by Jason Kincaid

The Interview: Doug Kridler

The easiest way to sum up Doug Kridler? A man who can get things done in Columbus.

A long-time head of the Columbus Foundation, he’s spent the last several decades working to improve the quality of life in his adopted hometown though the work of his anchor philanthropic institution. Now, he’s the person in charge of a billion-dollar non-profit engine, but it all started in earnest by pulling in cash from college kids.

The 62-year-old got his start in the music business producing 1,900 concerts, first as a college concert promoter, but then as head of CAPA, bringing everyone from Miles Davis to Santana to Chris Rock to Faith Hill to town. During a wide-ranging, thoughtful talk at the Columbus Foundation, Kridler told us about his start in Columbus, how younger people shape the vision of his organization, and why we all need to find joy even as we struggle. And Crew fans—Kridler says keep your shape! This civic soccer battle with Austin has more game left to play.

Let’s hear a little about your Columbus story in the sense of you come to this community in 1984 from Fremont. And you came here to run a historic theatre at 29. Take me back to that time and your introductions to Columbus and how you find your way here.

I got a call from a board member at CAPA, who was also a board member at Blossom, and he said, “You know this organization is in desperate straits because it has lost money in season after season and had overspent on expansion to the Ohio Theatre, and has fired their executive director.” I said, “No, I’ve been accepted into Ohio State law school.” And they said, “Come and tell us what you think we might need to do.” So I came in, and they took me up on the Ohio Theatre stage, and did the light show thing. I was mesmerized by the beauty of that place, but I realized, because I had done a bunch of concert promotions at Ohio Wesleyan, I had a sense that Columbus was on a roll and being part of putting together the theatre and arts pieces of this community felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity.

What was originally so compelling about the music industry for you?

Where I grew up in Fremont, there was no radio station. The only way to get access to rock and roll was in Detroit, WCKW. Music wasn’t for many people; for me, it wasn’t just music, it was the unveiling of the uniquely powerful pulse of a generation. It was a generation of protest, of angst, of liberation, so it was a social compelling force; it wasn’t just music. The metaphor piece of it, I listened to this Detroit station, but I had to listen to it through the static. So for me, sort of an early lesson that you needed to separate the music, the activity, the voice, from the static. But it wasn’t about fandom; it was all about the music and the power of it as a social and generational presence.

So to shift gears a little bit, you have now been here for 30-plus years. You now sit here in this beautiful location as head of the Columbus Foundation, among the Columbus movers and shakers. What do you see in those three decades? What are the successes and where have we not progressed?

By way of answering that, I will say that me being here is a demonstration of what an open community this is. When I arrived in Columbus, not having grown up here, I knew no one. So for somebody who has come to the community, not knowing anybody, to end up being in the position of representing the community through the Community Foundation is a pretty strong testimonial to this being a city of opportunity.

When [Resource’s] Nancy Kramer and I, at the request of Mayor Coleman, developed the strategic marketing brand attributes of our community, two themes that emerged from the people of our community are that the assets that distinguish us are smart—with everything from Battelle being the largest R&D corporation, Chemical Abstracts, to even the smart assets of our universities in the region, to the number one library in the region, to the zoo—and open. So you got the smart part of it, and you get the open part of it as you realize there aren’t the obstacles here that there are in a lot of cities. The old money/new money obstacle, the sort of filters you see other places whether they be by region or status. Those restrictions aren’t there to keep you from getting engaged and making contributions to the community and seeing what unfolds from there.

Do you still think the open part, that’s as true today as it was 30 years ago?

I do. But for me it’s always been an attribute and an aspiration. And as long as it’s an aspiration and you have to jealously protect and vigorously pursue it, there is no finish line to that effort of being a community of opportunity. So I think at one time, it might give us an unfinished grade and I’m comfortable with that. Good ideas and the best ideas are not the exclusive province of those in leadership positions—they can come from anywhere.

I get the sense from young people that they’re worried  about being priced out of neighborhoods, and they don’t have a role in how this city develops; partially, that’s because I live in the campus area where development is the No. 1 issue. But I think there’s a sense it’s harder to break into the ranks of those making the decisions than before.

But I would celebrate that. That impatience, that desire in seeing what you think needs to change is precious to a community. Actually a big part of what we do is find those voices in its early stages. We find Alex Bandar when he’s out on Fifth Avenue in a warehouse basically, and help encourage to think as big as he can and then support his flight to the [Columbus] Idea Foundry. Find David Brown when he’s just pulling together the Harmony Project—and some folks are dismissing that it’s just a choir, what’s the big deal? Nikki Giovanni, there’s an end of a poem where she says, “Light the candles, this is a rocket; let’s ride.” It’s in the work of the pursuit of something where the rewards are found. Relish that search process, that pursuit of something. It’s not going to be seamless, and its not be perfectly efficient, but it’s in the struggle where we shape the community. Good current evidence of that is the Save the Crew movement, and the way they have stayed largely positive in their approach. Do we show ourselves at our best or do we show our worst selves? I just think what we are seeing there is building the tensile strength of our community. While it might just be a citizens’ movement around saving a soccer team, I don’t think what it’s about is there is this struggle, and it’s all about the reward. I think it’s about the struggle too.

You bring up Save the Crew. I think I would be remiss if I didn’t note that your idea for a new stadium, your trial balloon hasn’t panned out…

Let me just say there was a philosopher in China who was asked a couple years ago about what the effect of the French revolution was on civilization. He said it’s too soon to tell.

Was there an emotional component to this because you’re a soccer fan? Maybe you got out over your skis a little bit more?

Yes and no. I’m an original season ticket holder for the Crew back to the season at Ohio Stadium. My daughter was for three years a goalie for Purdue, a Big Ten soccer goalie. The sequence was there was the meeting in New York and Anthony Precourt and Don Garber, the commissioner of the MLS, got the last word. And the last word was, we agreed to meet with the Mayor and Alex Fisher, but they didn’t come up with any ideas. Point of fact was they had. I know the Mayor and Alex are getting a lot of criticism, but they are being pretty disciplined about this. I couldn’t help but feel some concern that the Mayor and Alex were both sort of alone at the tip of the spear on this issue. So my idea was about the more people who can lock arms with them, and let people know we are thinking together.

As we sit here in mid-December, I think the community perception is that Austin is up 1-0, and they are kicking the ball around in their own end playing keepaway and the clock is in the 82nd minute. You know more than fans do about private conversations that are happening. Is that an accurate metaphor for where we are?

We have to and do wake up every morning mindful of the possibilities. And for me, I think we stay positive about the possibilities, we stay engaged, we stay hopeful, and we stay creative about those. I believe the score got tied this week with the delay of the Austin consideration of the land and some emerging opposition on [Austin] city council to the use of public land. So it’s gotten postponed into February. That starts to really impact the ability of a stadium to be built and opened in time for the MLS calendar. Soccer games are won by creative flourish, but often, because it’s low-scoring, they are also won by the discipline of the formation. As they say in soccer commentary, keeping your shape. And I think we’ve kept our shape in highly passionate, energized, athletic, animated way; we have held our shape. And the discipline is coming out of the positiveness of the Save the Crew, and the disciplined negotiations of the Mayor and Alex. And so I think we’re are well-positioned that if it doesn’t work out in Austin to make it work here. I would put it at a 40 percent chance, and maybe even increased to even odds, that Austin may not work.

You think it’s that high?

I do. Not in will, I think their will is 99 percent that they want to leave, I’m speaking here of the owner and MLS. But I’m not conflating the two.

In the late 1990s, you were the point person for a stadium plan that was a half-cent sales tax for three years for a soccer stadium and hockey arena. It was beaten pretty badly at the ballot box, and it was the fourth or fifth loss by a stadium issue. Is there a day of reckoning coming where Columbus taxpayers have to put skin in the game?

If you use Anthony Precourt’s approach to Austin, the only thing that would be required is land. If you can privately build it there, why not privately build it here? I can’t imagine a public official being able to support public funding at this juncture. I think it’s fair to say that there have a lot of turnover and additional people to move into Central Ohio in the last 20 years since that issue and that the outcome might be different. But barring any referendum on it, I just can’t imagine a scenario where any public official could risk that.

People born from 1980 to 2005, in that group they now outnumber their parents. They are socially conscious, they are creative, they are moving away from car ownership. How are their values reflected in the work the Columbus Foundation does?

Well, first, in terms of our investments. We were the first investment into the movement to get a SMART city grant. Because we know of the need to be a part of the next phase of transportation in the world, and it was our best opportunity to do that. The second is the search for young talent making a difference in the civic sphere. So the Andy Boys [of Columbus Collegiate Academy], the Alex Bandars, and folks like that that are making change. The young voices in our neighborhoods that we support and make sure we tap into things like Opportunity Youth, which is folks that are 16 to 24 non-college bound and not currently working. And finding the opportunities through access to technology training and that’s a part of it. And another part of it is making the commitment to Downtown. We made the grant to remove the low head dam on the Scioto Mile and returned the river to its channel. Again, the Idea Foundry, even Glass Axis that moved to Franklinton. This was all done years ago. And affirming the importance of the ideals of not only having smart assets in town, but also the need to celebrate the pursuit of the aspiration of open.

Columbus is the largest city in the country without passenger rail. We know millennials aren’t as interested as previous generations in driving cars. There’s a long history in Columbus of the civic leaders needing to be on board before big things get done. The fact we don’t have rail, is it because the business titans haven’t wanted it?

Again, I just look at the side of opportunity. The opportunity is we don’t have massive public resources already committed to the financing of and the capital investments in updating infrastructure. And, you know, you only have to look at cities where it’s viable and cities where it’s kept up at a huge public cost. Those cities that are failing have enormous challenges to do other things they aren’t able to do. Will we be among those leaders who can quickly adapt and be an even more complete place of opportunity when it comes to transportation? I think there’s a chance of that and our public side investment in whatever comes is going to be more possible because of the lack of legacy public transportation infrastructure having to be the first mouth fed.

Well, that certainly is a glass half-full way to look at it. 

It is. It’s a matter of summoning the will and creating the capacity to make that happen. In this case, looking back to what we haven’t had is only truly useful if it motivates us to get what we need now. But to your question, I heard conversations where there was clear concern about the viability and infrastructure costs of certain modes of public transportation. But, you know, now that Downtown is different, if you think about supply and demand, there’s a lot more supply. The CBus (circulator) can now be pointed to as good evidence that there is some appetite for it. I think that incremental planning is important, judicious caretaking is important, and risk management is important, but so is the ability to imagine and take leaps often in hopes, as the phrase goes, that you take the leap and the net will appear.