The long list of decaying Rust Belt communities gives the impression that their decline must have been inevitable. Detroit’s fall is often discussed as merely the most famous example of a regional rule. But the story of a small Midwest manufacturing city that didn’t rust shows that they didn’t all have to go this way.
Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown of Columbus, Indiana, thrived while other cities declined, because J. Irwin Miller, its wealthiest and most prominent industrialist, remained deeply rooted in and committed to his city. He used his clout, money, and a visionary progressive approach to build up Columbus for long-term success. A new biography of him called J. Irwin Miller: The Shaping of an American Town, by Nancy Kriplen, reveals not just the story of a city but one of a lost model of American leadership that the country badly needs to recover if many of its communities are to ever turn around.
Miller was the fourth-generation scion of Columbus’s premier banking family, who became the CEO of Cummins, a major diesel-engine manufacturer originally bankrolled by the family. He was farsighted enough to see, even in the 1950s, that the ability to attract highly educated talent would determine whether his company survived in a small Indiana city. He felt that talent acquisition and retention required, above all else, good schools. So he approached Columbus with an offer it couldn’t refuse: The Cummins Foundation would pay the architecture fees for all new schools in the community if the city picked an architect off his list. His program resulted in a world-renowned collection of schools and other buildings by a who’s who of architects, including Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I. M. Pei, César Pelli, and Harry Weese. The American Institute of Architects ranks Columbus as the sixth-best architectural destination in the United States.