Columbus: Smart, Inclusive, and Full of Surprises

Author: Barbara Palmer       

The Short North Arts District in downtown Columbus is adjacent to the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

When I landed at John Glenn International Airport in Columbus for a press trip in September, it was rush hour. So I was disappointed but not surprised that when I punched the address for my hotel into the Uber app, I saw that I had a 17-minute wait for a car.

As it turns out, I misread the app — 17 minutes was the estimated total time to my destination. Twenty minutes later, I was checking in to the Hilton Downtown Columbus, across the street from the Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC). Such painless access from the airport to the city center is only one of the reasons why Columbus was ranked highest for visitor satisfaction in the Midwest in J.D. Power’s 2016 Destination Experience Satisfaction Study, which measured the overall satisfaction of business and leisure travelers. In the two days that I was there, I would encounter many more reasons.


I’d last traveled to Columbus in the fall of 2016, when I’d toured the GCCC as a $140-million renovation was underway. This time, I was back to see the finished center and catch up on some of the new developments in the city, in a visit hosted by Experience Columbus.

One such development rolled up the next morning to pick us up at the Hilton: an electric vehicle that’s one of a small fleet of “Hopper Carts,” a free ride-sharing service that launched May 1. Users download an app with which they can summon the cars for free rides in downtown Columbus and the Short North Arts District. Sponsors support the service, and drivers — ours was a Certified Tourism Ambassador — are volunteers (although they do accept tips).

Our car ferried us to Fox in the Snow, which is owned by an entrepreneurial couple who fled high Brooklyn rents for Columbus, where they established a coffee shop in what was a former commercial garage. I had been to Fox in the Snow before, but I was happy to be back — and in fact, the coffee, friendly atmosphere, and from-scratch pastries have the shop so popular that the couple will soon open a second location in the city’s German Village neighborhood.

Our next stop was Dock580, a collection of event venues housed in the 1929 Smith Bros. Hardware Building. Spaces such as The Loft and The Venue make the most of the building ’s original architectural features, including steel beams and exposed red brick. We put on hard hats to tour Dock580’s newest offering — Juniper, a sleek rooftop restaurant, gin bar, and event space that offers outstanding views of the Columbus skyline and overlooks the nearby GCCC.

Columbus North Market

We stopped for lunch at the North Market, which was established in 1876 and is the city’s last remaining public market. Featuring a riotously colorful mix of produce, flowers, people-watching, and bakery and restaurant offerings, the market also serves as an example of how Columbus, the third-fasting-growing city in the United States, is preserving its culture as it expands. Over lunch, the market’s executive director, Rick Harrison Wolfe, outlined Columbus’ plans to build a 35-story tower near the site, which will expand the market and add new event, residential, and commercial space.


From there, it was a two-block walk to the GCCC. My 2016 visit had introduced me to the scope of the expansion project, which added 137,000 square feet of new space and renovated 800,000 square feet of existing space, but now I was able to see how the parts of the 1.8 million-square-foot facility work together, as well as get a feel for how the surrounding city is reflected in the building.

Greater Columbus Convention Center

A notable feature is a new, two-story glass atrium on the northwest end of the building that opens the center up to the stylish Short North Arts District, which over the last decade has filled to the brim with restaurants, galleries, and retail shopping. The focal point is a 14-foot-tall interactive sculpture called As We Are. The 3D model of a human head projects photographs of visitors — taken in a photo booth embedded in the neck of the sculpture — via hundreds of thousands of LED lights. Conceived by artist and designer Michael Mohr, the sculpture is a technological tour de force, programmed to display visitor images in a way that illustrates their diversity.

The convention center’s As We Are, is an interactive sculpture that projects an ever-changing display of visitor selfies.

As We Are

As We Are says two true things about the city, according to Don Brown, executive director of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority. “We’re smart,” Brown said, “and we’re inclusive.” The sculpture is part of the GCCC’s collection of 200 original works of art by more than 125 artists who live in Columbus or have a connection to the city. “You know you are in Columbus when you are in this building,” said Brian Ross, president and CEO of Experience Columbus.

It was back to hardhats the next day, when we toured the National Veterans Memorial & Museum, which is under construction in downtown Columbus. When completed next year, the facility will be the first in the country to focus on the stories and service of all U.S. military veterans across all conflicts in the country’s history. In addition to permanent and rotating exhibits, the memorial will offer flexible lobby space, a multipurpose room, and an outdoor rooftop sanctuary for events.

[pullquote]… [given] Columbus the reputation as a hip, art-filled city where you also can relax and have a good time.[/pullquote]

Another stop on our itinerary was the Service Bar restaurant at Middle West Spirits in Short North. Middle West Spirits offers tours and tastings of its award-winning gin, whiskey, and vodka, made from red winter wheat that the craft distillery buys from local farmers. We took a leisurely tour, accompanied by numerous samples and followed by an eight-course dinner. Among the offerings were carrots — hay-smoked, roasted, pickled, and made into carrot jerky; a whole brisket roasted in banana leaves; and Mongolian short ribs with cucumber, scallion, and steamed milk bread. Dizzyingly imaginative, delicious, and served in a warm atmosphere, the dinner managed to distill all of the elements that have given Columbus the reputation as a hip, art-filled city where you also can relax and have a good time.

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