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There’s a lot going on behind the white fences of New Albany. New Albany can tout adding 2,800 jobs – two-thirds of them new to the state – and its status as a magnet for corporate expansion, partly a result of quality of life, strong infrastructure and good schools.
The once-sleepy village that Limited Brands founder Leslie H. Wexner and the New Albany Co. transformed into a high-end, master-planned community has become a magnet for corporate expansion. The New Albany Business Park, which the village calls Ohio’s largest planned corporate campus, has lured companies of all stripes and a total of 2,800 jobs over the past two years, while many other communities have been losing jobs.
Success has been attributed to a number of strengths, including quality of life and strong basics such as roads and services. “The qualities that made people want to move here are now making people decide to move their businesses here,” said Jennifer Chrysler, director of community development for New Albany. “This is a pro-business community with a great quality of life.” New Albany – population 7,700, according to the 2010 census – was second only to Columbus in central Ohio in the number of jobs it attracted that were tied to projects approved for state incentives from January 2009 to March 2011, according to the Columbus Chamber. Columbus gained 3,682 jobs from such projects, compared with New Albany’s 1,063. Groveport and Pickaway County attracted about 500 each, followed by Dublin with 441.
New Albany’s latest catch was Bob Evans Farms’ headquarters. The company plans to take its 360 employees – and eventually add 150 – to a new 175,000-square-foot building in 2013. The move was slammed by Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman’s office, which had been working with the company to keep it in the city by offering incentives for it to move to the Polaris area. At least some of the business owners who’ve made the move to New Albany, though, say they made the best decision for their company based on all factors. Tammy Troilo-Krings, CEO of travel business TS24 (formerly Travel Solutions), was a New Albany resident before deciding to move her business there from Easton.
She said the newer, more-efficient space her business occupies in New Albany has resulted in an 8percent productivity boost and a greater pool of quality applicants who see New Albany as “an up-and-coming place to work.” “It’s one of the best things we could have done for our business. I talk New Albany up constantly to other people,” Troilo-Krings said. New Albany got a running start by landing companies with ties to developer and resident Wexner. The first major businesses to locate there a decade ago were spinoffs of Wexner’s Limited Brands: Abercrombie & Fitch and Tween Brands. “We’ve been fortunate to have a shared vision with the New Albany Co. that’s enabled us to have remarkable success at attracting businesses,” said Chrysler, who has held her post for six years.
Chrysler is quick to emphasize that the majority of jobs New Albany has gained since 2009 have been new to the state: 1,941 of the village’s 2,809 jobs attracted since 2009 fit that description. She ticks off the New Albany selling points that she says are important to companies: a strong infrastructure, thanks to deals with American Electric Power and Bluemile, a company whose service allows New Albany businesses to access a wide array of Internet service providers around the world; and general quality of life, including attractive surroundings, a lack of congestion and good schools.
Financial incentives get the most attention from the public. The village touts five kinds on its website. Chrysler defends their use as “creating a level playing field” because incentives are offered and expected by nearly everyone in the economic-development game these days. Since 2009, the village has approved $40million in incentives to businesses, mostly in the form of property-tax abatements granted over 15years.
“We ask businesses what swayed their decision to come here, and incentives are always further down on the list,” Chrysler said. Not everyone loves incentives, including Sam Staley, the Dayton-based director of urban and land-use policy for the conservative-leaning research group the Reason Foundation. He calls them “a zero-sum game” because they “take money out of the community in terms of taxes, and give it to companies whose impact may not justify it.” But Staley said New Albany’s success at business development makes it a rarity among planned communities, which typically have trouble evolving from suburban housing communities with very restrictive development codes.
“A lot of these (residential communities) have been struggling with how to make commercial development work,” Staley said. “They start out as high-end housing, and commercial tends to lag. They’re often so highly regulated that it’s difficult for business to find or build the space they want.”
Now a city thanks to its population growth, New Albany has changed a lot in the past decade, and not everyone has been on board with officials’ definition of progress. When Rt.161 was being expanded to accommodate the growing area in 2002, some residents criticized the decision to build an interchange at Beech Road. The New Albany Co. made a profit selling dozens of acres it owned in the area to the Ohio Department of Transportation for the project.
Longtime residents complained as their taxes shot up in the newly upscale burg, and some residents of two neighboring golf-course subdivisions last year complained about plans for the 112,000-square-foot Nationwide data center planned for Souder Road. One resident called the hulking, boxy structure “visual pollution.” Nationwide changed the design in response, heightening landscaping and lowering parking-lot lights, a Nationwide spokeswoman said.
Chrysler said the village government has worked hard to be accessible to residents, while also overhauling its business practices in the past three years to streamline the building process for developers. “We listened to their concerns, and we reviewed our process from top to bottom,” she said. “We get great feedback from developers now.” The evolution of New Albany into an upscale community with the cachet and amenities that can attract major business players to live and work there began in the 1980s, when Jack Kessler, chairman of the New Albany Co., started buying farmland in the area and began planning the development with Wexner. Now, New Albany is “reaping the benefit” of the vision they set out to create years ago for a community with the attractions of an Upper Arlington or a Bexley, without the downside of being landlocked.
While regional cooperation is the buzzword of economic-development groups in central Ohio and across the country, applying the concept is difficult, as evidenced by the decision Bob Evans made to relocate to New Albany. The big picture is most important, said Kenny McDonald, chief economic officer of the Columbus 2020 project launched largely by the Columbus Partnership last year. He said that what’s good for New Albany is ultimately good for Columbus and the surrounding area, and vice versa.
“Our focus is on growing the economic base, bringing money into the region,” McDonald said. “Companies have to procure all kinds of services from around the region. When somebody locates in Columbus or Grove City, there are a lot of people around the region who are going to grow based on that. “Employers typically don’t call us with a preference of a specific city. They want proximity to work forces, airports and other things. The places that are the most ready, that have done the most upfront work, tend to be places that will see the most activity.”
McDonald and Kessler say a plan that would allow suburbs to share income-tax revenue with the region is being discussed, but it’s not at an advanced stage. New Albany does have a revenue-sharing plan in place with the city of Columbus for the smaller Licking County part of its business park on which development has just begun.
Even so, competition between communities for jobs isn’t expected to end soon, and cities such as Columbus will have to continue to reinvent themselves to compete with New Albany-type communities, said Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow with the Washington-based Urban Land Institute. He said that master-planned communities have an edge over traditional cities and older suburbs in that “they actually have a plan. You have easy land assembly, good schools. A lot of cities are more haphazard.”
Older cities are seeing a surge in younger people wanting to live Downtown, he said, but those cities must lay a lot of the groundwork to attract businesses. “We need to make our cities the easiest place to invest,” McMahon said. “You have to start by investing upfront. Making a city clean, safe and efficient comes from good city management. You have to be serious about fighting crime. Then, you have to enhance the image of a community. Parks, for example, are an investment in yourself as a city. Why would anyone invest in your city if you won’t invest in yourself? One of the attractions in a city like New Albany is that wealthy people have invested their own money in it.”
Michael Marlowe, president of Bluemile, said his company is happy to be part of New Albany’s success. “They took a chance on us a couple of years ago, when we were very young,” Marlowe said. “They think like we do. People want to go where the action is. It’s a losing game to try to just be the cheapest. If you’re entrepreneurial and creative, you want to be in a place where you have the chance for serendipity. And that’s what we have by being there.”
BY MARLA MATZER ROSE