DOWNTOWN’S NORTHERN RENAISSANCE
February 13, 2020
When the home of the Columbus Blue Jackets first went up, the real estate arm of Fortune 100 giant Nationwide Insurance initially considered the surrounding 75-acre mixed-use development an amenity for its 10,000 Columbus employees. But it has become much more than that.
“From day one, all of our activities have been market-driven,” Nationwide Realty President and COO Brian Ellis said.
“The companies that have come, like Chipotle, have been a big and creative addition to that, and now we have the opportunity to brand this area and continue to react to hose opportunities.”
Ellis said the master plan for the Arena District arrived at the same time as interest in new urbanism and mixed-use projects grew, giving the company a chance to paint with broad brush strokes.
Today Business First is calling the Arena District a Billion-Dollar Belt. A transformative powerhouse that’s driving $1 billion in new investment – and that’s on top of the $1.2 billion already invested in Columbus since Nationwide broke ground in 1998. The Arena District has become an economic engine generating $68 million in annual taxes.
Brian Ellis gave the keynote address at the 2020 Columbus Business First Power Breakfast held on Wednesday, February 12. Below are some excerpts from his remarks.
So, how did it happen? You make think it all started with Nationwide Arena. But it did not. This remarkable investment in Columbus’ urban core started in the ‘70s.
At the time, major companies were moving to the suburbs. Most of the big names you know followed the trend. Nationwide faced the same decision. But then-CEO Dean Jeffers decided to put a stake in downtown. He vowed to keep our headquarters here and invest in Columbus. We broke ground on One Nationwide Plaza in 1974, surrounded by barren surface parking lots and the fully operational Ohio Penitentiary.
It was a pioneering event for Nationwide to build its headquarters where it stands today.
Well into the ‘90s, Columbus was still the largest city in the nation without a downtown arena and a major league sports franchise. Cities across the country were committing public funds to build stadiums and arenas for existing teams or expansion franchises. The Nationwide Hockey League was growing fast in the ‘90s. Having an NHL franchise play the New York Rangers or LA Kings or the Chicago Blackhawks on the national state would help establish Columbus as a major league city.
Dimon McFerson, then CEO of Nationwide, along with Mayor Greg Lashutka, John F. Wolfe and other community leaders came together to see if we could construct a privately financed arena to retain the opportunity to bring the NHL here. Nationwide and city leaders recognized that this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity. If we didn’t get it now, the opportunity would pass us by. Nationwide quickly stepped up to privately finance the arena, in partnership with the Wolfe family.
Nationwide Realty Investors became the developer of the new arena and the Arena district. On June 2, 1997, we presented our plans to City Council and the mayor, and received full support. Then the NHL awarded Columbus a franchise to begin play in the fall of 2000.
I’m proud to say the Arena District has been a model for other cities. Over the years, leaders from Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Sacramento, Detroit, even Edmonton have come to Columbus to learn from what we’ve done and try to create similar economic results in their cities. But there’s no magic formula to give them. What we’ve done here is special. It’s unique to Columbus.