COLUMBUS — Columbus clearly and maybe finally has escaped the shadow created by “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

The 2018 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, released last month, make clear that Ohio’s capital is much more than a city connected to Ohio State’s football Buckeyes, a reputation civic boosters have spent decades trying to shed.

With 892,533 residents, Columbus is the nation’s 14th most populous city. Among the 15 cities with the largest population increases from 2017 to 2018, only Columbus, with a gain of 10,770, is located outside the South or West.

There’s another reason, however, that Columbus now can really consider itself big league. The Columbus Blue Jackets of the National Hockey League, after stumbling along for 17 seasons, finally won a Stanley Cup playoff series.

More later on the CBJ, as the team is affectionately known.

The census estimates leave no doubt that Columbus is the “Big C” among Ohio’s “three Cs” — Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland. Even if Cleveland (383,793) and Cincinnati (302,605) combined their populations, they’d reach just 686,398. Add Akron’s 198,006 residents to get 884,404, and Columbus still has more people.

Some analysts like to consider Columbus a shining jewel in the “Rust Belt.” Most Ohioans know that only geography makes Columbus part of the “Rust Belt.”

While rubber shops closed in Akron and steel and auto plants shut down in other Ohio cities, Columbus never had to worry about Ohio State University or state government, the economic anchors, closing up and moving South or overseas.

But Columbus didn’t rest on its laurels.

In 1981, the Beacon Journal assigned me to survey what was going on in Ohio’s major cities. The decline of manufacturing jobs already was hurting most places. Columbus was the exception.

The Columbus power structure never had been controlled by manufacturing barons. Commercial enterprises, Ohio State and state government provided slow but steady growth.

Add to that M.E. “Jack” Sensenbrenner who became mayor in 1953. Sensenbrenner, who wore an illuminated American-flag bow tie, made sure Columbus had room to grow.

When Sensenbrenner entered City Hall other Ohio cities were becoming hemmed in by suburbs. Columbus, however, was surrounded by wide-open spaces. Sensenbrenner adopted a strict policy regarding unincorporated areas.

They could have Columbus water and sewer services only if they annexed to the city. This provided lots of room for more people and businesses and generated additional tax dollars.

Along the way, local government and business leaders have worked hard to make the city more entrepreneurial and inviting to innovators who might otherwise head for Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Phoenix or other Sun Belt outposts.

One ingredient was the addition of the Blue Jackets, who played their first season in 2000-2001. Columbus finally had a major league team in one of the big four professional sports — baseball, football, hockey and basketball.

No longer did the city have to take a backseat to Cleveland, with the Indians, Browns and Cavaliers, and Cincinnati, with the Reds and Bengals.

The love affair with the Jackets was blind. When big league teams in Cleveland and Cincinnati excel, fans and sportswriters take note. When they stink, the fans and writers catch on.

One of my favorite leads in a sports story was penned by the late Tom Melody, a Beacon Journal sports editor covering the Browns during one of their down seasons.

“It was Halloween and the Browns came to the stadium dressed as football players” (or something close to that), Melody wrote.

Melody would have been chased out of Columbus on a hockey stick.

The Jackets didn’t make the playoffs until 2008-2009 and got there just three more times before this season. The fans never lost faith. One season when the Jackets played better than usual a headline (as I remember it) captured the local angst: “Jackets Must Guard Against Overconfidence.”

Finally, this season the Jackets gave the city something to cheer for. They made the playoffs and in the first round swept the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team with the NHL’s best regular season record, in four games.

The Jackets then lost 4-2 to the Boston Bruins in the next round, but there’s always next year.

 

Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He can be reached at hershey_william@hotmail.com.