Big governmental building with statue of Christopher Columbus in front, some bushes against a blue sky with white clouds

At the February 27th gathering of the Columbus Metropolitan Club, Columbus Partnership President and CEO Alex Fischer proclaimed: "The world of professional sports will be writing [sic] and studying what the Save The Crew movement did in Columbus for decades." If you have the stomach for self-aggrandizement, you can listen to the clip here

If the multi-billion dollar world of big-time professional sports (ie/the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB) actually does stop to take notice of the legitimate Save the Crew success story in the future, they might be very interested in the revelation in Friday's Dispatch ("Multi-million dollar redo of current Crew stadium to sports park questioned," March 8, 2019) that the Ohio Expositions Commission board (who control the land under and around Crew stadium) was not consulted or even contacted before the media blitz in December announcing plans for the future development of the area. 

Back in December, when the "multi-million dollar redo" was first announced, there were self-congratulatory articles across all platforms, and the local media trumpeted plans for the classic Columbus "public-private partnership"--describing recreation fields, mixed-use development (a particularly unassailable 21st c. catchphrase), and community programming space on the site of the current Crew stadium without questioning whether all interested parties were on board with it. It was blindly accepted as a fait accompli.

Today's bombshell reminds me of another Crew Stadium proposal from November 2017 by Columbus Foundation CEO Doug Kridler, which was made and widely broadcasted before consulting the Franklin County Commissioners (who would have to extend a temporary county sales tax to help finance it) or the actual owners of the downtown land itself. 

One might expect that officials of the Columbus Foundation and the Columbus Partnership would have had the humility to do their due diligence before they ran to the subservient local media with their grandiose visions for reinventing the city to promote the interests of the Columbus elite at the expense of citizens. It's hard to imagine arrogance like this in a proper big city, which Columbus aspires to be.

But this is, apparently, the "Columbus Way" that has been getting so much publicity lately. Put bluntly, the Columbus Way is a model of public-private partnership that enables the business leaders of Central Ohio to get what they want at the expense of local residents. And nobody is even ashamed of this. They don't make any effort to hide it. 

Recently, it has been worn as a badge of honor that a professor of Strategy at the Harvard Business School, Jan Rivkin, wrote a case about it called The Columbus Partnership which is available here to anyone with the internet and $9.

If you read this case, it should confirm everything you've wondered since the creepy Columbus Monthly story nearly 30 years ago, "The Titans: Six Men who Rule Columbus" (June 1989, pp. 29-37) about whether or not there really were some puppet-masters pulling strings in Columbus. 

Leave it to this quote in the Harvard case from our very own benevolent billionaire, Leslie Wexner, to confirm your suspicions. Here he is, recalling a conversation he had with J.W. Wolfe, one of the true titans and patriarch of the family who owned the Dispatch throughout the 20th c.:

"One day in the late 1980s, J.W. Wolfe...called me into his office and asked if I wanted to join him as one of the three or four people who decides what happens in town--like who's mayor and where the highways go." (Rivkin, p. 5)

To his credit, Wexner recalls turning down this generous offer.  A benevolent billionaire indeed, perhaps, but we'll get to that later. According to the Harvard case, Governor Voinovich eventually impressed upon Wexner that he needed to partner with Wolfe and other civic leaders if Columbus were to become the shining city on the hill which Cleveland supposedly became under Voinovich's tenure as mayor there, during which something called "Cleveland Tomorrow" worked their magic. Gulp. 

According to the case, the Columbus Partnership was apparently born with a group of "four or five people" who met together "five or six times a year for several years in the late 1990s," working on things like highways, the airport, museums, the university, and economic development. Also, of note, probably deciding who should be re-elected as mayor, Coleman (unopposed in 2003, and winning almost 70% of the vote in 2007 and 2011), and who should be his successor, Andrew Ginther (elected in 2015, and, presumably, 2019).

We can use the goals and objectives of the Columbus Partnership when considering the "grassroots" effort to Save the Crew, or when analyzing the Cooper Stadium debacle for instance. You might ask, what's the latest on the Sports Pavilion and Automotive Research Center (SPARC) which was so highly touted by city, county, and local business leaders in 2012 as a redevelopment plan for Cooper Stadium when the Columbus Clippers moved from a perfectly respectable minor-league baseball stadium on the West Side to the Arena District's Huntington Park? 

The abandoned stadium, now a half torn-down eyesore, had already been deteriorating for five years in April of 2017 when the Dispatch published a story ("Cooper Stadium project stalls as developer ducks questions") explaining how the people of the West Side were getting frustrated and were realizing they were duped. According to the story, nobody from Arshot Investment Corporation, including Bill Schottenstein, would even deign to offer an explanatory comment when a reporter showed up at their office working on the story.

Quoted in the same story was Bruce Warner, a Franklin area commissioner, who wasn't surprised by the failure of Schottenstein and Arshot to deliver: "I didn't believe him. Never did believe him. I wouldn't trust him as far as I can throw an elephant." 

These sentiments resonate with Linden resident George Walker Jr's comments in Friday's Dispatch story about the proposed multi-million dollar redo for the current Crew stadium. Identified as a former chair of the South Linden Area Commission, Walker Jr. stated "We've been fooled before. We don't want to be fooled again." 

It seems that Walker Jr. knows that the estimated $50 million to develop the land around Crew Stadium would only truly benefit residents of Linden if it were spent to upgrade parks actually in Linden, instead of upgrading a parking lot which is separated from Linden by an 8-lane superhighway.

But this is the common sense that people in Columbus aren't supposed to have. And there's nobody like Warner or Walker in the Columbus Partnership. According to the Columbus Partnership website there are 76 corporate and civic leaders who are, you know, making decisions about who becomes the mayor and where the highways go. [Remember the New Albany, Rt 161 "bypass" built as a subsidy to Les Wexner, after jumping the queue of other highway projects slated for the mid-1990s? It's a good thing Wexner wised up and joined this exclusive club--not so benevolent, I guess, but still a billionaire].

For the most part, many citizens in Columbus and the neighboring suburbs have enjoyed a level of prosperity unprecedented in other major cities in Ohio (or the Midwest) for the last few decades of deindustrialization, but that doesn't mean we should always look the other way when we've been duped by politicians, civic leaders, and local business leaders before. The Columbus Way is a polite way of transferring public resources for private gain and can't go on. At its best, it marginalizes true community leaders, and at its worst, it undermines actual democracy in our city. It is certainly not something we should be proud of.

The Columbus Partnership should reinvent itself with actual community members as partners, instead of being a puppet-master for Columbus as we make our way in the 21st century. There is enough prosperity in Central Ohio to lift up all residents without leaving behind those in Franklinton or Linden with false promises and phony plans.