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Regional Innovation Spotlight: Columbus, OH

Amid the current debate in Washington, DC, around U.S. competitiveness issues, BPC has been crossing the nation to gather local perspectives through roundtable discussions with private and public sector leaders. One of these conversations included a stop in Columbus, OH, to hear how competitiveness is defined, what has been driving the city’s success, and what is next for the region.

Fast Facts: Columbus, OH

Leader in Growth | Columbus outperformed the rest of Ohio in post-COVID economic recovery and in 2021, was the 33rd largest metro economy nationwide.

Economic Contributors| Columbus is a versatile economic center, with opportunities in higher education, farming and agriculture, manufacturing, and the automotive industry.

Budding Industry Investments | Tech and automotive companies are building data centers and manufacturing facilities in Franklin County, proving that economic expansion comes from various sectors.

The Heart of it All

Columbus, OH, is America’s 14th most populated city, and with continuous economic and population growth, this Midwestern city is one to keep an eye on. As with our other roundtables, we wanted to understand how local stakeholders define competitiveness. Interestingly, in Columbus, it turns out they don’t: Participants laid out a different approach, steering clear of the term “competitiveness” and instead opting to describe themselves as rooted in “collaborative-ness.” Participants coined this term to better describe the integral nature of the cooperation taking place within the community. They aren’t just collaborating with one another in Columbus—it is a condition to their economic growth.

Embracing this strategy involves community stakeholders joining forces to address and promote economic growth. Participants recognize the inherent strength of the region and understand that Columbus is prime for investment because of its multifaceted economy and ideal geographic location. Moreover, there is a realization that the community can leverage current and new private and public investments.

Strategically, Columbus does not rely on only one sector for growth. The Columbus City School District, the largest in the state, The Ohio State University, and Columbus State Community College are actively working to capitalize on education as a catalyst for economic development.

The recent growth of Columbus’ population extends beyond sheer numbers, showcasing diversity that surpasses Ohio’s demographic trends. As the workforce has diversified, so have the industries that make up the region’s economy. Given the steady stream of new residents and industry growth in Columbus, participants were asked about the factors contributing to the region’s appeal. They pointed to geographical advantages, citing the absence of natural disasters, proximity to major cities (for individuals and cargo transportation), and took pride in the city’s abundant resources, including large supplies of natural gas, cost-effective energy, and a relatively affordable cost of living.

 A Tale of Three Cities

While the term “competitiveness” may not resonate in the Columbus region, it is inherent throughout the state. Ohio has three major metropolitan areas: Cleveland in the northeast, Cinccinati in the southwest, and Columbus in the middle. These three cities make up what is known as the “three C’s” and function almost as “city-states,” sparking some rivalry among them. Each region strives to surpass its own records, which fosters a focus on short-term wins, but it’s crucial to recognize that economic competitiveness and growth are long-term pursuits.

Cooperation is confined within each metropolitan region, making inter-regional partnering on crucial issues like housing, transit, and resource conservation difficult. In Columbus, the framework of collaborative-ness has created a “strong sense of partnership” among businesses, agencies, and educational institutions. There is optimism that, in the future, the spirit of “collaborative-ness” found in Columbus can expand to Cincinnati, Cleveland, and the rest of the state to position Ohio as a formidable competitor on the national stage.

The New 3 Three C’s: Collaborative-ness, Comprehensive, and Creativity

The momentum of growth in the Columbus region shows no signs of slowing. The question now is, what’s next for the region, and how can communities continue to leverage the benefits of lasting economic growth? With private investments from Intel, Honda, Google, Meta, and other large companies, Columbus will continue to see steady population growth over the next few years. However, this trajectory will strain the very resources that give Columbus an edge.

Roundtable participants expressed the need to “confront what we’re facing in order to move forward.” In addition to their continued efforts to prepare and adapt their workforce, attendees identified housing, transit, and water access as the three pivotal areas the region must proactively address to remain “competitive.” These will be critical areas for state lawmakers focused on better integrating and supporting Ohio’s urban and rural communities. For now, the Columbus region is focused on remaining collaborative, comprehensive, and creative, in their approach to economic growth.

Columbus’ educational institutions are partnering with companies to equip the workforce for a new era. There is an emphasis on work-based learning, as well as expanding development beyond engineering and tech to include the life sciences and farming. The key to success lies in building a flexible workforce, especially as new industries like fintech and gaming enter, and existing sectors like retail expand.

Policymakers will need to reimagine their approach to the workforce, transit and transportation, infrastructure and broadband, immigration for high-skilled workers, and housing ordinances. Providing incentives for change to take place in each of these areas will be crucial to sustained growth. Participants noted that local housing ordinances and corporate land acquisitions are two major sticking points that drive up costs and function as barriers to future growth.

One proposed solution to the housing situation was to “grow taller, not wider.” As cities grow outward, people are more likely to move to the periphery. However, this outward growth raises living costs and necessitates substantial spending on infrastructure development. Land is generally the most expensive factor when it comes to building more homes, but increasing density would spread that cost across more homes and add to the housing supply to meet the needs of a growing population. Prioritizing increasing density over sprawling suburbs and exurbs would help decrease housing and land costs while making Columbus a more appealing place to move, and simultaneously maintaining more agricultural land (one of Ohio’s major industries).

Currently, fintech companies coming into Columbus can operate in a state-sanctioned regulatory sandbox, where they can test the market and develop products and services in an accelerated trial period. The sandbox approach can be effective at supporting new and innovative technologies by decreasing regulatory risk and uncertainty, though some worry about impacts to consumer safety. Sandboxes also give legislators and regulators room to adjust policy. If policymakers expand the sandbox approach to other industries, it could enable Columbus to strengthen and diversify its economic portfolio.

Looking ahead, collaborative-ness will be vital for the Columbus region to continue to optimize its growth. Roundtable participants called upon policymakers to convene more of these conversations, inviting stakeholders invested in the city’s growth to articulate their visions for the future.

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