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America Discovers Columbus

Ohio’s largest city has never attracted much national attention, but that is beginning to change.

Columbus, Ohio.
(Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)
The cities and states of what I’ve called the Old North – the 23-state region including the Great Plains, Midwest and Northeast – have struggled to find success for decades. For even the best performing regions, breakout success has proven tantalizingly out of reach. Perhaps Columbus, Ohio, is positioned to become that first breakout success story in the Midwest.

Columbus was in the news recently for landing a $20 billion Intel chip factory that will employ 3,000 people at an average wage of $135,000. This is very big news, not just for Columbus, but for the entire Midwest. Unlike autos, the chip business was never concentrated in the Midwest. Newer chip plants have tended to locate in warm weather locales such as Arizona, if not overseas. Landing a high-tech manufacturing operation like this is a big deal. The plant by itself won’t transform the region’s economy, but it’s a statement about the city and its prospects.

Columbus long operated in the shadows of Cleveland and Cincinnati, both cities of national importance. Columbus was smaller, had no major league sports teams, no signature industry and little in the way of high culture. It was – and probably still is – the largest city in America in which you have to give the state for people to know where you are talking about: Columbus, Ohio. The Wikipedia entry for “Columbus” is a disambiguation page.

But Columbus had advantages too, and changes in the economy and American culture worked to enhance them. It is the state capital. It is home to Ohio State University, which, while no longer America’s largest college campus, is still a giant. The city historically had less manufacturing, especially heavy manufacturing, which meant it has had less of a hangover from deindustrialization. Even its modest history has worked in its favor; a city can’t get mired in nostalgia for its glory days if it never had any. Even its geographic nature as a later-growing, lower density, sprawling inland city probably helped it, as that is the same geography of many Sun Belt boomtowns.

As deindustrialization took its toll on Midwestern cities and states in the 1970s and '80s, success seemed to concentrate in a limited number of successful places, often state capitals or college towns. In Ohio, that place has been Columbus. Its growth rate has far outstripped the rest of the state. During the 2010s, metro Columbus accounted for 84 percent of the state’s total population growth.

The advantages above helped cement Columbus’ status as Ohio’s growth hub, combined with weaknesses that hobbled Cleveland and Cincinnati. Both of the latter cities were heavily balkanized, with large numbers of competing neighborhoods and suburbs, and with more insular cultures. Columbus, perhaps because it was both a state capital and college town, was more open to outsiders and newcomers. Both Cleveland and Cincinnati had core municipalities that became landlocked, whereas Columbus, due to a fortuitous decision long ago not to extend water lines to suburban areas unless they agreed to annexation, was able to continue expanding its city limits and take in new suburban growth.

As it started to grow into a major city in its own right, Columbus has sought to invest in areas where it is lacking. It lured NHL and Major League Soccer franchises to give it at least some foothold in professional sports. It looked to upgrade its cultural offerings with new institutions like the National Veterans Memorial and Museum. It rebuilt its development agency and become much more economically competitive, as the Intel win shows. The region was also an Amazon HQ finalist. And it won the prestigious U.S. Department of Transportation Smart Cities Challenge competition.

As Ohio’s growth hub, Columbus came into its own during the 2010s, staking out a position as arguably the Midwest’s top performer economically and demographically. But, like other successful Midwestern metros, it has remained dependent almost exclusively on Ohio migrants for growth. It has actually been a net loser of people migrating to the rest of the country outside Ohio.

Moving further as a breakout success means becoming a national rather than just an Ohio talent magnet. It’s not guaranteed that the city can do this, but it is probably the Midwest region best positioned to pull it off. It still has a large hinterland of sizable declining cities in Ohio to draw from, unlike its peer city Indianapolis, which is starting to suffer from having already drained much of its smaller state. The Minneapolis region looks better than Columbus on paper in some ways, but also suffers from a culture that can be unwelcoming to outsiders, and burgeoning racial problems. There are a lot of people looking to change cities and states out there for Columbus to capture.

What the X-factor for Columbus will be to get it to the next level is unclear, but the Intel decision shows that something special is happening there. No city in the Midwest is better poised to make the transition to national, not just regional star.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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