When you're searching for a place to start your business, some cities specialize. Look at Pittsburgh with robotics or Des Moines with insurance and agriculture. But Columbus, Ohio, doesn't need to do that. It's slowly and systematically becoming the new hub of the Midwest.
It's sneaky big. Columbus is the 14th largest U.S. city in population, directly behind San Francisco, with nearly 900,000 people. But those are stats. It's the current generation of business leaders in Columbus that make the area so appealing.
City leaders are all rowing In the same direction.
Cameron Mitchell, who started and runs one of the largest restaurant groups in the country, brought me to Columbus. We sat in his office for over an hour talking about how he started as a chef, his new book, where his drive came from and how passionate he now is about leaving a legacy in Columbus.
I felt relaxed, like I was in a family living room, having a conversation. And that's exactly how Cameron wanted me to feel because he knows hospitality is more than just food, it's creating a moment. That hospitality was contagious. Bob Myers, CEO of Pillar Technology, sat and talked with me about Columbus at 5PM on a Friday-while they were being acquired by Accenture.
Columbus 2020, the rebranded vision of their region's economic development arm, connected with city leaders in 2010, including Mitchell, to create a collective push for Columbus' growth. It started with connecting downtown to campus by revitalizing Short North, now one of the most entertaining districts in the country. It's been a major catalyst in attracting capital and talent.
"The past eight years have brought historic job growth, investment and infrastructure to our region, that was the goal," said Kenny McDonald, president and CEO, Columbus 2020. "An unintended positive outcome of the growth is the ambition and excitement about the next decade that it has ignited."
Columbus will define smart cities over the next ten years.
After winning the highly-coveted national Smart Cities grant they turned that $50 million in to $500 million through public and private partnerships. This is huge both for the future of cities as well as the branding of Columbus.
I met with Andrew Lynch, president of Zipline Logistics, a digitally enabled freight and logistics provider, while I was there because I thought it was interesting that Columbus' geography plays a big role in its success -- Columbus has always been known for transportation.
"Columbus has become a major logistics hub because 46 percent of the U.S. manufacturing capacity is within a 10-hour truck drive. Businesses can easily serve the entire eastern half of the US and Canada from here and has increasingly made us a top pick for major distribution centers," said Lynch.
This stat he threw at me stuck out because it will be increasingly important in attracting companies like Amazon.
Brands are built in Columbus.
As a retail and logistics hub, Columbus is home to Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, Express, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Big Lots and more. This is partly due to location. But it's also due to a large concentration of talented minds in retail and marketing.
It's the rare region in the country where new brick-and-mortar retials brands are being created and are thriving. Columbus-based new retailer, HOMAGE, is probably best known for LeBron wearing their Ultimate Warrior shirt to troll the Warriors in 2016.
I walked in to their Short North location and was immediately in mid-90s nostalgia, a NBA Jam arcade game, 80's wrestling shirts. But behind the aesthetic is a brand that has been able to pull from the retail connections and talent in the area to get exclusive apparel deals with the NBA and WWE.
Columbus has the most capital.
Drive Capital, founded by former Sequoia Capital partners Chris Olsen and Mark Kvamme, is bigger than just the largest VC in the Midwest. It's a flag planted specifically and purposefully where they see the next wave of big companies being created.
Columbus doesn't get the Smart Cities grant or have the most capital in the Midwest without a very concerted effort by its leaders to make this happen.
It has the best emerging downtown neighborhood.
Historic Franklinton has character but is still a blank canvas. It's the kind of spot that could and would hold an entire downtown Amazon campus. All I had to do was walk over a bridge from downtown and I was there.
It's currently home to the Idea Foundry, the largest and most acclaimed maker space in the country. And as I walked there I saw giant buildings being built and small hundred-year-old buildings. It was surreal.
"I've lived in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia -- and worked in many other places -- and I've never met a more collaborative, accessible city," said said Alex Bandar, Founder & Director of Business Development, Idea Foundry. "We have an opportunity to define ourselves here in Columbus. Unlike other large cities in Ohio and elsewhere which seem to reminisce about 'the good old days', our good days are ahead of us."