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Many cities in the Midwest have experimented with various ways to revive their city centers and stimulate growth. One success story is Columbus, Ohio. The population is growing, and so are wages. The downtown is being revitalized. Housing prices are still low, and so is unemployment. Columbus has become a nearly recession-proof hub of Ohio.
All this week, NPR is asking this question. How can you create economic opportunity for more Americans? It's part of our election year project with member stations called A Nation Engaged. We sent NPR's Sonari Glinton to find out if the success of Columbus can be replicated.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: There are few things more annoying than when a national media organization like NPR comes to your town and discovers it. Well, they call it Columbusing, and I'm essentially Colombusing Columbus.
TARA DEFRANCISCO: (Laughter) You are. You're the Amerigo Vespucci of the world here. It's really happening.
GLINTON: I met Tara DeFrancisco and her husband, Rance Rizzutto, at a coffee shop across from the state capitol. Now, they just moved from Chicago to Columbus to start an improv comedy theater.
Now, since they've been touring the country, they thought did they really need to live in Chicago even if it is the epicenter of improv? They recently closed on a house here.
DEFRANCISCO: I think we're saving something like $500 a month-ish (ph) on buying a home. I don't think that Rance or I expected to own a home in our lifetime - maybe buying a modest condo but not a house with a yard that has food in it.
GLINTON: Now, when DeFrancisco started in improv, there wasn't an improv or sketch comedy scene here, so she had to move to Chicago. Increasingly she found herself coming back to Columbus, and she and her husband thought, well, why not stay?
DEFRANCISCO: I think part of the reason we were finally compelled to move is that we didn't feel like we were losing anything. It's a very affordable cost of living. So if you can bring art to those communities, then they don't have to necessarily push out to the bigger cities.
GLINTON: Can I get you to introduce yourself for me?
CAMERON MITCHELL: Sure. Hi, my name is Cameron Mitchell. I'm the founder and CEO of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants located here in Columbus, Ohio.
GLINTON: Mitchell has more than a dozen locations in Columbus and around the country. He and almost anyone you talk to point to the revitalization of a neighborhood called the Short North as a springboard for the new Columbus.
MITCHELL: Twenty years ago, this was a Quonset hut here. You wouldn't be caught dead walking around here at night. All these buildings were all dilapidated. There were no hotels here. It was decrepit down here. It was a rundown, dead urban core.
GLINTON: It was the tech boom of the '90s, and almost all of Columbus's big players - business, the university, the city - realized they were missing out.
MITCHELL: Ten, 15, 20 years ago, we were stagnant here in Columbus, very stagnant, and we deserve the reputation we have. And now the reputation we have today is well-earned, and it's through the work and collaboration of a lot of great people.
GLINTON: What do you think the reputation...
MITCHELL: Smart, open, young, vibrant city.
GLINTON: All right, so I headed over from the Short North south to Columbus Commons. That's where I met David Stebenne. He's a professor of law and history at the Ohio State University.
Stebenne says just a few years ago Columbus was mocked as being kind of a cow town, a paper-pusher town because many of the city's white-collar jobs were from the university, state government and the insurance industry. He says that was last century.
DAVID STEBENNE: In a service economy, Columbus was destined to do better, especially than Cleveland and Youngstown and other places that had a lot of sort of smokestack industry. But there's still a range of how much better. And what has startled all of Ohio and especially the folks in Cleveland and Cincinnati is how much better Columbus has done.
GLINTON: Stebenne says population wise Columbus is gaining while Cleveland and Cincinnati are declining. The staples of the economy are white-collar jobs - insurance, state government, retail and the university. Stebenne points out that Columbus didn't have quite the same contentious school desegregation fight that other cities had, and Columbus also annexed a lot of land at the edge as whites began moving to the suburbs. That kept the tax base broad and the taxes low.
STEBENNE: The ability of Columbus to attract and retain many of the brightest young people in Ohio is now well known around the state.
GLINTON: OK, our next stop is a food truck. What would a Columbusing story about Columbus be without a food truck? It's O Hai Poke. For those unfamiliar, Poke is a sort of Hawaiian sushi. Nile Woodson is the 26-year-old founder.
NILE WOODSON: All right, all right, excellent. So you're familiar with Poke.
GLINTON: So I think it's hilarious that I find the black guy with the Hawaiian food truck.
WOODSON: Yeah. That's it. That's the name of the game. Well, I think that comes down to the entrepreneurial drive.
GLINTON: Woodson is an OSU graduate. Now, he had a choice to go home or to stay and start a business with his buddy in Columbus.
WOODSON: And it was, like, go to New York where it's extremely competitive and extremely expensive. And even being from there at that point in time, I didn't have as strong of a network. But Columbus is all about support and community and networking, and it's just this awesome place.
GLINTON: All right, so this is the moment where I bring out the expert who tells other cities what they could do to duplicate Columbus's success. Well, we have an expert - Enrico Moretti. He wrote a popular book called "The New Geography Of Jobs." He says you can sum up much of Columbus's success with one word.
ENRICO MORETTI: Serendipity. I've looked at the history of most clusters of innovation in the U.S., and it's rarely the case - in fact I couldn't find any example - where it was the local government that decided to create an innovation cluster there.
GLINTON: Moretti says Columbus is lucky - the university, the capital being in the center of the state.
MORETTI: Cost of living is affordable. The skill of the labor force - it's high, and taxes tend to be generally low. The regulatory environment tend to generally be pro-business. So these are all factors that favor Columbus over other locations.
GLINTON: So Columbus didn't mess it up.
MORETTI: Columbus didn't mess it up. Columbus took the seed and made the best of it.
GLINTON: OK, everybody, I have discovered Columbus - all right, just kidding. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We say Columbus is gaining population while Cleveland and Cincinnati are losing residents. Cincinnati has grown slightly since 2010 after decades of significant decline.]
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