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United front Featured

9:44am EDT August 30, 2005
Economic opportunities for Central Ohio are on the upswing, says Mark Barbash, and a key reason is the cooperation of the region’s major economic development players.

“It’s important to have all your guns blasting away,” says Barbash, Columbus department of development director.

This team approach is a radical departure from pre-2000, before Mayor Michael Coleman took office. Then, suburbs, neighboring counties and other community groups took a competitive rather than cooperative approach to growth.

But just sitting down together to chat isn’t enough, Barbash says. The other critical component to regionalism is tapping expertise from groups such as the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the Mayor’s Economic Development Council to research and develop strategies to promote the region.

“All of us have one or two areas of strength,” he says. “By working together, we can put our best combinations of assets together.”

Smart Business spoke with Barbash about developing new strategies, leveraging the city’s strengths and the impact regionalism is having on Greater Columbus.

What’s working so far?

We’ve been trying to do a couple of things, including target programs and incentives in areas of the city. We are working to change tax incentives [for] major commercial areas. Our strategies and targets changed at the table. Now, we are talking about regional competitiveness.

It was a one-size-fits-all approach. There were parts of the region that were not at the table and not willing to talk incentives.

In Columbus, we were more competitive. Through tax incentives, we achieved 91 percent of our job creation goals and 115 percent of job retention goals. There are $1.6 billion in incentives on the books generating additional revenue and job opportunities.

We’ve been moderately successful with partnerships. The decision-makers take longer to make a decision, and we’ve been working harder to keep existing businesses in the community. One example is our partnership of Franklin and Pickaway counties and Rickenbacker Airport. Advanced logistics is a target industry, and we are making sure that that area is focused on becoming the premier location for moving freight.

Another example is our focus on life sciences. We are finding an alternative use for the downtown Lazarus site for future classrooms and scientific efforts. The challenge is the economy. The cost of health care is a big factor. Big businesses are having difficulty.

We’ve worked with the chamber to develop retention and expansion programs. We visit 200 small businesses annually, seeing what we can do to help them stay in Columbus.

We are also working with public and private sectors, looking at programs and policies of how to grow and create jobs. The wage level here is not where it needs to be. Life sciences and technology development companies can raise that.

How are you leveraging Columbus’ strengths in this regional concept?

The diversity of the economy is great. We have research institutions and a stable business climate. We are not in the situation that other Ohio cities have found themselves in, where there are holes in the community.

Among all our strengths are educational institutions. Life science efforts are also a high priority. We want OSU graduates to stay in Central Ohio, so we need to create jobs that will make them want to stay. Technology development graduates are great engineers, but the talent is going to other places.

There is also a major focus on neighborhood development — a coordinated strategy with business developers and housing programs which require resources — and the budget is tight. We have healthy main streets but others need activity, like East Main Street and Livingston Avenue. There are plans to put life into those streets through infrastructure improvements. With bond proceeds, we are putting in more lighting and making it easier for businesses to do business. The most important thing, though, is that we are all sitting at the same table, making that connection. Businesses want to locate where there are qualified employees. The mayor’s economic development council meets monthly and sits and talks about deals and large projects.

There are new initiatives and leadership at the chamber. Ty Marsh [chamber president] and David Powell [head of the mayor’s council] are working along the same wavelength.

How well does Columbus compete with other cities in this state and surrounding states?

The region competes extremely favorably. Columbus as a city is doing better than three or four years ago, prior to the Coleman administration. Before that, Columbus would not even consider incentives.

Now, all around the city, we are seeing our share of success and we are competing more aggressively. Keep in mind, though, that we are not competing against other area communities. All the area communities are talking about a code of ethics.

After the economy gets better, there will be more activity and businesses looking to come to Central Ohio.

How do you develop new strategies to meet the community’s needs?

The most important thing is to see where you are right now. You put all the players around the same table — the banks, the chamber of commerce, economic development people. They all need to understand what resources we have and benchmark the community against others.

We’ve had groups that went to Toronto, the Twin Cities and Austin. Those cities have been successful in diversifying their economic base. We looked at how we could apply their strategies to Columbus.

But the effects of these efforts are more lasting when you have everyone at the same table.

How have the city’s economic and business development needs changed over the past five years?

We have had the same city budget for the last four years. That makes it hard to create opportunities. We are working with the chamber to be creative with existing resources.

We are redirecting some real estate taxes to pay for our infrastructure needs. When funding is limited, it is even more important to have everyone around the same table.

How to Reach: City of Columbus Department of Development, (614) 645-8591 or http://http://td.ci.columbus.oh.us