Columbus no longer 'flyover' country, but place to create something

By Mary Beth Lane
The Columbus Dispatch

Every day in Columbus, people are going about their business.

Small business, that is, in all its variety. Entrepreneurs, innovators and dreamers are working across the city, starting and expanding businesses or thinking up ideas for startups.

Entrepreneurs say Columbus has a good environment for startups, thanks to attributes that include a cooperative spirit among small businesses, with one helping another; good access to city and corporate leaders; and an affordable cost of living.
Paul Reeder, executive director of Ohio State University's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said the city's diversity — including the African-American, Latino, LGBTQ and multiple immigrant communities — enriches the variety of entrepreneurial businesses.

"Too often, 'entrepreneurship' is associated with young 20-somethings and an app," Reeder said. "In Columbus, the most impactful entrepreneur is Les Wexner. He certainly is not a 20-something anymore. Les Wexner was curious, he saw an opportunity, he created an impact and he still does that. This is a mindset and you don't have to be young to have that mindset."

Michael Watkins, 50, has taken his Watt 1 Electrical Services to the next level.

The Northeast Side electrician went into business for himself in 2000 and still does traditional electrical jobs, but he also trained to become a certified solar contractor. Now he installs residential rooftop solar panels, as well as charging stations for electric vehicles parked in garages in New Albany, Dublin, Powell and elsewhere.

Electrician Michael Watkins wires switches and recessed lights on a new addition at Christ International Community Church. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

Plugging into the renewable-energy trend has helped his business, said Watkins, who estimates that he has done about 20 solar installations over the past three years and another 20 electric-vehicle-charging installations.

"I wanted to separate myself from other electrical contractors," he said.

Helping business, neighborhoods

Watkins is among the small-business owners at the heart of a collaboration between the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Columbus City Council. The C-Biz project is being developed to provide technical assistance to small, minority-owned businesses located in six central-city neighborhoods that could use some commercial revitalization.

The City Council has approved $120,000 so far to contract with the center to develop C-Biz, which will enlist university undergraduate and graduate business students to help advise the small businesses in Franklinton, the Hilltop, Main Street, Parsons Avenue, Long Street/Mount Vernon and North and South Linden. In addition to helping the businesses, the project will give students hands-on experience.

The assistance to small businesses run by African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and other minorities, as well as women and veterans, in the targeted neighborhoods will include analysis of their business plans, their websites and their social-media platforms, for example, plus other marketing and consulting advice and help with learning QuickBooks or other accounting software.

Watkins participated in a pilot project last year as the center and the City Council rolled out C-Biz. Reeder and his students at Ohio State created for the electrician a smarter website with a new feature: Potential customers enter information about the electrical work they need, and Watkins receives a notification on his smartphone to then respond with a free price quote.

"My old website didn't have anything like that," he said.

The students also helped Watkins rewrite his 15-year-old business plan to target new markets, including the Smart Columbus transportation initiative.

Councilman Shannon Hardin said he can envision the future if C-Biz works as planned.

"I see this as a way to reinvest in and redevelop neighborhoods," Hardin said.

Twenty years from now, he said, "I see this will have grown whole neighborhoods of thriving businesses, like the Short North. If we do this right, this is how I see it. Storefront after storefront: What better way to bring back these neighborhoods than by having neighor-owned businesses in the community? That's my vision. We want to bring back the density along the corridors of small businesses and really make them distinctive corridors, walkable space where people live and interact."

Envisioning the future

The land-use planning initiative Insight 2050, developed by the Urban Land Institute Columbus and multiple partners, including the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, to help guide strategic development in the region, predicts that both 20-year-olds and 70-year-olds will want to live within blocks of a grocery store, coffee shop and jazz club. Hardin predicted: "You will see mixed development — residential upstairs, commercial downstairs. It really is going back to how it used to be: small businesses that serve the neighborhood."

Bake Me Happy co-owners Wendy Miller Pugh, 40, and Letha Pugh, 45, opened their gluten-free bakery at 116 E. Moler St. in Merion Village in 2014, and are expanding to include a coffee shop. Neither is from Columbus, but they met and married and are raising their 6-year-old daughter here.

Bake Me Happy at 116 E. Moler St., where co-owners Letha Pugh, left, and Wendy Miller Pugh make gluten-free baked goods. [Tom Dodge/Dispatch]

Jess Campbell. left, and Allison Hendricks work at Bake Me Happy. [Tom Dodge/Dispatch]
"Columbus is just very welcoming for small businesses," Wendy Pugh said. "I feel there's a huge buy-local movement here, and I feel like everyone really values products made from producers here. There's so many entreprenurial businesses in Columbus."

"I think small businesses can really bring neighborhoods back to life," Letha Pugh said. "With the addition of the smart transportation (connecting neighborhoods), I could totally see the local retail scene, the local food scene, expanding."

Shawn Battiste, the third generation to co-own and operate the family florist business Battiste LaFleur Galleria at 825 E. Long St. on the Near East Side, has watched as other storefronts have filled nearby, including a cafe, a women's clothing boutique and an upscale hair salon. Battiste, 50, believes that more small businesses and residents will move into the area in the next 20 years, continuing the revival of what historically was a thriving African-American neighborhood.

"It's a renaissance, a new birth," Battiste said.

Franklinton also is teeming with innovators, many working from the Columbus Idea Foundry at 421 W. State St., where people develop and execute ideas for new products and businesses.

Alyson Toone, 33, is pursuing plans to apply her fashion-design degree from Columbus College of Art & Design and a decade working in fashion in New York to something new. She is working to expand her "The New Homemaker's Club" blog on her AlysonJonLife.com website into a lifestyle brand selling home goods. "Like Martha Stewart with a newer voice," she said.

"Columbus is a good place for creatives who are focused on family or a lifestyle that isn't the big-city lifestyle of New York or L.A.," said Toone, who grew up here. "There's a pride in Columbus now that wasn't there before. It's not flyover country. It's (at) a stage for people to come here and for more businesses to happen here."

Jay Clouse, 26, whose Unreal Collective business coordinates a 12-week course featuring discussions among small groups of entrepreneurs and creatives nationwide via video chat sessions, said Ohio State will continue to bring smart, talented people to the city in the future. "We'll continue to grow our influence as a creative hub, whether that's creating businesses or art," Clouse said.

Chris Volpe, 36, CEO of the video-gaming company Multivarious, predicts Columbus within the next 10 years will be "the place" for game development and creative technology. "We are a young, vibrant, creative, talented, passionate city, unafraid to be weird and funky and to try stuff," he said.

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