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The Interview Issue: Columbus Partnership President/CEO Alex Fischer

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Alex Fischer looks towards the future of Columbus.

Alex Fischer is the most connected person in Columbus you’re unlikely to have heard of. Unless, that is, you dig beyond headlines and comb through the fine print of nearly any article discussing Columbus’ economic future, its business community, or even the recent campaign to keep the Columbus Crew in Ohio’s capital city.

To the engaged eye, Fischer—President and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, an organization of 75 CEOs in Central Ohio—is everywhere, a ubiquitous presence at the intersection of city and state politics, economic development, and civic life. For the Tennessee-born-and- raised Fischer—whose versatile career includes stints in city planning, business, public policy, and the nonprofit sector— leadership means possessing the skill set to anticipate what is necessary for success, prompt action from others, or if needed, deliver it himself.

Such versatility and incisiveness is perhaps the trademark quality of an urban planner, and it’s no surprise that Fischer sought this interdisciplinary training from a young age.

Fischer came to appreciate the urban planning space as a high school student in Hendersonville, Tennessee, leading his peers in an effort to prevent the demolition of Hazel Path, an old Antebellum home in town. Through that fight, Fischer quickly learned the power of public protest and collective action.

“One individual didn’t change that development, but I think I participated in the dialogue that went from tearing down [Hazel Path] to preserving it and allowing development to occur,” he said. “In my hometown it’s still held up as a really good example of quality development that also had a historic preservation bent to it. And I can point to that and say, ‘Hey, I think I made a little bit of a difference.’”

Photos: Brian Kaiser

After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Fischer spent his early career involved in a variety of business and charitable endeavors in Knoxville. The principals with whom he came into contact in those years shaped his understanding of cross-sector leadership.

“Tennessee has a tradition of public servants coming out of the business world, so I saw a lot of examples of business leaders interrupting their careers for public service,” Fischer explains. “At a young age, I got to know multi- billionaires on the community side of their passions, not the business side, and so those all influenced me to realize that now in this organization of 75 CEOs, that there’s a real opportunity for business leaders to use the strength of their businesses and their leadership for the betterment of their community.”

After several years in private industry, Fischer transitioned into the public sector, serving as the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development before rising to the role of Deputy Governor and Chief of Staff to Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist in the early 2000s.

It was, perhaps, a bit of a surprise that the man with deep Tennessee roots, business connections, and a role at the pinnacle of local policymaking would transition to a similar position in Ohio. But that’s exactly what happened in 2002, when Fischer moved to Columbus to begin a position as the Senior Vice President for Business and Economic Development at Battelle, the Columbus-based scientific research and development firm.

Fischer acknowledges the transition to Ohio was a little odd—“because I was so deeply rooted in the ideals of what we’re doing in Columbus in a different state and different cities.”

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He soon found his way to the epicenter of Columbus’ civic and business life—he now serves as a Trustee of The Ohio State University, and the Chairman of Nationwide Children’s Hospital—and developed an appreciation for the city’s unique professional culture.

“In the process [of moving], I found things in Columbus that I realized I had never experienced before. I’d never experienced the level of collaboration. The level of tolerance and acceptance in this city is pretty phenomenal in contrast to some other places that I’ve lived,” Fischer explains. “What’s so motivating [about working in Columbus] is this being such a perfect place to do the work. By that I mean this culture: the scale of the city, the collaborative nature, the Midwestern values, the fact that we have four seasons. All the ingredients exist here.”

At the helm of the Partnership, Fischer has vast capacity and bandwidth to influence the Columbus economy in the near-term while rallying leaders across multiple sectors behind an aspirational vision for the future. Columbus 2020, the city’s economic development plan for this decade, launched roughly 10 years ago and allowed Fischer a vehicle with which to implement his vision. He decided early on that the project would shoot for the moon.

”[Columbus 2020] was a very ambitious set of goals. All the analysis said we couldn’t meet the goals but it’s like, “OK, so what? Let’s go for it,” Fischer laughs. “And if we happen to miss the goals but in the process do some really great things, I don’t think anybody will complain. Well, we surpassed all the goals and it’s really interesting to have been accountable for it from the start until now.”

In addition to the obvious economic development successes in Columbus—the ongoing redevelopment of Downtown, recruitment of healthy corporations, and expansion across the 11-county Central Ohio metropolitan area— the region has benefitted from unexpected windfalls, such as the economic growth driven by data centers for big tech companies such as Amazon and Facebook. Fischer attributes Columbus’ successful branding efforts and continued growth to multiple factors, most specifically a uniquely collaborative culture among Partnership members and public officials, and an explicit focus on the recruitment of civic- minded companies and workers.

“I think it’s all about culture. I was not thinking this way 10 or 20 years ago. I think the future of the Partnership, the future of Columbus, is you keep preserving and teaching culture. That doesn’t mean that it has to be done exactly the same way— inevitably, it won’t because things are changing so fast. One of our cultural aspects that I’m proud of is that we’re comfortable in that very fast-changing environment […] Continuing to evolve that culture by not just taking it for granted is really important. I think it could slip away if it’s not being cultivated.”

Columbus also stands out nationally in what Fischer calls “the talent war” as the home to approximately 150,000 college students, many of whom will be relied upon to remain in Central Ohio and continue the city’s economic momentum.

“The fierce competition for workforce is where we’re going to be leading the country […] There’s less of a hierarchy in Columbus for people who want to get involved and make an impact.”

To be sure, Columbus’ traditional selling points remain part of the equation as the Partnership sells Central Ohio to potential clients.

“It still really does matter that we’re in the center of the U.S. population, we’re a day’s drive from anywhere, a great quality of life, a great cost of living. We’re not congested, despite challenges with the commute. All of that adds up. Increasingly, though, it’s about talent. Companies are moving where they can get the talent. And Columbus is a city that is recruiting the talent.”

The rebrand of Columbus’ economic development organization from Columbus 2020 to One Columbus coincides with the birth of a much greater ambition, of a future in which Columbus will be able to stand alone as a city, when the suffix ‘Ohio’ will be redundant and obsolete. Fischer is well aware that sustained growth will require more of the discipline and urgency that permitted success this decade.

Specifically, he stresses the importance the Partnership places on regional master planning throughout Central Ohio, coupled with what he calls “a relentless drive to the growth agenda.”

“No one should assume we’re going to continue to grow. That was the attitude 20 years ago. The last 10-15 years we have consciously built an infrastructure—of Columbus 2020, now One Columbus—of enabling that growth. There’s a science to it and we can never forget that,” he said.

“Our role is to make sure that we are continuing to grow, at the same time, can we do the best possible job of anywhere in the country at ensuring that the rising tide raises every single boat in a harbor? And can we defy the national trend of a growing economic divide?”

Learn more about the Columbus Partnership at columbuspartnership.com

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Arts & Culture

Summer Camp Soap Opera

J.R. McMillan

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Young screenwriters shocked by surprise casting at Thurber House

Summer camp is a rite of passage wrapped in revelry, rivalry, and romance — all the makings of a must-see soap opera. But when Thurber House (humorist James Thurber’s former home turned local literary center) rushed to push their summer camps online this year, they feared some of that creative connectivity might be lost among aspiring young writers.

Hoping for a hook, camp counselors Justin Martin and Frankie Diederich decided to challenge campers with a genre they’d never tackled before: writing an original soap opera. Entirely on a whim, Martin took to Twitter to see if anyone happened to have a connection to the industry.


“I genuinely didn’t expect it to go anywhere, I didn’t even tag anyone. But an hour later I had half the cast of Days of Our Lives,” recalled Martin, whose disbelief still lingers. It was a plot twist even campers didn’t see coming. “California’s stay-home order was so uncertain, we never knew when everyone might go back to work. Even when we told writers and their parents the night before the performances, some of them didn’t believe us.

Though daytime television isn’t an obvious obsession for middle school students, nearly every novel of young adult fiction is essentially a soap opera. And Days of Our Lives is set in the fictional Midwest city of Salem — folksy yet sophisticated, and never short on scandal, not unlike Columbus, Ohio. It’s a short stretch that only seems non sequitur.

“Everyone started with a blank page, but by the end of the week, Frankie and I had helped them create a complete screenplay. But the cast was still a shock,” Martin explained. “Kids admire anyone who has made a career out of doing something they love, and these actors and actresses were so enthusiastic, flexible, and generous. They were every bit as into it as the campers.”

It was actress Martha Madison who happened to see a retweet of Martin’s request and matter-of-factly replied, “Can I bring some friends?” She soon roped in more than a dozen of her costars, all equally eager to give a bunch of adolescent screenwriters the performance they deserved despite a pandemic.

“I’m a big believer in fate. It was an easy ask, everyone said yes,” revealed Madison, better known to many as Belle Black. Her character’s parents John and Marlena have been synonymous with Days of Our Lives for decades. “There was so much character development, and they all had love and murder in the plot. They were real soap operas.”


Like many nonprofits struggling to adapt, the shift to online programming has actually expanded the reach of Thurber House. Much like parents working remotely, kids from across Ohio, and from New York to California, also received insightful lessons in craft and collaboration from screenwriter Amanda Beall, whose credits include The Young and the Restless, All My Children, and General Hospital.

“If you’re a creative person, none of that goes away just because you’re stuck at home. You can still share your experience with anyone anywhere,” Madison noted. “I was very impressed with the writing. I’d love to work again with any one of these kids someday.”

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For more on Thurber House and upcoming events and programs, visit thurberhouse.org

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Music

(614) Music Club: Joey Aich

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Photo by Zak Kolesar.

Every week, (614) Music Club teams up with your favorite local artists to build a playlist consisting of songs that have inspired their sound, tracks they’re currently jamming out to, guilty pleasures, and favorite Columbus musicians. They also stop by to answer a few burning questions and plug any upcoming performances or releases.

This week’s playlist is brought to you by hip-hop artist Joey Aich. Originally from Woodmere, Ohio, Aich has called Columbus home since 2017. Since then, Aich has observed a city going through growing pains. His thoughts are present in his original work and even more poignant in his June 2020 release, Open Treehouse. The retro, introspective nature of the album shines through on his playlist selection and through his answers, both of which you can find below.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0HAmWoTgLUo3hhsGh8QKjj?si=CZoCOG1STyi3_qSefVLKJA

Can you talk a little bit about some of the songs you selected for your playlist and how they may have shaped your music career?

The way I crafted the playlist is into three sections: current, Columbus, and classics. 

The current section (consists of) songs that describe the rollercoaster of emotions I have dealt with amidst the heinous murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery due to police brutality and racism. One moment I’m crying in bed listening to Marvin Gaye hoping the violence stops, and the next moment I’m full of rage, and proud, scrolling through social media and seeing peaceful protests along with protests that include people burning cars and looting stores to make sure their voices are heard. Music has helped me during this time and these songs reflect where my head has been. 

The Columbus section includes songs from the Columbus-based artists that are featured on my upcoming album, Open Treehouse. Outside of them being featured on the album, they are incredible friends and amazing talents who push me to be better. Dom Deshawn, Trek Manifest, and Sarob are my “carried by 6 brothers,” and I’m glad we were able to make more music together. 

Classics! These are a few songs that will forever be in rotation for me. Believe it or not, I wrote a book for a class assignment in elementary school, and the title was “Living my Life Like it’s Golden,” because I loved (“Golden” by Jill Scott) when I was a kid. I have a personal attachment to these songs and each artist has had an impact on my genre choice, rapping style, and approach to music. 

During the past few months, how have you been able to stay creatively busy? Did you pick up any new skills or hobbies?

It’s been tough but I’ve enjoyed it. Since I’m in the middle of an album rollout I’ve had to scrap a lot of plans and figure out new ways to make it happen. I told myself I don’t want to come out of quarantine without testing my creative abilities or learning a new skill. Quarantining has stopped a lot of my writing process because I write off of experiences, and being in the house with roommates isn’t that exciting, to be honest. But I’ve found other ways to fuel and channel my creativity. 

I’ve been sipping wine and painting as a way to free my mind and put thoughts to canvas. I was inspired by my friend and Columbus legend, Hakim Callwood, to start painting a while ago, and I challenged myself to take this time to get better and keep myself at peace because I find it to be very therapeutic. 

With a lot of my plans, including music videos, being axed, I’ve been filming music videos on my phone and editing them in iMovie. The process is hard and a bit of a headache, but I’m proud of what I made and my progress with it. I’m glad I stuck with it because now when I work with a videographer I can bring some new ideas to the table. 

Overall, I think I’ve been having a good time with my creative process. I love the challenge of having to work with the situations at hand and make the best of it. 

What do you think separates the Columbus music scene from major industry hot spots like New York and Nashville?

Definitely not the talent. I believe the talent is here, but the infrastructure isn’t as solid as the other big cities. Oftentimes artists here in Columbus and even Ohio as a whole have to go somewhere else and get some type of name recognition before being accepted here in Ohio. I also don’t think that’s technically a bad thing as long as Ohio gets its respect as a place that breeds talent. 

How do you think the Columbus hip-hop scene can carry the momentum it had going into 2020 and turn a positive spin on the latter half of this year?

Continuing to do what we have been doing, but amplified and more polished. Again, I believe the talent is here, but we just have to take the next steps...I subscribe to the “trial and error” method of attempting to do things and learning how to do it better the next time.

To turn a positive spin on the latter half of the year, I think we should continue to be creative and adapt to the new normal because we don’t know how long quarantining will last and what normal looks like after. Maybe we don’t have shows until mid-2021, (so) let’s figure out how to still be effective whether it be live streams or create a novel way to bring the experience to the audience. I like where Columbus hip-hop is headed. I think we have a good group of artists that are right there and at any moment lives can be changed. 

Aich’s latest album, the June 18 release Open Treehouse, is available to listen to on all streaming platforms and available to purchase on Bandcamp here.

Here is where you can find Aich on the Internet:

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Arts & Culture

Rare flower ready to stink up 2020 at the Franklin Park Conservatory

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Photo provided by Franklin Park Conservatory.

“Some people wait a lifetime to see this,” said Bruce Harkey, president and CEO of Franklin Park Conservatory. 

What someone will wait a lifetime to see (or smell) varies from person to person. If watching a massive flower bloom and let out a wretched odor is your thing, you better keep a close eye on the Conservatory.

According to a press release sent out Wednesday, the endangered Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) will flower in the next week for the first time in the Conservatory’s history. The flower can grow to 10 feet tall and emits a strong odor, resembling rotting flesh. While the “corpse flower” only blooms for a few days, those who go to the FPC to visit it will not soon forget it.

And while it may seem that 2020 could not get any weirder with its masks and murder hornets,  this particular brand of weird is actually kind of cool—and it’s in our own backyard.

Check out the FPC social channels, where you can view the bloom live, or head to the Conservatory to smell it in person, though the required mask may prevent a full whiff of the dreadful stench. But if you dare, you can buy your timed tickets online here.

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