Columbus is a place where people choose to retire, but attracting young talent remains a challenge.
It’s a place where high school drop-out rates are decreasing, but college graduates are in short supply.
It’s a place where the per capita income is one of the highest among comparable cities, but the poverty rate exceeds state and national averages.
These are just a few of the findings revealed during the unveiling of a Columbus 2025 initiative at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce on Friday. The data, gathered as part of a Regional Prosperity Initiative launched in 2015, provides a paradoxical view of a community thriving with Uptown development and cultural amenities while economically stagnant, and bursting with unbridled potential while facing a host of socioeconomic challenges.
The Regional Prosperity study was conducted by a consulting firm called Market Street Services. The steering committee — made up of community leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors — analyzed information from dozens of one-on-one meetings, focus groups and more than 1,700 online survey responses from residents.
The project, spearheaded by the Chamber, is chaired by Billy Blanchard, partner and board member of Jordan-Blanchard Capital, and co-chaired by Audrey Tillman, executive vice president and general counsel at Aflac.
In the study, the Columbus metropolitan area was compared to peer cities. Among other findings, it revealed that:
▪ Despite explosive population growth in the Southeastern United States, Columbus’ population has remained stagnant. Between 1970 and 2013, Georgia’s population increased by 117 percent, and Atlanta’s by 299 percent, while Columbus’ population grew by just 24 percent during the same period, and that growth most likely is from Fort Benning. The region ranks 58th out of 61 peer cities in the Southeast.
▪ The Columbus region has a relatively low percentage of residents age 25 and over with a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to peer cities, about 21 percent compared to the national average of 29.6 percent. The region’s bachelor attainment rate was lower than that of all peer communities, including in-state cities such as Augusta and Savannah. And the gap between bachelor’s degree attainment between greater Columbus and peer cities is getting wider.
▪ Despite faring better than many cities during the recession, Columbus has had a slower comeback. Employment in the region increased by 1.7 percent between 2005 and 2015, which was the second-slowest growth among comparable regions such as Augusta and Huntsville.
▪ Columbus had the fifth-highest per capita income among 10 comparable communities, at about $39,012, ranking ahead of the national average of $37,845. But among comparison metro areas, Columbus had the smallest percentage of income derived from wages. A greater proportion of local income was derived from investment income and government benefits.
▪ Twenty percent of the overall population — and one in three children — lives in poverty. And the region’s rate pre-dates the Great Recession.
▪ Columbus ranked almost last among peer communities when it came to entrepreneurship and the number of business loans per capita for small businesses and the number of self-employed people.
On Friday, Tillman shared some of the results with the media and a group of community leaders who gathered for the news conference.
“We thought it was critical that we know and understand our challenges, that we not shy away from them,” she said, “and that we address and tackle them so we can develop an appropriate strategy to address them and overcome them with Columbus 2025.”
Tillman also pointed out some of the good news in the report.
“We were able to discover that we are increasing in our endeavors that we have for education,” she said. “We’re improving our graduation rates and sending more of our children to college than ever before.
“And we confirmed that Fort Benning is indeed a shining star in this community,” she said, “not just because of the soldiers and the people that are here, but economically approximately $4.7 billion comes to this community because of Fort Benning.”
Tillman said the Columbus region also had a more philanthropic community than other peer cities that tends to invest in the area as needs arise. The report also revealed there’s strong local support for the public school system, and many residents had highly favorable views about Columbus as a place to live.
A summary of the study’s findings stated this: “Stakeholders were near unanimous in their praise for the transformation of Uptown Columbus to a thriving, mixed-use district in recent decades and expressed a desire to see this type of activity occur in other parts of the community.”
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who also sits on the steering committee, was among those who attended the press conference. She said the Columbus 2025 initiative is a much-needed project that will transform the community.
“People don’t realize that in 2028 we’re going to celebrate our bicentennial,” she said. “So what sort of city do we want to be to celebrate the 200 years of us having inhabited this space? We have to deal with issues like poverty and the lack of access to prosperity of our citizens, because we cannot compete if we don’t.”
Betsy Covington, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley, also sits on the committee, and she’s leading the effort to develop and maintain vibrant and connected places through the Dragonfly Trail and other projects. She said the data didn’t really surprise her, considering the socioeconomic landscape of the region. And yet, she found it very disturbing.
“Most of us have been doing work in this community for a long time,” she said. “... We know that we’re making great strides, but we know we’ve got a long way to go. But seeing those numbers in black and white really has lit a fire under us to say, ‘So how do we get where we want to go? How do we move forward collectively as a community without leaving vast portions of our community behind?’ ”
The Columbus 2025 Initiative has completed the phases of competitive assessment, target business analysis and marketing review, and community and economic development strategy.
Now in the implementation stage, committees have been set up to focus on five action areas:
- Targeted economic growth.
- Talented and educated people.
- Enterprising culture.
- Vibrant and connected places.
- Cohesive image and identity.
Tom Vonk, a Lakebottom resident, came to the news conference to learn about the new initiative. A native of Michigan, he said he moved to the area about three years ago to help his goddaughter with her salon on Broadway. He’s a retired academic, with an interest in the community.
“Certainly in Uptown, in just the few years I’ve been here, the changes have been tremendous,” he said. “It’s already a much higher energy sub-community, and it’s going to continue to be growing.”
Yet not everyone is enjoying the improvements, he said. And there are many sides to Columbus.
“You have military-related, and you have non-military-related,” he said. “You have rich, you have poor. You have new Columbus, you have old Columbus.
“So you have at least three different cuts that make up the community,” he said. “And there is no doubt that if we don’t put as much effort into poverty and race relations, the benefits we’re seeing now can’t last.”