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How a Grassroots Effort in Columbus, OH is using Civic Innovation to Strength Local Economy

Written by Amanda Maher

Ohio native Reese Neader had traveled the world, from Washington D.C. to Egypt’s Tahrir Square. However, he eventually made his way back and settled in Columbus, a city he felt was loaded with potential but needed a spark to drastically shake things up. So in May 2013 Neader founded Forge Columbus, a social and civic innovation hub for local entrepreneurs.

But unlike other innovation hubs, Forge Columbus is centered more on its programmatic activities than on its physical space. In fact, Forge Columbus has been dubbed “the civic innovation program of the city of Columbus” – with no mention of physical location at all. It’s not solely a business incubator or coworking space (though, those are also components), rather instead, Forge Columbus broadly leverages civic innovation as a catalyst to strengthen Columbus into a vibrant, competitive 21st century city.

The grassroots effort harnesses the potential of local entrepreneurs and civic leaders who are dedicated to giving back and improving Columbus’s inner city. “We’re trying to aggregate as much citizen potential as possible,” explains Neader. Each year, Forge Columbus provides volunteer support for select projects that improve the city’s developing neighborhoods. So far, those projects have included:

  • Forge Ahead, a comprehensive transit plan for Central Ohio that was developed in conjunction with Ohio State University. Forge Columbus helped to solicit ideas from local residents about things like traffic calming, lighted crosswalks and light rail. The organization also helped to develop ideas about how to integrate the city’s transportation and tech industries, recognizing there needs to be continued investment in (and the expansion of) existing infrastructure while preparing for the rise of and growth of autonomous vehicles. “Columbus can be a leader in transportation and technology, but this can only work if city leaders combine this project with traditional investment in mass transit,” Neader says.
  • Forgeworks, a nearly 4,000 square foot coworking space that opened in early 2015. Forgeworks is housed in 400 West Rich, a 100,000 square foot building that is already home to a food truck hub, bi-weekly farmers’ market, 100+ artists’ studios, a private event space and a popular restaurant. “This is where you can build a better Columbus,” says Neader, in reference to offering a new space that compliments the nearby Idea Foundry accelerator and Glass Axis art center. “This is the beginning of a world-class innovation district.”

In keeping with the theme of civic innovation, the space was designed to attract and promote comingling of businesses, nonprofits and government officials alike. To achieve that goal, Forgeworks initially required every member to donate a certain number of hours per month towards participating in Forge projects or helping another member with a project. Forge Columbus was originally slated to manage the coworking space, but eventually made the decision to step down as operator. The “Forgeworks” name has since been scrapped in favor of 400 West Rich, although Neader still maintains an office at the space for Forge Columbus, and is actively engaged in providing “skill share” and networking opportunities for member companies.

  • Kiva Zip, a division of the international microlending organization Kiva. Kiva Zip uses a trustee-based system for prescreening loan applicants, and Forge Columbus has stepped up to be the first Columbus trustee. The innovative Kiva Zip program uses mobile and electronic payment technology to enable direct, zero percent interest loans to financially excluded and socially impactful entrepreneurs. The loans (which range in size but average $5,000) are crowdfunded on Kiva Zip’s website, where people from around the world can lend as little as five dollars to a borrower of his or her choice. As trustee, Forge Columbus seeks out and vets local entrepreneurs in need of funding, helps them put together a compelling application, endorses that application, and provides business advice, mentoring and other technical assistance to ensure the company is able to successfully repay its loan and continue building their business.

Forge Columbus also spearheaded the effort to have Columbus designated as a “Kiva City,” which brings together a broader base of community groups, financial institutions and Kiva Trustees (like Forge Columbus) to create meaningful connections between local and global investors and Columbus-area entrepreneurs. In July 2016, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther and Kiva officially announced Kiva Columbus. “This initiative is a virtuous circle of opportunity for Columbus where the return on investment is measured more by character than credit scores,” said Mayor Ginther. “We’re giving residents a critical way to directly support the small businesses that are the backbone and creative engine of our local economy, and in turn Columbus entrepreneurs get access to the capital that they need to grow.”

At first glance, these efforts might seem disconnected. After all, what do micro-loans have to do with transportation planning? But at the end of the day, the projects undertaken by the Forge Columbus network are in full alignment with the organization’s three overarching themes: a commitment to Buying Local (to create jobs), Giving Back (to improve local neighborhoods) and Investing Locally (to put unemployed residents back to work).

There’s no doubt that Forge Columbus’s early efforts are already making tremendous strides to those ends.

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