How Refugees and Immigrants Economically Revitalized the Northland Area of Columbus, Ohio
The Northland area of Columbus, Ohio is composed of about 25 individual neighborhoods bounded by Cleveland Avenue, Karl Road, Busch Boulevard, Dublin-Granville Road and Morse Road. For a long time now the area has been known as an economically struggling area. That perception, as well as the reality behind it, has started to change in recent years as Columbus’s immigrant entrepreneurs revitalize the area.
Times Past: The Decline and Fall of the Northland Area
The Northland area was a boomtown in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s — the 25 square mile zone was a popular shopping and dining destination. Its centerpiece, the Northland Mall on Morse Road, was a popular open-air shopping center in the 1960s that became a mall in 1975 when the entire area was enclosed. Northland remained popular until the late 1990s when catastrophe struck in the form of a one-two-three combination that floored the Northland Mall. The first blow was the opening of The Mall at Turtle Crossing in 1997. The second blow was the opening of the Easton Town Center in 1999. The death blow was the opening of Polaris Fashion Place in 2001.
The Mall Falls
With shoppers heading elsewhere, Lazarus, Sears, and JCPenney all abandoned the Northland Mall. When it finally closed in 2002, it took almost the entire Northland economy with it. Northland became a place to avoid — a ghost town of high crime and boarded-up storefronts. Only a few small businesses dared to remain in the area, a disproportionate percentage of which were immigrant- or refugee-owned. Click here to see the roller-coaster history of the Northland Mall in photographs.
The City Steps In — and Out
Afraid that the area would soon become a dystopian no-man’s land where even the police feared to tread, the City of Columbus tried to help. Grants were distributed, tax incentives were instituted, and special commissions were created. None of this assistance made any decisive difference. Nevertheless, Northland’s economy continued to sputter along, due mainly to the efforts of immigrant entrepreneurs.
Even as the Northland Mall was closing, immigrants and refugees were opening up small shops and restaurants along Morse Road. A group of Somali refugees opened up the Global Mall only 5 blocks away from the old mall site. It was these developments that provided the Northland area with its economic lifeline during its darkest days. Over the past few years, however, Northland’s recovery has been picking up steam.
The Contribution of the Local Refugee Community
A lot of Northland’s growing economic vitality can be attributed to the entrepreneurial energy provided by the local refugee community. The Columbus refugee community is large and diverse, with thousands of Somalians sharing the city with the nation’s largest group of Bhutanese-Nepali refugees. Many shop owners have spent years in refugee camps overseas, where they opened in-camp shops and built strong business skills.
If you want to witness the local source of this economic energy, visit the Jubba Value Center Mall, for example, where numerous Somali entrepreneurs have opened up thriving shops. Keep in mind that almost all of the new prosperity that you will see in Northland these days was built by independent-minded refugees, who relied on their own skills rather than on government aid.
Enter “Elevate Northland”
By 2018, the rest of Columbus was taking notice of Northland’s immigrant-driven economic miracle, and outside help started coming in again Elevate Northland, a community development corporation, was formed that year to open doors to public and private funding. Traditionally, community development corporations have been used to solve housing problems. Elevate Northland, however, is dedicated to developing small businesses and sparking tourism.
The vision of Elevate Northland, as well as of many of the immigrant entrepreneurs that power the area’s economy, is to help turn Northland into an international district so that ethnic restaurants and shops located there will draw tourists (and money) from elsewhere in Cleveland as well as out of town.
The Results — So Far
The statistics are unequivocal — citywide, immigrant entrepreneurship rose by 41.5 percent between 2007 and 2012 alone, just as the Northland revival was picking up steam. By contrast, native-born entrepreneurship declined by about 1.2 percent during the same period. Since then, immigrant entrepreneurship continues to greatly outpace native-born entrepreneurship.
Meanwhile, the refugee community alone (not including other immigrants) has opened over 900 businesses in Columbus, which businesses collectively employ over 20,000 people. Who would have thought that business skills homed in the harsh refugee camps of Bhutan and Nepal would redound to the economic and cultural benefit of the people of Columbus, Ohio? Although only time will tell how far the miracle will go, the reasons for optimism are piling up.