Les Wexner and the Columbus Partnership transform the region

 

Thirty years ago, Columbus was a different town. Leslie H. Wexner, founder, chairman and CEO of L Brands, philanthropist and civic leader, remembers the community being critical of growth, comfortable behind higher-profile cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati, and proud of its Mayberry-like atmosphere.

When Ford wanted to build a plant in Columbus in the 1970s, the city wanted no part of it. An airline wanted to put a hub at the airport, and response was, “If they want to make us a hub, then they should pay.”

The world, however, was changing. Central Ohio needed to open up, or it would shrink.

“We were looking at ourselves and saying, ‘Well, what do we become when we grow up? How do we take part in the present and the future?’ This is 20, 25 years ago, and nobody knew,” says Wexner, who spoke about curiosity, goals and aspirations at the seventh annual Economic Development 411 event in December.

Pushed to act

Community leaders began recognizing the need for a bolder ambition for Central Ohio, but the tipping point proved to be George Voinovich.

Voinovich became governor in 1991, after serving as the mayor of Cleveland. He told Wexner and Columbus Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe about the strong public-private partnership, Cleveland Tomorrow.

Voinovich would say: “This is the least organized part of the state. You’re well intended. You’ve got all kinds of resources. You’ve got state government residing in the middle of the state. You’ve got this great university and the other universities clustered around Central Ohio. Just, get off your dead a** and do something,” Wexner says.

It took several years, and some continued prodding by Voinovich, before the two men helped launch the Columbus Partnership in 2002 with six other business leaders.

“That series of things, provoked by the governor, provoked Central Ohio (and) got the partnership idea going,” Wexner says. “That really changed things because we could begin then to think collectively — community leaders and government leaders — about, what is our ambition? Do we want to keep the best of the past and the best of the future? Can we put this together into something that would be healthy for our community?”

Stop studying, start working

The partnership took time to find its footing.

Wexner says the group was careful and, looking back, it didn’t want to grow too fast, “because we were building a culture, building an organization, and we didn’t know what it would be,” he says.

The partnership began with a list of 50 things important to the community and grouped them into clusters. Even though they wanted to invent something tailor-made for Central Ohio, Wexner says they were curious about the national experience.

They found organizations could improve a region’s economic condition by encouraging more jobs and better jobs.

“By focusing on increasing the numbers of jobs, and qualities of jobs, we could lift up the community, and then everybody benefits,” Wexner says.

Wexner, who has the Albert Einstein quote, “Curiosity is more important than knowledge” on his office wall, knows the significance of learning from others. It’s a huge benefit for Columbus even today.

“If you’re the second mover, you have the advantage of learning from all the others,” he says. “The cities that were pace-setting economic development 10 years ago, we could see what they did right, what they did wrong, and build a better model.”

Over the years, members of the Columbus Partnership have visited Austin, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Silicon Valley and more.

But it was another governor, this time North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, who helped push the partnership into launching Columbus 2020 when the group visited that state’s Research Triangle in 2010.