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.’”
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