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Ohio Capital Strives to Construct Big City Reputation

Fri March 14, 2008 - Midwest Edition

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) To most Americans, the names Boston, Denver, Atlanta or Miami say big city.

The name Columbus? Not so much.

If people recognize the name of Ohio’s capital at all, they see it as a big college town where Ohio State sports is king, or a “cowtown” where a largely agriculture state still heads on its weekend wagon rides for a night on the town.

Yet, within city limits, Columbus has more people than Boston, Denver, Atlanta, Miami or Seattle, and of its better known Ohio cousins Cincinnati and Cleveland, according to U.S. Census figures.

Now Democratic Mayor Michael Coleman is trying to persuade residents to act that way. He wants them to take pride in their city — a clean, culturally varied, largely white-collar government and research center at the confluence of the Olentangy and Scioto rivers.

“I’m asking every citizen of Columbus: What do you want to be when you grow up?” Coleman implored during a recent Citizen Summit of 2,000 people. The idea behind the gathering? To give the nation’s 15th largest city “a little swagger” heading into its bicentennial in 2012.

Coleman, elected to his second term last year, is using the upcoming 200th birthday to frame a citywide discussion about myriad practical matters: education, health care, downtown activity, traffic and crime, to name a few. He expects to use the results to pitch a big bond issue in November to pay for city improvements associated with the bicentennial.

But at the heart of every conversation is the role people’s attitudes are playing in keeping this Midwest metropolis from greatness.

In a survey conducted at the summit, 19 percent of participants ranked self-image specifically as the factor standing in the city’s way. Twenty-one percent cited apathy and fear of change, leaving city leaders to unscramble the mystery of why four in 10 people are either down on the city or uninterested in jazzing up its reputation.

To dissect the city’s collective consciousness, Columbus has hired ACP Visioning & Planning, the same urban planning firm that helped New Yorkers decide what to put in place of the World Trade towers. ACP’s efforts have entailed neighborhood surveys, a college symposium, interviews with leaders of ethnic communities, a youth meeting and a roving “Think Tank” that collected input from thousands of residents. Five neighborhood meetings were scheduled for late February.

Capitalizing on Columbus’ downtown riverfront, making it a hub for green construction projects and installing a downtown trolley are among suggestions gleaned from that process.

Jamie Greene, an ACP consultant, said Columbus is not alone among Midwestern cities in longing for a more robust identity.

“It seems to be an important issue in Midwestern communities that aren’t associated with some iconic landscape, whether it’s the Rocky Mountains or the Pacific Ocean,” Greene said. “Part of the issue in these communities is they don’t have that kind of physical identity.”

Finding an identity for Columbus has proved tough in the past.

The city is so middle-of-the-road that state development gurus tout its proximity to the majority of America’s population as one of its virtues. Its population is so demographically representative that retailers and fast food chains use it to test new products. Its voters are so perfectly divided that politicians roll through to test drive their campaign slogans.

And then there’s the name.

No fewer than 17 states have a city named Columbus. And though Ohio’s is the largest by far, there are those who believe a city with such a common name simply can’t be great. Last year, a loosely organized campaign sprouted up on the Internet suggesting the city should change its name — though offering no ready replacements.

For a city founded in 1812, with a statue of Christopher Columbus adorning its City Hall complex and a replica of the explorer’s Santa Maria floating on the nearby riverfront, the pitch seemed a long shot.

Naysayers also are quick to point out that Columbus isn’t really so large. While the 730,657 residents inside its city limits allow it to stack up to other seeming giants, census figures show the Columbus area is only the 32nd largest metropolitan area in the United States.

Another deterrent is it has only one professional sports team, the hockey-playing Blue Jackets. Though six of the 13 American cities with a “grand slam” combination of professional football, basketball, baseball and hockey teams have fewer in-city residents than Columbus, each is a household name: Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

Ironically, Coleman has tapped a trio of non-natives to lead the commission that is preparing for the bicentennial and sorting out the city’s self-image.

Bishop Timothy J. Clarke of the First Church of God moved to Columbus from New York City, Ohio State University President Gordon Gee famously left the post and was offered a $1 million salary to return, and philanthropist Abigail Wexner, wife of Limited Brands founder Les Wexner, moved to central Ohio at age 31 after a life spent primarily in Manhattan.

Speaking at the citizen summit, all three called Columbus a wonderful, underrated place.

“I think I’ve really found a community of a scale where individuals can and do make a difference,” Wexner said.

Gee, who joked about going “into the wilderness” and then returning, said, “I think everyone in this city loves to be here. We’re proud to be here.”

Molly O’Donnell, a city parks employee who attended the event, said she isn’t bothered by the city’s reputation — or lack thereof.

“I grew up here, so Cowtown’s OK with me,” she said. “I don’t think people from outside Ohio realize how great Columbus is.”

But Suzie Simpson, center coordinator of the gay-rights group Stonewall Columbus, said she bristled when the majority of summit participants said Columbus would be best described as a great hometown with “classic Midwestern values.”

“I perceive it more as a creative, diverse city that welcomes all types of folks,” she said.

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