A Diversified Economy Cushions Columbus, Ohio, From Downturns

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People attend the Independents' Day Festival in the Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. The city has become a nearly recession-proof hub.

Much of the anger and anxiety in the 2016 election are fueled by the sense that economic opportunity is slipping away for many Americans. This week, as part of NPR's collaborative project with member stations, A Nation Engaged, we're asking the question: What can be done to create economic opportunity for more Americans?

Columbus has become a nearly recession-proof hub of Ohio. Ohio State University, state and local government, insurance and retail are the central spokes of the city's economy, which at a glance looks remarkable.

"In a service economy Columbus was destined to do better, much better than places with smokestack industry," says David Stebenne, a professor of history and law at Ohio State. Columbus has a set of built-in advantages, including a countercyclical set of employers — insurance, government and the university. "Even in bad times insurance is insurance," he says.

Columbus was once mocked as a paper-pusher town without the industrial might of Cincinnati, Toledo or Cleveland. Now those high-paying white-collar jobs are a central asset, Stebenne says.

"The ability of Columbus to attract and retain many of the brightest young people in Ohio is now well known around the state," he says. Cleveland and Cincinnati both lost population for decades and only recently have stabilized or had some small growth. Columbus, meanwhile, has been one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. "Young 20-somethings go and come back. If they want to raise families, this is such a more affordable place to live than Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York."

Tara DeFrancisco and her husband, Rance Rizzutto, just moved from Chicago to Columbus to start the Nest Theatre, an improv comedy venue. Since they've being touring the country, the couple realized they could save money moving to Columbus while still maintaining their lifestyle.

The low cost of a home in a major city was a lure. "I think we're saving like $500 a month-ish on buying a home," DeFrancisco says. "I don't think Rance or I expected to own a home in our lifetime. And I think we assumed that we'd be renting forever or maybe buying a modest condo but not a house with a yard that has food in it," DeFrancisco says, referring to the garden outside her newly purchased home.

She says price made her think of moving, but the culture of Columbus made her want to move. "Columbus has everything we want," she says. And now the newlyweds say they feel a town of Columbus' size has a growing arts scene that's encouraged them to live there. "If you can bring art to those communities then they don't have to necessarily push out to the bigger cities," DeFrancisco says.

Cameron Mitchell runs a restaurant company headquartered in the Short North, the neighborhood that sparked Columbus' downtown revitalization. Mitchell, long a Columbus booster, says the city's success is no accident. On a tour of the neighborhood, he points to North Market, an old local market that's been turned into a hub of activity. "Twenty years ago ... you wouldn't be caught dead around here at night. There were no hotels here. It was decrepit down here. It was a rundown dead urban core."

It was the tech boom of the 1990s and almost all of Columbus' big players — business, the university, the city — realized they were missing out. Many point to the election of the Michael Coleman, the city's first African-American mayor, as a turning point for the neighborhood and much of Columbus. Coleman was seen as a being pro-business and development.

"The truth in that is that 10, 15, 20 years ago we were stagnant," Mitchell says. Today, he says, Columbus has the reputation of being "a smart, open, young, vibrant city."

Stebenne, the Ohio State professor, says the city benefits from not having quite the same pitched labor or school desegregation battles that other Ohio cities had. The city also annexed land, which has allowed it to keep taxes relatively low. "It had a very committed group of civic leaders and a culture of working together and it's not a confrontational town. It's much more of a cooperative one," Stebenne says.

Nile Woodson is founder of Hai Poké, a food truck. (Poké is a Hawaiian raw fish.) The 26-year-old OSU grad says he had the choice of going to New York, "where it's extremely competitive and extremely expensive. And even being from there ... I didn't have as strong of a network. But Columbus is all about support and community and networking. It's just this awesome place."

Enrico Moretti, author of The New Geography of Jobs, says much of the city's success can be summed up with one word: serendipity. He says Columbus is lucky. It's blessed by its relatively central location in the state, being the capital, and being the home of OSU. Those are the seeds of development in Columbus. Moretti says even with those seeds the city could've "messed up" its opportunities.

"If the local workforce is not skilled enough that seed will move away," he says. The second way a city could mess it up is if "the cost of living increases too fast relative to worker productivity." The third way Moretti says is if the regulatory environment makes it too difficult to do business.

Moretti says you can't manufacture the seed that make Columbus' current success, but "Columbus didn't mess it up. Columbus took the seed and made the best of it."

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In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we say Columbus is gaining population while Cleveland and Cincinnati are losing residents. Cincinnati has grown slightly since 2010 after decades of significant decline.