Downtowns again booming in Ohio's big cities

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio's three largest cities are enjoying downtown booms after years of effort and a combined investment of about $10 billion -- booms that officials say could help boost Ohio's overall economic development.

Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati have all added residents, jobs, economic impact and vibrancy in what Edward Hill, dean of Cleveland State University's Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, calls "an overnight sensation 30 years in the making."

Ohio's "three Cs" have moved forward with major projects, many of them initiated with public money. That development has expanded to include parks, arenas and stadiums, museums, universities, hotels and casinos, The Columbus Dispatch reported Monday.

The rebirth of the three cities could help change the image of a state that has been linked to job losses and fading industries -- hopefully spurring Ohio's economic development and reversing the so-called brain drain, according to development and jobs officials.

"Instead of losing these young professionals to Chicago and the West Coast and East Coast, they'll stay here if we have something vibrant going on," said Mark Patton, managing director of JobsOhio.

He said that is part of long-term planning that includes a commitment to creating jobs in financial services, information technology, health care and marketing.

Many of the "knowledge workers" are college-educated, more-upscale workers looking for a downtown vibrancy, while more empty nesters also want to live in downtowns filled with nearby amenities, Patton said.

Various projects helped trigger the cities' booms.

In Cleveland, a bus-rapid transit system ignited development along the important downtown artery of Euclid Avenue that was once known as Millionaire's Row, and Columbus was helped by development of an Arena District on the blighted site of an old prison. Cincinnati's rebirth started with Fountain Square and redevelopment efforts in the historic Over-the Rhine District.

"We've noticed it and are thrilled," Pat Barker, interim director of TourismOhio, said. "And, what's even more amazing is so much of it -- the construction projects and plans -- was done during the recession."

The goal with major projects has been to create hubs that lead to other connected development.

"You have to create not just a building, but an environment," Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman said.

Vacancy rates in downtown apartments in all three cities have dropped, and the number of new projects continues to grow. Increased numbers of downtown residents spur the opening of scores of restaurants and shops and the construction of more apartments and condominiums.

Downtown development also has helped the cities attract more regional and national conventions and meetings.

"These meeting planners know that just because they hold a meeting someplace doesn't mean people will come," Barker said. "They're looking for cities that have vibrant things to do at night, places people can walk to, and all three cities have this now, and it's a huge benefit."

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