CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Courtesy of Columbus Business First
By Carrie Ghose
July 30, 2021
Kenny McDonald is taking over for Alex Fischer as the Columbus Partnership sets its most ambitious goals yet
As the Crew played their first game at Lower.com Field on July 3, Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer watched from the group’s corner suite, sunshine streaming over the pristine pitch and a sea of fans in black and gold.
“We were in probably the most modern sports facility that I’ve ever been in anywhere in the world,” he said. “Here we are in a downtown location – the vibrancy, a youthful, eclectic city. … I thought, ‘Jeez, this really represents so well my belief in what the future of Columbus is going to be.’”
On the field, the players battled from a 2-0 deficit to tie the New England Revolution, nearly four years after Columbus rallied against the prospect of losing the team.
While a dedicated fan group kept up public pressure and national media attention, Fischer led the behind-the-scenes contingent that negotiated the deal for new ownership and a stadium anchoring a mixed-use development west of the Arena District.
“It’s an example of so many things that I know all the real stories behind,” he said.
That future, however, will be shaped by different hands. On Jan. 1, One Columbus CEO Kenny McDonald will succeed Fischer, who is leaving after 12 years as CEO of the Partnership.
In the late 1990s, retail magnate Les Wexner and the late Columbus Dispatch Publisher John F. Wolfe started hosting lunches with a handful of CEOs. That klatch has grown to a nearly 80-member group of top executives from corporations, academia and large nonprofits, influencing economic development and public policy across 11 counties.
“It’s recognized as one of the best partnerships in the country due to Alex Fischer,” said Jack Kessler, CEO of New Albany Co. and another founder. “Kenny is the best economic development head in the country. I don’t think we’ll miss a step.”
Fischer and McDonald have five more months to solidify their most ambitious plan yet: To reinvent the Central Ohio economy as one that is not only prosperous, but inclusive and equitable, narrowing gaps in housing, income, health and transportation.
Despite “challenging day jobs,” members have McDonald’s back, said Alex Shumate, senior partner leading statewide strategic relationships for law firm Squire Patton Boggs.
“Our track record speaks for itself: When the toughest challenges occur, the Partnership has demonstrated that we step up,” Shumate said. “There is this confidence, without being over-confident, that we have everything we need in this community to be successful.”
‘Embedded in the culture’
Arising from their informal meetings, Wexner, Wolfe and Kessler formed the nonprofit Columbus Tomorrow in the fall of 2001. Shumate and two other area attorneys were trustees. The articles of incorporation said the group would “develop plans, programs and actions … in the Greater Columbus area to secure its long-term, broad-based vitality and prosperity.”
The idea was to bring disparate efforts under a single umbrella, Kessler said. A year later, the name changed, and the group hired its first CEO, Bob Milbourne.
The Partnership prioritized the annual list of infrastructure projects to seek federal funding, propelling projects such as the Scioto Mile, airport expansions and the intermodal train yard at Rickenbacker. Members played a role in building the region’s technology sector and attracting venture capital, Shumate said.
Fischer was recruited from Battelle in 2009 and promoted to CEO as Milbourne retired.
“Bob doesn’t get the credit oftentimes, but he laid this amazing foundation,” Fischer said.
While government officials aren’t members, the Partnership has worked closely with Mayors Michael Coleman and Andrew Ginther. It endorsed Coleman’s successful 2009 campaign to raise the city income tax. The Partnership and city jointly led Smart Columbus after winning the federal grant to create it and are continuing it as a nonprofit focused on sustainable energy and closing the digital divide.
The Partnership’s $4.9 million annual budget comes from member dues. One Columbus has an $8.2 million budget, half from the private sector and the rest from JobsOhio and government and nonprofit grants.
In its first decade, the Partnership often worked side by side with the Columbus Chamber, but in 2010 the chamber shifted to focus on fostering small and existing businesses. Fischer created Columbus 2020 to take over business attraction and recruited McDonald.
“I’ve never made a big decision at the Partnership that we didn’t make together,” Fischer said.
Some efforts fizzled, such as the first two attempts to bring proton therapy to the region (a center is under construction now) and a resounding defeat of a public education ballot issue.
Newer members who moved from other cities say the level of collaboration and engagement in Columbus is profound.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” said Traci Martinez, who joined when she succeeded Shumate last year as managing partner of Squire’s Columbus office. Shumate is staying with Partnership equity efforts, but soon to step down from its executive committee.
When Dr. Hal Paz started as CEO of Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center in 2019, one Partnership member after another stressed the importance of working together for community good. Paz has led an academic medical center before and was Aetna’s chief medical officer; in his previous cities, CEO groups made “episodic” efforts such as this.
“It wasn’t embedded in the culture,” he said. “Here, it’s different.”
Those first eight months shoulder to shoulder with counterparts at OhioHealth and Mount Carmel Health System primed all three to quickly corral scarce supplies and build a field hospital in the pandemic, Paz said.
“That level of collaboration and cooperation is a natural evolution of the Partnership,” he said. “It’s absolutely extraordinary.”
Equity agenda ‘for real’
With 2020 goals met by the end of 2019, the Partnership and One Columbus raised the bar for the next decade: Achieve equity.
“We’re going to need to innovate to make that happen,” McDonald said.
First the Partnership had to examine itself with “honesty and vulnerability,” Fischer said.
“We still haven’t completely come to grips with what (diversity, equity and inclusion) means for our community,” said member Corrine Burger, managing director in Columbus for JPMorgan Chase, one of the region’s largest employers.
Looking nationwide, only five of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black, according to the magazine. As a group limited to top executives, the Partnership is no different. Of 79 members, 18 are women, three are black and two are Latino.
Since last summer’s racial justice movement gained steam, members Curt Moody, founder of Moody Nolan Inc., and Cardinal Health Inc. CEO Michael Kaufmann have led a committee on race, inviting several Black community leaders to join. Each member brought five diverse leaders from within their organizations, leading to 200-person virtual meetings.
“I remember joining that first call, thinking, ‘Wow, this really is an important issue, and the Partnership is taking it seriously,’” said Martinez, whose father immigrated from Mexico. “It is very near to my heart.”
The group has brought in consultants from Harvard University and the Brookings Institution. The Partnership is working with Franklin County Administrator Kenneth Wilson to establish a federally backed lending institution focused on Black-owned businesses.
Columbus Urban League CEO Stephanie Hightower is leading a series of intense training sessions.
“This is for real,” Hightower said. “The reason why it’s for real is there’s finally been an awakening.
“To advance equity and growth, they understand there’s an intersection there: Racial inclusion does drive the economy,” she said. “You have to be able to deal with those underlying issues, in order to make sure people are ready for jobs, are ready for homeownership, are ready to build small businesses.”
Becoming more inclusive does not mean the Partnership should stop being composed of top executives, Burger said.
“They’re the ones directing resources, jobs and decisions that affect all of us,” Burger said.
“When you bring out the fact that we are not a diverse group, it causes everybody to pause,” she said. “If we want succession that looks more diverse, the CEOs are the ones who have to drive that succession.”
Fischer and McDonald said they will take on this challenge as they did others, assembling the right people to generate creative ideas and implement them.
“The work done every single day is really where the muscle memory is built,” McDonald said. “Columbus has just got tremendous leadership. They’re constantly coning together around the community table to move things forward.”
“The work we’ve done over the last decade is going to set us up for things that we don’t even realize are going to occur,” Fischer said.
“One hundred years from now, there will be a Columbus Partnership doing work in a community we don’t recognize.”
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