from cars and giving them to people. It is a unique project, that includes the highest quality bicycle boulevard I’ve seen, along with an often separate pedestrian walkway, significant green features, and major public art installations. While honestly this has not received the publicity it deserves, it has been covered in Surface, Dwell, Streetsblog, and elsewhere. It’s a totally unique project. From now on anyone who wants to undertake a major downtown urban trail project is going to go to Indianapolis to see what it did. Why? Not because they want to, but because they have to. Because at some point somebody is going to ask the question, did you look at the Indy Cultural Trail? – and if they development team says No, they are going to look pretty stupid.

I’ve also noted how suburban Carmel, Indiana is staking out a claim to be a nationally premier suburb, with 5% of all the modern roundabouts in the United States, the largest deployment of roundabout interchanges in the United States, an ambitious agenda of New Urbanist retrofit, a $150M concert hall, and much more.

You might not know any or all of these, but in their fields, they are known. They are all projects of major ambitions, that attempt to innovate and set the agenda, and which serve a branding function for the city. They were also conceived with a recognition that nobody is going to pay attention to Indianapolis unless the city forces them to. And it has. And it’s not just in the traditional civic sphere. Here’s a point to ponder: with Columbus’ vaunted gay community, why is it Indianapolis that is home to the Bilerico Project, the Huffington Post of the LGBT community?

I could go on and on – best airport in the United States, anyone? – but I think you get the point. Indy isn’t in the club yet, and may never get there – but it has come a long way.

Again, if I knew Columbus better, I’d probably be able to give examples there too. I’m sure Columbus isn’t totally without these types of programs. But my blog has been traditionally Midwest focused. And I’ve tried to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on in all these cities, including Columbus. I read the Dispatch online for over two years and still read Columbus Underground regularly. But I haven’t come across that many truly compelling stories of national relevance – and certainly nowhere near as many as I’d expect for a city that’s rocking and rolling as much as Columbus is.

Maybe the painful truth is that Columbus today just isn’t very different from the other places with which it competes – and that’s what this re-branding should really address.

Columbus has most of the blocking and tackling nailed. It’s a city that gets it. But to break through at the national level, Columbus is going to have to do a lot more than get it. Columbus is going to have to start playing offense, start dictating an ambitious – and let’s face it, risky – agenda around items that are so compelling the world won’t have any choice but to sit up and pay attention. Because it’s unlikely anybody is going to start giving Columbus the props it craves otherwise. It’s just like they told me at my old firm about the secret to making partner – you’ve got to already more than be there.

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

More Fun With Per Capita Incomes

After yesterday’s post, I thought I’d throw up some additional comparisons, this time at the metro level. County and metro per capita incomes only go back to 1969, not 1929, but there are still interesting things to see. I’ll post these without analysis for you to ponder on your own. Again, all data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, with charts via Telestrian.

The five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan=New York County, Brooklyn=Kings County, Staten Island=Richmond County). In the case of Manhattan, it’s worth noting that this is a mean not a median value.

New York vs. Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the exurbs of LA are technically considered a separate metro area (Riverside-San Bernardino) and so aren’t included in the LA metro figures:

Chicago vs. Indianapolis:

Denver vs. the Twin Cities vs. Seattle:

Atlanta vs. Dallas-Ft. Worth vs. Houston:

Memphis vs. Nashville:

Cincinnati vs. Cleveland vs. Columbus:

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

New England vs. Midwest Culture by George Mattei

[ George Mattei is a long time reader and frequent commenter on the blog. I find his comments are very insightful. One in particular really caught my eye and I asked him to turn it into a full blog post. Thankfully he said Yes so here it is – Aaron. ]

How Physical, Cultural and Political Differences Shape Development and Economic Growth

I was recently asked to make a comparison living in New England versus the Midwest-specifically how cultural and political differences impact the economic and physical development framework of the two regions. This is something that I have at least a modest knowledge of, given that I have lived and worked in both areas (Born and raised in Hamden, CT near New Haven, attended college near Boston and now live near Columbus, OH). As a real estate developer and planner specifically I have paid quite a bit of attention to these differences.

I moved to Columbus from Connecticut nearly 15 years ago to attend grad school. I must admit the cultural differences between these two areas were a bit surprising at first. The basic differences were obvious-different land development patterns, different industries and even different landscapes. However, after living in Ohio for several years, I came to understand on a personal level the cultural and political differences and how they have -and continue to- shape and form these regions.

Regional Differences

These differences show up in subtle ways that are also telling. In New England, my experience was that residents have a much more territorial, parochial view of their communities, and are more likely to resist change and development. In contrast, in many Midwest metro areas the residents have a more metro-focused view of their region, and better understand how the different communities interact. This does not mean that they always cooperate, but by nature some of the governmental functions are already done on a regional basis, making it easier to collaborate on certain tasks and be more open to change.

It’s perhaps deceptively simple, yet revealing, to pick a typical resident in a community in each area, ask them a simple question, and read into their response. Let’s pick two fairly standard metro area cities – Hilliard, OH and Attleboro, MA – and compare them on several levels. First some background information.

Hilliard is a suburb about 10 miles northeast of Columbus that was founded as its own small railroad community in the mid 1800’s. It had less than 1,000 people until the 1960’s, when it began to grow exponentially with the construction of the I-270 outerbelt around Columbus. Today it is a middle to upper-middle income community of about 28,000 residents sandwiched between Columbus, other suburban communities and the rural farm fields of western Franklin County.

Attleboro, MA is a city about 10 miles northeast of Providence, just over the border into Massachusetts, and 30 miles southwest of Boston. It was founded in the late 1600’s and steadily grew in population to the nearly 45,000 people it has today, but was a community of about 25,000 people in 1950 prior to the time when it would have been absorbed into the larger metroplex. It is now part of the Providence Metropolitan area, located right on I-95 between Boston and Providence, and is also linked to the two via the MBTA Boston-Providence commuter line. It was once known as the “Jewelry Capital of the World” due to the presence of several jewelry manufacturers in the city in the early 1900’s. Today Attleboro has transitioned from a manufacturing-dominant self-contained city into a quasi-suburban middle income community that has melded into the surrounding metropolis.

Now that we have a background on the two communities, let’s pose our simple question from someone unfamiliar with these areas-“Where are you from?” The answers each give would be subtly different, but telling in how they view their community and its relationship to the surrounding region. From my personal experience, here’s how each resident would answer this question:

Hilliard: “I’m from Columbus Ohio.”

Attleboro: “I’m from Attleboro, MA.” (Sometimes, they will abdicate this and say “I’m from Massachusetts”, but that’s just for convenience so they don’t need to go into a lengthy description of where Attleboro is).

The differing level of detail reveals not only how they view their community, but allows us to look at where these views come from. Clearly the Hilliard resident considers him/herself more a part of the metropolitan area. The Attleboro resident sees him/herself as a resident of the town first, and then the State, with no mention of the metro area.

Why would this be? There are several physical, cultural and political factors that play a role:

1. Municipal Borders. Municipal borders in New England were fixed long ago, well before metro areas became the main economic unit. In much of the rest of the country, including the Columbus area, communities continue to change their boundaries through annexation (more on the legal aspects of this in a moment). The borders of New England cities and towns were fixed hundreds of years ago and have rarely changed since.

2. Proximity of Metro Areas. New England has numerous small (except Boston) metros that bump up against one another. As a result, you get an agglomeration of established communities that sit between metro areas. In the Midwest, communities are spread farther apart. In Ohio, a state with several metro areas, many counties still have a modest sized county seat and a few villages. There is still quite a bit of country between many of the metro areas, and the spacing gets farther as you go west into other states.

In our example, it’s pretty clear that Hilliard would still be a small village of less than 1,000 people if Columbus hadn’t sprawled out to meet it and envelop it within its metro footprint. Many residents probably work in Columbus, and the ones that don’t work in one of the other suburban communities that owe their growth to Columbus, just as Hilliard does. When residents want a night out on the town, Columbus is the only game in town without a long trip.

Attleboro is a different case. It was a small city in its own right before it ever became part of a larger metro area. It sits 10 miles from Providence and 30 from Boston, and probably has many residents that work in both cities, plus in several other suburbs in the area that have the same fractured allegiance to multiple metros. Cultural opportunities abound in both cities, which can result in many visits to both.

3. Small Box Government. Although both regions tend to have a “small-box” governmental structure, it is actually far stronger in New England than in the Midwest. This is codified in the governmental structure of the areas in numerous ways:

a. First, New England “towns” are essentially the equivalent of “townships” in other parts of the country. However, there are significant differences. In Ohio, townships are considered semi-autonomous extensions of the County government. They are not incorporated as their own municipalities. They are run by their own elected officials, but have only limited powers as delegated to them by the Ohio Constitution. In legal-speak, they are not full “home rule” governmental entities. For example, townships can have zoning (if they jump through certain hoops), but they cannot approve subdivisions-that’s a County function. Incorporated municipalities in Ohio are full home-rule entities.

New England towns are also not incorporated. However, this is a virtually meaningless designation. They do have home rule, and function in virtually every way just like an incorporated city. They cannot be annexed by a city. A friend of mine that’s heavily involved in my home town’s local government once said to me, “we looked into incorporating ourselves as a city, but it didn’t mean much and required us to pay higher fees to the State.”

b. Speaking of counties, New England has a fractured form of county government. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont do not have any county governments, only lines on a map. Massachusetts has abolished some counties, while some having merged and other still function independently. Only New Hampshire and Maine have what appear to be fully operational county governments. In areas without counties, each town or city provides most of its own services. For example, in Connecticut, each town has its own elected clerk that just handles document recordation in that town. Only services that absolutely can’t be run on a local level are done regionally, such as the judicial system-however this is run by the State via districts that roughly correspond to the county boundaries.

In the Columbus area, each county has a robust governmental structure that provides a number of services that are more easily provided on a regional level, such as courts, auditor and recorder and Sherriff services. In Indiana, their Unigov system merged the City of Indianapolis and Marion County to even further expand the box.

c. In Ohio, Townships can also lose land to municipalities that swallow up territory through annexation. The City of Columbus essentially controlled development in Central Ohio for 50 years through buying up the water and sewer systems and only agreeing to provide service to developers if they annexed to the City or a suburb with which the City had an agreement in place. This was a “big box” approach that was put in place in the 1950’s, and has worked well for Columbus over the years. In New England, the borders were fixed a few hundred years ago, and they don’t change-only “small boxes” available.

4. Population Density. New England is more crowded already than many other parts of the country. This furthers resistance to new developments, resulting in higher real estate prices. This, along with the lack of economic activity that would draw many new residents to the area, means that-outside of Boston- many New Englanders were born and raised there. Not much fresh blood to re-think the way things are done.

5. Local Taxation. The manner in which local taxes were levied in Connecticut is very different than in Ohio. In Ohio, income tax (charged where you work, not live) funds much of the local revenue for cities and townships, with property taxes going to fund school districts which are operated as separate governmental subdivisions. In Connecticut, property taxes support most of the local level spending, so property value is king. In a majority (although not all) of the communities the school district is only semi-autonomous and is funded directly as a line item in the municipal budget.

The impact of this is actually quite dramatic. In Ohio it pays to cram as many jobs as you can into your community. Many communities welcome every office, strip mall and warehouse they can get. In Connecticut, many people tend to react the opposite way-they don’t want these uses. They bring traffic and pollution, which can bring property values down (at least that’s the fear), thereby weakening the municipal coffers. Exclusivity pays when keeping out more intense uses to preserve the bucolic countryside atmosphere leads to wealthy residents building large estates that pay lots of taxes. There is likewise much less of an incentive for local leaders to welcome the newest strip mall into their community, especially when they need to provide more police services and bigger roads. In Ohio, almost every highway exit, even the ones in high-end communities, has several commercial establishments near them. In Connecticut, many exit onto leafy drives that run to quiet residential areas.

6. Terrain. Physical landscape plays a role-if you get 20 feet off the ground in Hilliard, the Columbus skyline is in full view, due to the flat terrain. I guess that it would take a much higher point to be able to see Providence from Attleboro, given the rolling terrain. Out of sight-out of mind.

7. History New England has a very rich history. Pilgrims, founding fathers, settlement in the 1600’s, historic town centers, fishing villages, former industrial powerhouses, Ivy League universities – all of these things contribute to a culture where the past is revered. Here in Columbus, people’s self-worth is in the future. It’s a young, relatively anonymous, but up-and-coming city. It has a history, but most people don’t hang their self-identity hat on it (in fact, I would argue that there is an unhealthy self-angst about Columbus’ past by its residents). Many other Midwest metros also have a slightly older history characterized by the manufacturing boom in the early 20th century-which is still within the memory of many of its residents, and so doesn’t hold the gravitas of New England’s founding fathers.

We can now go back and look at why our two residents answered our question the way they did in the context of the above differences. The Attleboro resident answer Attleboro for two overarching reasons-1) they have more than one metro area with which to identify and 2) the historic, political and physical geography of the area fosters an overreliance on the city/town as the dominant cultural, political and social institution in the region. The Hilliard resident answered Columbus for exactly the opposite reasons-1) Hilliard clearly falls within only the Columbus metro area and 2) there is no dominant physical and cultural reason, and much weaker political reasons, to answer Hilliard to someone else.

Cumulative Effect on Regional Culture

The cumulative result of these cultural, physical and political structures is a significantly different approach to development, both physical and economic. New England has a much stronger resistance to change. Why would a community that prides itself on its historic past want to demolish some of it to build new, modern facilities? They don’t. Even in Boston, the economic powerhouse of the region, many people still deride the skyline as “turning Boston into New York”. Their true pride is placed in the Back Bay, North End, the Commons, Southie, etc.

This also extends to greenfield development. While many areas have residents that resist change, New Englanders have a particularly powerful argument-the history of place. After all, the heritage of the area is small, dense nodes with pastoral, rolling hills in between. A colonial-style home on a 10-acre exurban lot preserves much of that look. A relatively dense subdivision of 4 units an acre does not. Local officials tend to listen to this argument more in New England than in other parts of the country, because their self-worth is strongly tied to their history and their tax base to property values.

Even in a loss, the impact on the local psyche is not as significant. When UPS moved their offices out of southwest Connecticut in the early 90’s, no one felt like the true character of the region was threatened. Sure, jobs were lost, and that was hard, but it didn’t make the region any less proud of itself. Contrast that to many Midwest metros, who keep a scorecard of Fortune 500 companies in their pocket to show outsiders, and who feel real reputational angst whenever a company leaves.

Furthermore, the “small box” view tends to stifle larger economic development goals that would be beneficial to the region as a whole. Today it’s virtually impossible to get an even modest expansion of the obsolete Tweed-New Haven airport, for example, even though it sits in the middle of one of the largest underserved air markets in the nation. It straddles the border of two municipalities that fight over it incessantly (to be fair it is near a number of single-family neighborhoods). Meanwhile many Midwest cities have actively expanded their airports to nurture these crucial links to the external economy.

Without new greenfield development and modern buildings, airports and other facilities, it can be difficult to attract new companies to the area. The communities in New England that do have a number of these newer facilities (such as those off of the fabled Route 128 near Boston) often have them because their sense of history was ripped apart by the momentary fervor for building interstate highways in the area-one which has faded in New England but which still runs strong in the Midwest. Midwestern cities still develop scads of suburban office buildings and shopping centers-often too many- while the relative dearth of development in New England results in some markets being highly overpriced relative to other areas of the country. Surprisingly, although Boston has a very dense core, the area around the I-495 outerbelt (one of the largest outerbelts in the nation) is only very thinly developed in many areas.

Beyond the development aspect, New England has a regional mindset that is from my experiences fairly unique. In some ways the Northeast, with New England as a part of that area, is worldly-a gateway to America, home to several large world-class cities, a history of immigration and a density that make this region feel busy, prosperous and cosmopolitan. It often sets trends that the rest of the world follows.

On the other hand, it is also a region of small boxes, one that lives in the past as much as the future and one that resists change fairly aggressively. The view is not forward-looking in many cases. It’s somewhat inward-looking. The identities are fragmented and parochial. The bottom line is that outside of a few business cluster locations like Cambridge or Wall Street, or a few high-society locations like the Hamptons or Greenwich, the Northeast doesn’t want to necessarily be a trend-setter, even though it often is. It’s not that interested in climbing the ladder to “world class” or the “big time”- partly because it thinks it’s already there, but partly because it would have to sacrifice part of its identity. It’s just fine with its leaf-strewn rolling hills, historic downtowns, fairly moribund economic performance and proximity to world-class New York and Boston.

As a final note-it may sound that I am bashing this mindset. I don’t necessarily think it’s all bad. I do believe that New England could do more to promote more job growth and think regionally about its future. Some forward, big box thinking here would be welcome. On the other hand, not many places in America have the rich history and scenic beauty that New England has, and this is exactly the kind of “authentic brand” of which Aaron Renn has spoken so often of late. Indeed, tourism has become a big part of the New England economy over time as many people recognize this brand and want to experience it for themselves. Artists, authors and creative types, at least the highly successful ones that can afford it, tend to flock to the area to live and work in relative seclusion and anonymity. This lifestyle, in my opinion, should be preserved and nurtured in a nation where so many places do seem like every other place.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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