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City on The Edge
The Economy Has Put Columbus, Ohio, in A Tight Spot. Stimulus Funds Have Created Some Wiggle Room, But for How Long?

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

COLUMBUS, Ohio

Several weeks ago Mayor Michael Coleman was staring into a financial abyss.

"I couldn't sleep," the mayor says of a $13 million shortfall in the city's $630 million operating budget. "And that shortfall was already after I had made cuts to the bone. It was like those hard times my parents used to talk about."

Locals expected the 54-year-old, third-term Democratic mayor to find a magic wand. Instead, he sharpened the budget ax anew, and started swinging hard and wide.

More than a dozen recreation centers were shuttered, some in the city's poorest neighborhoods. About 170 city employees have been laid off since August. That has prompted some grumbling in this capital city of 730,000. It turned deafening when the mayor announced on Jan. 27 that 25 members of the new police cadet class, who were poised to graduate from the police academy after six months of training, would be pink-slipped even before they hit the streets.

"Now that was like saying to the hoodlums: 'Go on out and do your thing,' " says Charles Russell, a 76-year-old retired truck driver who lives near one of the shuttered recreation centers.

Three weeks later, Coleman found himself visiting the White House during a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He aimed to ask White House officials -- "I mean I was on a mission" -- about securing stimulus money to save his cadet class.

"I ran with them on the first day of class, as I do with every class," he says of the cadets. "This was personal."

After negotiations with the White House and Justice Department, Coleman secured $1.25 million in stimulus funds and rescued his cadets. "It's the kind of stuff that only happens at the end of movies," he says.

The president is scheduled to travel here today, along with Attorney General Eric Holder, to take part in the swearing-in of the new police officers.

"President Obama opened a door and I just stepped through it," Coleman says. "I'm here to tell you that the stimulus bill works!"

But Coleman -- who in recent years has announced a series of ambitious building projects, from downtown to the depressed east side -- is under no illusion about what lies ahead. "This is new for us, even traumatic," he says of the city's economic situation.

Like other big-city mayors, he faces a bewildering matrix of challenges in restoring his city's economic health. Just days ago, for instance, a company on the city's west side -- White Electronic Designs -- announced it would lay off 56 workers next month.

Many here realize the situation could be much worse, as it is 3 1/2 hours away in southern Michigan, where the auto industry dominates the local economy. In Columbus, "there hasn't been that one dominant company that has hurt the local economy as a whole," says Keith Ewald, chief of the Ohio Bureau of Labor Market Information. "The city tends to weather downturns better than most because we have Ohio State University, the state government and research institutions."

Still, the local unemployment rate hovers at 7.6 percent, and according to Ewald, it hasn't been that bad since 1984. Statewide, the jobless number is 9.7 percent.

Community activists such as Lela Boykin are worried about what these numbers portend.

Boykin worked at Neighborhood House -- a social services agency on the city's east side that helps the needy -- for more than three decades and now does consulting work for community services agencies. "In this economic downturn, people get desperate and do desperate things," she says. "We got a generation of folks who don't know how to live during hard times. Hard times is not something they know how to cope with. That's why I think the real deep thinking about the impact of the mayor's cuts was not there."

Neighborhood House is right next to the Sawyer Recreation Center, one of the casualties of the mayor's budget cuts. "We have put our children in more danger," Boykin says. "It's made me think of that Masai tribal greeting: 'How are the children?' And if the children are okay, then everything else is okay."

Boykin does give the mayor credit for his development prowess: In recent years there have been new entertainment complexes built downtown, new art galleries and condominiums in the Short North area and Arena District, and a new minor league baseball stadium is set to open in weeks.

There is also a snazzy park under construction along the Scioto River and -- what Coleman considers a centerpiece of the city's cultural renaissance -- the planned reopening in May of the Lincoln Theatre, a once-celebrated venue on Long Street that hosted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Sammy Davis Jr. The mayor has used a combination of private funds and public money to get his projects off the ground.

The mayor admits the condominiums downtown are not moving as quickly as he and others had hoped. "We started pushing those high-end condos in 2003, before the recession," he says. "We've now subsidized some of those deals to promote workforce housing. The housing downturn has hit Columbus like everywhere else."

The mayor is standing inside the Lincoln Theatre. When the $14 million renovation is completed, he says, it will feature recording studios, dance studios and symphony space. "This neighborhood went from 68,000 [people] in the 1950s to 16,000 today," he is saying, walking fast through the theater and talking even faster. "I'm going to make this a foundation of the neighborhood to create jobs. I want it to be a premier arts venue in the nation. This is a stimulus plan we've been working on ourselves for five years. And we're gonna bring back its glory for everyone."

He sounds like the Music Man, traipsing around his River City.

"I think some of the mayor's building plans are for the long term," says Ewald, the labor analyst. "When the economy turns around, these things could be viewed as a smart move. Just like some people who are saying now is a good time to buy in the stock market."

The police cadets who had their jobs saved came in under Police Chief James Jackson, whose retirement becomes official in mid-March. He is something of a legend in town, for both good and ill. In 1993, he shot a man who broke into his home. "Broke into the wrong house," he says matter-of-factly. The intruder survived and was sent to prison.

Jackson joined the force in 1958, one of only a handful of black officers at the time. He rose up the ranks and became the city's first black police chief in 1990. "I wasn't no affirmative-action chief either," he says. "I scored highest on a series of tests that led to my promotions."

For decades, though, the department was plagued by allegations of abuse and racial profiling. Under pressure from the Justice Department, the city agreed in the '90s to a number of reforms, including changes in its hiring practices and sensitivity training for officers to prevent abuse.

Jackson hopes to get close to President Obama during his visit today. "I'd like to get a picture with him. I mean, I remember when a black police officer in this town couldn't sit down at some of the white restaurants and eat. Now we have a black president. It's truly something else."

William Scott, 35, is one of the cadets whose jobs were saved by the stimulus money.

The other day he was finishing up one of his last days of training. He still can hardly believe the reprieve. "I mean they passed out our layoff notices," he is saying, seated in the atrium of the police academy on the city's west side. He has a wife and two small children. "It was crushing. It was surreal. We had to turn in our badges and everything. We had gone through six months of pretty arduous training. We had a banquet planned. Then, boom, we're unemployed."

Out of work for most of February, he sent out some inquiries to other police departments. "You had to have a Plan B."

Then the cadets were summoned back to the academy. "We had no idea what for," he says. It was then that Mayor Coleman announced their jobs had been saved.

"I think their initial feeling was: 'Can we trust what you are saying?' " recalls Cmdr. Kim Jacobs, head of the training academy. "They had been through so much."

Scott heads to his car for his evening drive home. He'll make $41,000 a year. He was raised by a single mother in Akron. He appreciates having a job. "It's bittersweet in a way. I mean, we got our jobs back, but how many other people have lost theirs?"

Columbus has averaged two police training classes per year in recent years. But Coleman announced this week that there will be no training class for the rest of this year.

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