Hilliard is a small and growing city of 38,000 located in the metropolitan region of Columbus, the Ohio state capital and 2015 Intelligent Community of the Year. It is an affluent place, with a majority white-collar workforce and household income three times the US national average. Its proximity to Columbus lets residents benefit from that city’s urban attractions and economic energy – but with 1,200 businesses, Hilliard is a model of small-city innovation and growth on a technology foundation.
Hilliard Fiber Optics
In 2018, City Council determined that the city was falling behind its neighbors in broadband. The Council committed to build a municipal fiber network, called HiFiO, to drive economic development, improve city operations and enable deployment of smart city applications. To overcome resistance from incumbent providers, the network was designed as carrier-neutral “dark fiber,” which provides capacity on a revenue-sharing basis to commercial ISPs for service delivery.
By 2023, using a mix of loans from the county and its own funds, the city had completed more than 30 miles of network connecting 43 businesses on seven commercial properties as well as traffic signals, schools and city government buildings. Replacing telecom expense with its own network is saving the city over US$100,00 per year. In the next phase, HiFiO will expand further in the city, link with the WeConnect network and data center of neighboring Westerville (a Top7 Intelligent Community) and connect with OhioX, the Central Ohio internet exchange, which will enable more than 30 additional carriers to serve the city.
As network infrastructure provider, Hilliard has built strong relationships with multiple ISPs. It has worked these relationships to ensure that its low-income residents are not left behind when it comes to broadband. The city has motivated service deployment in poor neighborhoods by building a middle-mile network that reduces the capital risk to commercial ISPS. It also offers equipment grants to further reduce upfront costs and adjusts its revenue-share rates to speed the ISPs’ path to positive cash flow. For households still unable to afford service, Hilliard offers free broadband access to families with a child receiving a free school lunch, a standard US measure for poverty. Schools offer the service because they tend to be the most trusted local institution. The city partners with a commercial ISP to deliver it; the city purchases the wireless customer premise equipment and waives its revenue share if the ISP provides free service to qualifying subscribers.
The state of Ohio was long known for its strengths in traditional manufacturing – and consequently took a major hit to lower-skilled manufacturing jobs as they moved to low-cost nations in the 80s and 90s. The resulting regional recession gave Ohio and other Midwestern states the unwelcome nickname “Rust Belt.” But Central Ohio, where Hilliard is located, is in the lead as the state develops a new industrial base mixing advanced manufacturing with digitally-enabled services. Intel’s decision in 2020 to build a US$2 billion chip fabrication plant in the Columbus metro area was a milestone. It was also a call to action to accelerate development of the skilled workforce the new industries demand.
Hilliard has partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) in the creation of 17 Think Big Spaces in its K-12 schools, modeled on the AWS work environment. Educational activities combine Hilliard’s curriculum with AWS cloud-computing technology to promote career awareness and learning in business, engineering, entrepreneurship, technology and design.
A Future Ready class – required for graduation – helps high-school students develop their post-graduation plans by exploring potential careers and what it takes to pursue them. Classes focus on analyzing opportunities, taking aptitude and interest surveys, and learning common business technologies (e.g., Microsoft Office), research and communication skills. They emerge better prepared to make informed decisions about their future. In addition, nearly 6,000 students have connected with regional businesses through the “Career from Here” program. Its partners include the city, Columbus State Community College, AWS, the Ohio Contractors Association and Converge Technologies. Launched in 2020, the program has expanded school-to-work apprenticeship programs in technology, healthcare and IT from zero to more than a dozen, with more on the way.
Hilliard City Lab
Led by city manager Michelle Crandall – who brings years of experience as assistant city manager in Dublin, a Top7 Community and home to an Intelligent Community Institute – Hilliard has created a living lab for high-tech companies to prototype and implement technologies. The city leverages its human resources to assist local start-ups through the Employee City Lab Ambassador program, a forum where city staff bring their challenges and opportunities in search of innovative technology solutions. Solutions come from a partnership of Hilliard City Lab and Converge Technologies, a commercialization incubator for startups. The partnership expands Converge Technologies’ support services by drawing in additional local business partners, such as lawyers, software engineers and marketers to support the businesses as they grow. Additionally, the city supports startups through its Hilliard Development Corporation, offering innovation grants.
A signature project involves the creation of an autonomous drone system to aid first responders (police and fire agencies). It engages multiple companies and is funded by NASA, the US Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Ohio state departments. The goal is development of a fully autonomous “point and click” dispatch system of camera-carrying drones that, flying at up to 90 mph (148 kph), can reach any point in the city within two minutes. The funding agencies are involved because they believe this first-in-the-nation project could provide the template for regional, statewide or national deployment.
Voting for Higher Taxes
Hilliard demonstrated its skill in 21st Century community engagement when it persuaded a majority of residents to approve a 20 percent hike in the local income tax. Surrounding communities, where most Hilliard residents work, had a 2.5 percent rate, while Hilliard was charging a 2 percent tax. The disparity had a perverse effect: Hilliard residents working in those communities paid a half percent more in tax, while Hilliard residents who worked locally paid less. Meanwhile, the other communities’ residents working in Hilliard paid a half percent less than if they worked closer to home. In addition to penalizing part of Hilliard’s population, the disparity caused the city to forego an estimated US$7 million each year in revenue.
The city launched a campaign for a 0.5 percent tax increase by committing to dedicate the estimated $7 million to fund its Recreation and Parks department – in particular, the creation of a $105 million Recreation and Wellness Center. The campaign for approval centered on engaging the community in envisioning the Center’s offerings and benefits to residents. Campaign tools including social media, videos, pop-up city Hall events, public forums, door-to-door canvassing in key neighborhoods and an online calculator of the impact on incomes. The city conducted meetings with a broad range of groups, from the school district and youth sports groups to members of the city’s senior center. Consultation with Hilliard’s Muslim community led to inclusion of a prayer and meditation space, and an ablution station for pre-prayer cleansing, in the Center’s design. Input from teens added a tech room for e-sports and video production. Opening in 2025, the Center is the largest capital project in Hilliard’s history, and a testament to the power of smart community engagement.
One-third of Hilliard lies within the watershed of Big Darby, a state and national scenic river that is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the American Midwest. Hilliard has joined with nine other jurisdictions to create the Big Darby Accord Watershed Master Plan, which seeks to balance growth with preservation of this unique ecosystem. It calls for ensuring that housing and commercial development projects maintain at least 50% of their land as open space, with homes or buildings grouped closely together. The city is also investing in restoration of tributaries to the Big Darby that have been affected by agricultural and other development, and the formation of a greenbelt as both preservation and recreation space.
The range and scale of Intelligent Community programs in Hilliard are worthy of a city many times its size. Together they are ensuring against any repetition of the cycle of stagnation and decline that gave the Midwest a nickname that no longer applies.