Cowtown Rocks

You may have missed it, but Columbus is kicking our ass.

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A guy meets a Cleveland lawyer, they get to talking, and the guy tells the lawyer he's originally from Columbus. "Sorry about your luck," the Clevelander responds, as if the guy were raised in a mud hut in Uganda with no cable.

Cleveland has always looked down on Cowtown -- in part because looking down on Pittsburgh doesn't offer full-time work, in part because it's just good science. Columbus is like those new towns you find out West: a pretend city, dull and characterless, seemingly designed by the same guy who created Applebee's, the "neighborhood grill" that thinks a strip mall by the airport is a neighborhood. It's Indianapolis Jr. Des Moines with a college football team. If Carson Daly were a city, he would be Columbus.

But the bad part about looking down your nose is that you lose peripheral vision. While we were busy mocking, Cowtown was working out at the gym. Now it's poised to become Ohio's dominant city.

Consider: While Cleveland lost population in the last decade, Metro Cowtown grew by 203,000. It leads the state in new business start-ups. Its unemployment rate is below the national average; its income is above. It has two new arenas. A new mall with seven anchor stores. A National Hockey League team. Budding health, marketing, and engineering industries.

By contrast, Cleveland has . . . What was it we have again?

"Our employment is concentrated in relatively recession-resistant sectors like insurance, banking, government, and education," says Bill LaFayette, vice president of the Cowtown Chamber of Commerce.

Adds government worker Mercy Sutwak: "Down here, they hardly know when there's a recession."

Sutwak is emblematic of Columbus's rising tides. She lives in Warren, but works weekdays in Cowtown. Her husband did the same for five years, after his plant closed in '89. It's where the jobs are.

Even The Wall Street Journal is taking notice. It recently ran an article applauding Columbus's growth. Being an East Coast rag, it noted the "unendearing geography" and essentially asked, "Jesus, why would anybody want to live here?" But it also pointed out how Cowtown has found a "comfortable middle ground between New and Old economies." The message: In the wake of Enron and the Internet bust, steady, dull growth is cool.

(The only time Cleveland gets national attention is when we carpet bomb a football field with beer bottles. People tend to get jealous because everyone here has the arm of a right fielder.)

Much of Columbus's growth is owed to its forefathers, who snatched early rights to the capital and Ohio State while Clevelanders were fighting over the sweetheart contract to build a wagon trail to Shaker Heights. Six of its top 10 employers are government-related, an industry that never recedes, notes state Representative Shirley Smith (D-Cleveland). And when Ohio State encountered money woes, it simply announced a 34 percent tuition hike. Blessed are those who get to play with Monopoly money.

To its credit, however, Columbus has exploited its advantage. It, too, saw its manufacturing tank in the '80s, dropping 16,000 jobs. Yet it rebuilt from the ruins, carefully cultivating stable industries like insurance and banking, which have their hands in your pocket whether you're employed or not. It also converted an abandoned military base into a giant cargo distribution center. In Cleveland, our idea of stimulus is federal life support for steel.

"They've done some really smart things, like the preservation of neighborhoods," says Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman. "They've also made it very easy to do business there. There's a real sense of cooperation between the city government and the business community. They've written a book on urban revitalization."

There is also rising sentiment that -- gasp! -- Columbus is becoming the hipper town. "The nightlife is more vibrant in the central city, because the government people stay out and go to meetings after work," says state Representative Ed Jerse (D-Euclid). "The Friends set is very evident. There's some vibrancy that youth brings to the city."

Of course, no decent Clevelander would hang out with those punks from Friends. Can you see David Schwimmer getting good velocity on a beer bottle? But Mike Brown, a northwest Ohio transplant and press secretary for Mayor Mike Coleman, also attests to Cowtown's youthful karma. "It's a great town to be young in," he says, citing the entertainment, the jobs, the affordability. Six hundred bucks can buy an apartment -- complete with pool -- a stone's throw from downtown.

Much of the credit goes to Cowtown government. "Columbus doesn't have smash-mouth politics," says Brown. "It's evenly split between parties, which means you've always had to get along."

And unlike Cleveland, it's a town that doesn't worry about what the neighbors think. Danny Russell, editor of The Other Paper, recites Cowtown's unofficial motto: "It's a great place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit here." He adds, "People don't get that jazzed up about anything. It's a quiet town." But the growth is evident. "We have traffic jams on the freeways now . . . That's something we're all proud of."

Which means that Cowtowners are now puffing their chests after years of being ridiculed by Cleveland, right?

"Frankly, we weren't aware that we were kicking Cleveland's ass, because we haven't given it any thought."


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