Harvey J Graff

Dear Kenny McDonald:

I write to you in your capacity as the new CEO of the self-proclaimed since 2002, Columbus Partnership.

Columbus Dispatch business reporter Mark Williams belatedly announced your ascension in January on June 10 with an interview. (See also, Carrie Ghose, “Alex Fischer to hand over Columbus Partnership reins to Kenny McDonald.”) Compare the Dispatch article with the more guarded and questioning comments by Dave Ghose in Columbus Monthly in January, “The Titans Are Gone. Power Is Shifting. Who Will Lead Columbus into the Future?

I ask: Do you speak to home-owning, taxpaying, voting residents of the City of Columbus, who may be understandably skeptical? Or do you follow the lead of your predecessors, “partners” like the self-appointed Columbus Downtown Development Corporation, and only meet with “the public” you claim to benefit—if not actually serve?

I begin with small questions:

1. Why was your selection in January only publicized in late May-early June, despite being preannounced in July 2021? Is this the Columbus Way?

2. Will you explain to the public your selection process?

3. Will you tell us why the head of the Columbus Partnership lives in and sends his children to school in New Albany, and not in the City of Columbus? Is this is a contradiction or simply the Columbus Way, or are you “following the leader,” like the Wexners? Or is my question itself a redundancy?

4. How many “partners” are in the Columbus Partnership? Every account I find differs from the others. How many are legally public as opposed to private enterprises? Does that distinction matter to you? Are all partners equal?

5. What do you see as your major concrete qualifications for moving from head of One Columbus to taking the place of Alex Fischer, the second CEO? I note that you claim “graduation” from the Harvard Business School’s noncredit, uncertified, nondegree “Young American Leaders Program.” This is a two-week summer program for which participants pay a sum to one small section of HBS; it is one part of a 7-year relationship with Jan W. Rivkin. (See “How the Harvard Business School and the Columbus Way attempt to enrich each other”; see also “Columbus, Ohio, searches to be a city: The myth of the Columbus Way.”)

I move to larger questions:

1. Please explain the specific—rather than aspirational and self-promotional—sources of authority for a group like the Columbus Partnership in an avowedly (if not practically) democratic polity in the 21st century.

2. How do you describe both the abstract and concrete power and influence of the Columbus Partnership?

3. What is your practical relationship, on the one hand, to the City of Columbus and its departments elected and unelected; and, on the other hand, to private development endeavors in the City and/or Central Ohio?

4. Why have the Partnership and its subdivisions like One Columbus (formerly Columbus 2020) functioned for two decades with no reputable economists, urban planners, or other experts as part of its staff or teams? Is this a purposeful omission?

I raise this question because, despite searching, I cannot discern any basis for the Columbus Partnership’s or One Columbus’ activities. At best, I sense an unstated and never-justified veneer of “trickle down” economic notions: “If we build it, they will come” “Big development, in time, will benefit everyone.” No reputable economist or political economist has endorsed any such approach for decades. It is paralleled by the “Columbus Way” and Andy Ginther’s rhetoric of “Columbus as Opportunity City.” Ginther himself is originator and bullhorn for this political propaganda.

5. Closely related to this issue is your response to the Dispatch reporter and more explicitly on the Partnership’s website that your group presumes to have great influence on economic development, Smart City and Clean Energy initiatives, governmental affairs, DEI, development, even “Columbus Brand and identity,” and more.

But these are only rhetorical assertions. Never do you present concrete evidence of influence or demonstrate that none of these—always undefined elements, I add—would have occurred without your Partnership. Or even show that they have developed to a meaningful or anticipated degree. Why do you make no effort to demonstrate empirically your role(s)?

Similarly, the Partnership’s website continues to ring hollowly with these explicitly anachronistic, top-down undemocratic pronouncements:

“The Columbus Partnership is committed to the Columbus Way. It’s the practice of community stewardship, anchored by a set of values and principles that power progress in our region.”

“Through our membership and other ally organizations across Central Ohio, the Columbus Partnership upholds a shared vision to make Columbus the most prosperous region in the United States…. Prosperity is defined as the process by which more people improve their economic and social well-being.” (Bold in original.)

These are empirical statements. What are your measures? Your sources? Only in the Columbus Way are they be repeated ad nauseum with no concern about, indeed no awareness of the real need for, proof.

6. Like Ohio’s governor running for reelection, you are obsessed with Intel. But why do none of you acknowledge that despite successfully soliciting at least $2 billion from the State of Ohio and other funds from local entities, Intel is only committed to building two “fabs,” and the number of employees and construction workers that may require? All the rest is (self-)promotional. (“Intel and the Ohio Way: Secrecy, deals, public neglect, myth making, and re-election campaigning.”)

Am I the only person in Ohio who is aware from national and international media that Intel solicits funding in Germany for a $38 billion set of computer chip “fabs” at the same time that it is marketing itself for $20 billion in Ohio? In the process, the purely promotional development fosters environmental damage and distortion of the educational emphases of local colleges and universities to the radical overproduction of STEM graduates.

7. Given this, your awkwardly expressed concern that “Are we really going to do it differently than the leaders before us have done it so that we don’t end up in the same situation where we have growth, we have positive balance sheets in our communities and our inequities either stay the same or get worse?” rings less than hollowly.

8. The facts of the matter: The inequities worsen daily, from murder rates to child and adult mortality; disease; poverty; hunger; education; food and medical deserts; access to livable employment and housing; the environment; infrastructure; and on and on. Columbus is failing and flailing. Is that the Columbus Way?

Missing in your rhetorical, aspirational pronouncements are THE PEOPLE of Columbus. Neither in the Columbus Partnership nor the City Government is “we the people” recognized as full partners. That IS the Columbus Way.

We, the people, request your response to that public.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about the history and contemporary condition of higher education for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is published by Palgrave Macmillan this summer.