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April  2006
Columbus, Ohio

     At Ohio’s center—the intersection of Interstate 70 and Interstate 71—is Columbus, the state’s capital city. Columbus boasts the most vibrant economy of any large metropolitan area in Ohio as can be seen when approaching from any direction. The city is ringed with new office buildings, high tech companies, and an ever-growing expanse of homes. Yet Columbus still nurses a bit of an inferiority complex. Residents share a suspicion that whatever’s happening someplace else is more interesting than whatever’s happening in Columbus. Columbus native and historian, Henry Hunker, quoted a resident as saying that the blood doesn’t rush in Columbus.

     But let’s go back to the beginning and the origins of this city.

     Columbus has always been the state capital of Ohio; it was created for that purpose. In the early years of statehood, the city of Chillicothe served as provisional capital as did, for a brief time, Zanesville. But the state leadership wanted a site that was closer to Ohio’s geographical center, that was conveniently placed along transportation routes, that wasn’t on a flood plain, and that wasn’t beholden to special interests.

     A committee was chosen to make the selection, and then the lobbying started. Just about everybody who had a town near the center of Ohio wanted theirs to be it. Partisans of Lancaster, Worthington, Delaware, Circleville, Newark, and Westerville all promoted their places. Right from the start, then, that committee had a problem: they wanted a site all could rally around, but to choose any of these applicants would be to turn down the others. That’s not good politics so they found themselves intrigued by the proposal from the small town of Franklinton which was located on the western side of the Scioto River, just about dead center in the state. Franklinton was more of a frontier settlement than a town. Its proposal was not that their town be named state capital but that the committee choose a site across the river from Franklinton where, at the time, there wasn’t much of anything except trees. This proposal called for the new state capital to be created from scratch.

     The committee embraced the proposal with a collective sigh of relief, we might imagine. After all, who could be against a town that wasn’t even there yet?  The legislature approved the plan and gave itself five years to make the transition. The first session of the Ohio State Legislature in its new home was to be held in 1817.

     One more detail remained: what to name this new capital city. But again the answer came with remarkable ease. Somebody suggested Columbus, and everybody just seemed to like it. Apparently back then there was a lot of sentiment against Amerigo Vespuci for whom the Americas were named. Christopher Columbus seemed to have been given the short shrift so here was an opportunity not only to name the new state capital but to settle a score. Columbus it was then, and Columbus it continues to be.

     The new state capital was slow in getting going. Despite its location on the river, the city was geographically isolated. Tree stumps in the main street created obstacles for vehicles, and the roads were filled with ruts. Housing was mostly in the form of crude huts, and the area was subject to outbreaks of disease. Cholera and influenza both swept through the community, promoting one resident to lament that Columbus was “nothing but a scene of trouble, sickness and death.”

     But in 1831 the Ohio & Erie Canal reached Columbus, and then in 1833 the National Road came through. The canal and the road made Columbus more accessible for people and more viable for import and export of goods. Columbus was then transformed from a struggling frontier town into a city worthy of being state capital. Then in 1850 the railroads reached Columbus, and the city became a transportation hub reaching out not just to Ohio communities but across the nation—a function it continues to serve.

    No matter which interstate you use to approach Columbus, you’ll spot new housing developments, shopping malls, large shiny office buildings, and lots of traffic—all signs of a community that’s growing. And Columbus is growing: It’s the only major Ohio city that can boast of regular increases in population throughout the last decades. For years Columbus was the poor sister of Ohio’s other big urban centers: Cleveland and Cincinnati. Cleveland and Cincinnati had developed strong economic foundations in manufacturing while the Columbus economy was based in less muscular entities like the state government, Ohio State University and the financial services industry.

    But then something happened to the American economy, particularly the Midwestern economy. Manufacturing went into a steep decline while service industries and high tech industries rose to the top, enterprises that had always formed the foundation for this city’s economy. So Columbus, just by being what it had always been, found itself remarkably well-positioned to take advantage of the new post-manufacturing economy. While Cleveland and Cincinnati scrambled to develop new financial foundations, Columbus was already there, demonstrating the economic mix that is likely to be the future for rustbelt cities throughout the Midwest. Today the city is home to the headquarters of such non-manufacturing concerns as The Limited, Bath & Body Works, Abercrombie & Fitch, Lane Bryant, Victoria’s Secret, Wendy’s International, Nationwide Insurance, and CompuServe.

    Columbus has developed a strong economic base but not a strong identity. One saying going around is that Columbus is a city made up of people who came for the state fair and decided to stay. Columbus is home to Ohio state government, the Ohio State University, an array of high tech industries and financial services industries overseeing billions of dollars. The city has a vital economy, there are jobs, a highly educated workforce—people are moving in rather than out, but it lacks a clear sense of itself, a clear identity.

    Yet take a good look as you make your way through Columbus—its downsized center city, its office buildings ringing the perimeter, its housing developments stretching farther and farther into what had been farm land. This might be what our cities of the future will look like. For better and for worse Columbus, Ohio, is a model for what the new American city will be.

For more about Columbus and its surrounding communities, see the CDs for I-71 South: Cleveland to Columbus, I-71 North: Cincinnati to Columbus, I-70 East: Richmond to Columbus, I-70 West: Wheeling to Columbus, or the general CDs for Interstate 70 or Interstate 71.  

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