Hello and Happy Holidays to all of our friends and neighbors in Franklin County. It’s hard to believe that 2023 is coming to a close but we are so excited for everything that we expect to see in our community next year!
2023 has been a year of growth and change in Central Ohio, and our community is expected to continue to grow, with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission forecasting that we will add hundreds of thousands of additional residents in the coming few decades. All of that growth, however, is bound to stress the systems that our residents rely on, such as Housing, Education, Transportation, and Healthcare. That’s why we’re working with our community partners to help shore-up those systems and plan for our county’s future, including with more than $60 million of investments in new affordable housing and support to struggling renters, Health Equity Grants to reduce disparities in health access and outcomes, and the Columbus & Franklin County Local Food Action Plan, which strengthens our food production and distribution system to support both local producers and consumers.
We’re proud to be a part of the leadership of a community that is thriving, but we know that we won’t really have been successful until all of our residents have the opportunity to share in that success. In August of this year, we convened a symposium on the nationwide maternal mortality crisis that has seen maternal death rates skyrocket by nearly 60%, and we have regularly made grants to the community partner agencies that are serving our struggling neighbors, including those serving the most-in-need like the Mid-Ohio Food Collective and the YWCA Family Shelter.
In addition to supporting our residents today and planning for the future of Franklin County, we’re especially proud of the many innovative ways that we are working to make this community into a great place to raise a family or grow a business. This fall, we were proud to host the Senior Advisor to the President, Tom Perez, and a team from the Whitehouse to tour a worksite and learn more about our first-of-its-kind Building Futures program that helps low-income residents make their way into middle class jobs in the skilled building trades. In the spring, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of Café Overlook, the new courthouse restaurant that hires social services clients and justice-involved residents and trains them for a career in the hospitality industry. And we also invested in a new urban farm concept with NBC4 and the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, allocated more than $4 million for the arts, and passed a progressive, forward-looking budget with even more investments for the future.
There’s so much to be excited for in Franklin County, and so many things to be proud of. Please read our annual State of the County Report to learn more, and keep up with everything we’re doing on social media and by signing up for our news releases here. We look forward to seeing and hearing from you and your neighbors in 2023, and wish you a happy holidays and a healthy new year!
In March of 2022, the commissioners announced a new pilot program to help make vital childcare more affordable for Franklin County families and to support the childcare centers and the wonderful teachers that those families rely on, and this year, they’ve added an additional $11.5 million to fund the second year of the program.
Many of the childcare centers that closed during the pandemic have never reopened, and high-quality childcare can already cost more than college in Central Ohio. To make matters worse, parents who earn as little as $25,000 per year may not qualify for state childcare assistance because of what’s known as the “benefits cliff”, and childcare is also a workforce issue, as working parents and their employers rely on families having quality childcare while they’re at work.
To help address these needs and support Franklin County families, RISE Franklin County provides affordability scholarships for families, incentive awards for childcare providers, and financial aid for early learning educators. Even with recent moves to modestly expand eligibility for childcare subsidies, Ohio remains among the bottom-five states in childcare supports, so this year’s RISE investment will provide at least 600 scholarships for families caught up by the “benefits cliff”. Providers can receive incentive payments for increasing their Step Up To Quality star rating, adding more low-income students to their rosters, or offering care during non-traditional hours, and the chronically underpaid early learning teachers can qualify for rental assistance.
The commissioners recognize how vital it is that young people are adequately prepared to start kindergarten and also that all Franklin County families deserve high-quality childcare regardless of their income. RISE Franklin County is helping to ensure that Franklin County’s kids get off to a great start in life, and that families have the resources they need to thrive.
This year, the commissioners appropriated $4.25 million in funding to the Greater Columbus Arts Council, including $250,000 to support the Public Art Master Plan project, which will produce a public arts plan for Central Ohio in order to ensure that there is more art on display for all of our residents. The other $4 million will be used to provide grant funding to non-profit arts organizations and individual artists, and to advance the culture of our region through collaboration with artists and arts organizations that educate and engage all audiences in our community. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, which produces the free Columbus Arts Festival each summer and provides grants, residencies, fellowships, workshops, and a host of other resources for organizations and artists in Central Ohio. To learn more about public art in Central Ohio, the Columbus Arts Festival, or about artist grants, visit GCAC.org.
As part of their overarching affordable housing strategy, the commissioners approved a contract this year with Nationwide Children’s Hospital worth $15.5 million to support the creation of more than 200 new units of affordable housing in the Linden neighborhood. In addition to the new affordable housing units, the commissioners’ funding will also be used to provide repairs for existing lower-income family homes, and to support a $192,000 renter support program that can provide emergency short-term funding for struggling renters. It will also support child development and early learning programing in the Linden neighborhood to ensure on-time enrollment for students entering kindergarten.
The Nationwide Children’s Hospital Healthy Homes program is a partnership that includes Community Development For All People and the Franklin County Land Bank (Central Ohio Community Improvement Corporation), which has provided repairs, renovations, and new homes at more than 730 sites across Franklin County since 2008. The new homes and rental units that the partnership builds are constructed on Land Bank land, which ensures that they will remain affordable in the years to come. For more information, visit HealthyHomesColumbus.org.
In case you missed it, here’s a reprint of our interview with Sangeeta Lakhani from this summer.
Having just celebrated its one-year anniversary, Café Overlook, the county’s newest workforce development program, both feeds the courthouse and nourishes the community. Café Overlook serves as an apprenticeship program for social services clients and residents returning from incarceration in order to provide them with training and experience for good jobs in the hospitality industry. It also provides a new pipeline of experienced workers for an industry that has struggled to find them in recent years.
The commissioners came up with the concept of Café Overlook as their employees returned to in-person work at the courthouse, and it’s operated by three successful local restauranteurs who built the concept from the ground up. One of those entrepreneurs is Sangeeta Lakhani who, while not technically a county employee, works in the courthouse four days per week making sure that our team is fed and that her team is getting the training and support they need to move on to great careers.
Thanks for doing this. Tell us a little about yourself and your background. Where are you from and how did you get here?
I’m a 30-veteran of the Columbus restaurant scene, having come here from India originally to attend school at CCAD, the Columbus College of Art and Design. Once I figured out that cooking, and not photography, was my art, I moved into the restaurant business for good. I’ve tried to move other places a few times since then, but it never took. Columbus is my place.
So, you were in the restaurant business for quite a while and then co-founded Service! Tell us a little about Service!
Service! started with COVID. Letha Pugh (another co-founder of Café Overlook) and I collectively had to lay off more than 60 people at the beginning of the pandemic, and we started talking among ourselves about how we had to do something to help them and others from the industry. Three weeks later, we’d worked with our networks to get help and donations, and we started serving meals to out-of-work restaurant workers. We started working with a core staff of immigrant cooks who might not be eligible for unemployment or social services, and with their help, we were soon serving more than 200 meals per day. It’s easy to forget now just how dire things looked then, but people needed the support. They also needed the social interaction, and I think that was as important as the food for some people.
And then that led to Café Overlook… What made you want to support service industry workers in the first place and then how did that translate into the work you’re doing at Café Overlook?
I think COVID made people realize just how vulnerable everyone is, and shutting everything down also gave us an opportunity to sort of start over with new, good ideas. The commissioners knew that they needed some sort of restaurant in the courthouse, and they knew that the community needed more workforce development opportunities, and the idea to put them together seemed like a natural fit. Building it out and actually figuring out how it would work was a challenge, but the concept made sense from the start.
Both Service! and Café Overlook are built to support hospitality workers and I’ve heard you talk a little bit about your vision for a different kind of restaurant industry standard in which workers are valued and compensated more fairly. Tell us about that.
The service industry has been hurting for a long time—the low wages, the inequity, the lack of opportunity. It’s caused by fierce competition that’s being driven by big corporations, but the people who are hurt by it are our neighbors. Corporate restaurants are going to be with us forever, but smaller, local restaurants can provide a better experience for their customers and also take better care of their employees if they’re able to stop trying to compete with the Chipotles of the world. Doing that takes transparency and education, though. The customers need to understand everything that goes into making their food and how much their cooks and servers are earning so that they can buy into the better model that we’re trying to create. Fortunately, now is the time for this change to be happening in Central Ohio. Our community is growing quickly with folks moving here from all over the country and other parts of the world. These new residents aren’t all looking for cookie-cutter restaurants. They’re used to diverse cuisines and experiences, and our industry needs to recognize that and shift to a model that values its employees as much as its customers before it’s unaffordable for interesting, high-quality restaurants to exist here.
What has surprised you about running Café Overlook?
I’m used to being flexible, but the members of our team are facing challenges that I’ve not had to face, so this job requires more emotional flexibility and strength than anything I’ve done before. As much as we focus on food around here, it’s the people that I’m most proud of.
What’s your favorite part of your job and what’s the most challenging?
COVID showed us that anyone can be down on their luck in a heartbeat, and it taught me to judge less. Seeing people work hard to make positive changes in their lives is the best part of working here, absolutely.
What do you wish more people knew about what you do?
I wish people understood just how important it is to supporting small local businesses, which are the bloodline of our local economy. Keep an open mind. Ask your server how their day is going and change their day for the better. See service industry workers as part of the community—we all rely on them. Most of all, pick a mom-and-pop shop when you go out to eat or to do some shopping, and you’ll be helping to make your community a better place rather than sending your resources elsewhere.