New Albany sign

Mayoral challenger Joe Motil and his supporters—more than 1/3 of voters in a typically low turnout mayor and council election—made careful control of tax abatements central to his campaign. Let us remember that Motil was outspent by the incumbent about 100 to 1 but defeated by less than 2 to 1 in perhaps the most corrupt and dishonest re-election campaign in Columbus history.

Just as Andy refused to debate or appear publicly in a purportedly democratic contest—exemplifying the Columbus Way, and their fear of a public democracy on which it is based—neither City Council nor its Department of Uncoordinated, Highly Selective Development—learned a single thing.

Just as Department Director Michael Stevens cannot tell the difference between Ns and percentages when he lies to the media, not one of them understands either urban or economic development. Together, they defy all odds. They seem willfully ignorant of the social, economic, and physical conditions of the city that they are paid to oversee.

Of course, no one will admit that they are well rewarded by the private interests whose power over both elected and appointed officials only rises under the domineering rule of former mayor Michael Coleman. Coleman gives orders to his puppet Ginther at their semi-secret private weekly extravagant private lunches.

The Columbus Partnership and the various Columbus development commissions with whom they are synonymous mainly live in New Albany and other prime areas outside the city itself. Columbus’ so-called “media,” well paid with City advertising and misleading “scoops” will never mention this (nor cover the election campaigns of mayor and council challengers).

Despite now having a minority-majority City Council, Columbus is the last major metropolitan area that follows “trickle-down” Milton Friedman-University of Chicago school of right-wing economics. This has been refuted empirically, historically, logically, and physically universally. Yet, it rules Columbus.

It is inseparable from Columbus’ self-promoted but completely fraudulent and meaningless thinly rhetorical shift to district “representatives” when all continue to be elected city-wide with no specifically defined responsibilities to those who live in “their district” and residents who are not actually “constituents” in either legal or historical meanings of that term. That too is the Columbus Way.

Let me be clear: highly specific, planned, coordinated, and monitored public investment in developments—both private and public—can benefit cities. That means actual specified programs with clear goals, regular assessment, and full public accountability.

But Columbus meets none of those conditions. None.

I think that Stevens and his handlers have a slight hint that there is rising doubt in their paradise. At its pre-Thanksgiving, Nov. 20, 2023 meeting, reported in the smallest of print, City Council approved $75,000 for the Department of Development “to hire a marketing firm to create a communications strategy to ‘educate audiences’ on how the department helps to make Columbus a more equitable community through economic development tools like tax abatements and sharing with certain employers part of their employees’ city income taxes.” (Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 21, 2023)

In plain English, this is first another double handout to the City’s favorite marketing and advertising private firms, mostly out of town. As usual, Council squanders public funds on an unnecessary two-step process that more often than not results in nothing. The City has its own departments—ha! ha! ha!—yet hires marketers to “create… strategy” for yet another outfit to implement, if ever. (Same old, same old: with statutes of Columbus, public “art,” etc., etc.)

Second, and more important, this is blatant propaganda to “audiences,” not “educate” the residents and taxpayers of the City of Columbus. Are the “audiences” in fact private developers?

Why now? First, Motil and a few knowledgeable urban experts (notorious rare in Columbus) draw increasing attention to how specifically the City of Columbus uses public funds to subsidize private developers that do not “make Columbus a more equitable community” and in no way create genuinely affordable housing or reduce homelessness.

Note that no one in the City or the media ever connects the failure of City Zoning Inspection and Enforcement to lessen homelessness by actually doing their jobs as required by law. Their criminal neglect increases the homeless populations.

Never are the tax abatements interconnected with food or health deserts that pockmark the city like the diseases they represent but are almost never discussed.

Tax abatements and income tax returns to employers do not work in Columbus. Period. Except that is, to subsidize and reward the private interests that support the powers that be, both above and below the table. These are established, well-documented patterns that the City and the “media” refuse to acknowledge, let alone investigate and police.

Administrators throughout Ohio State Wexner Medical Center (which still awaits at least 30 percent of Les and Abigail’s promised $100 million for naming rights)  and the main campus repeatedly state that OSU does not need its district and employee income taxes to be returned. This is especially true when the city schools, public services, police department, and physical city desperately require support, organization, and leadership. Over and over, tax abatements remove urgently needed funds.

Can no one in Columbus city government do simple arithmetic? Read and write? Listen to anyone who is not a private interest? Evidently not.

Stevens’ and Council’s latest pitch accompanies another proposal that directly contradicts much of the City’s current activity. Columbus Underground reports that “the City of Columbus today announced a new proposal to significantly expand the residential tax abatement program. (Brent Warren, “City Announces Plans to Expand Tax Abatement Program,” Nov. 20, 2023)

Not recognizing that the City has never followed its own strictures in limiting tax abatements to certain areas per its Community Reinvestment Area program, Warren repeats the Development Department and Council anti-factual propaganda that “High interest rates, construction costs and other factors are combining to slow down housing construction at a time when its needed the most….”

In point of fact, in large part because of City anti-public policies, Columbus has a surfeit—a surplus—of unaffordable housing. Columbus does have a housing crisis.

But not of available units. With no actual requirement nor enforcement of any requirement for truly affordable units as part of city-subsidized by tax abatements and tax returned subsides, the City both manufactures and guarantees its own crises.

This is the same city that brutally sweeps homeless camp after camp with no alternative accommodation.

Warren joins other reporters in his inability to put one and one together and get two. No one in Development or Council can do this. Do they not see vacancy signs everywhere in the city? Read the Columbus Dispatch reports on empty apartments downtown? I seem to be the only observer who notes that OSU and the City underwrite more and more overpriced, unaesthetic, and unnecessary apartment buildings in the University District. Does anyone in the City or “media” ever spend time in the city of Columbus? Show us by your awareness.

No one in Development or Council is aware that proposing city-wide residential tax abatements is a direct contradiction of Rob Doran’s endlessly promoted  Zone In series of so-called endless “hearings” with no actual plan for supposedly “planning” development.

Zone In is misnamed. The vague notions are much more Zone Out and Zone Up. But the uncoordinated city-wide anything goes shows absolutely no coordination, logic, or basic common sense.

None of this replaces an urgently needed real City Plan developed and overseen by a highly qualified City Manager with a staff of experts. But that is not the Columbus Way.

For confirmation of my point, read Warren’s extensive pages of overheated and uninformed quotations from former OSU Campus Partners for Private Urban Development, Financial Losses to OSU, and Destruction of the University Area Character leader and now City administrator Erin Prosser and City Council “President” of 7 now 9 members Shannon Hardin.

To paraphrase mayor in name only Andy: the sun “rises” in Columbus, but never approaches its apex. Not even close. These are a few of the countless reasons why. It should be intolerable to all who live here.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History, inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies, and Academy Professor, Ohio State University. Author of many books on literacy, children and youth, cities, and interdisciplinarity, most recently he published Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies (2022). My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming. “Reconstructing the new ‘uni-versity’ from the ashes of the ‘multi- and mega-versity’” is in progress.