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Chris Widener, FAIA: Practice Meets Politics

Architects (and legislators) are natural problem solvers.

By Sara Fernández Cendón

Like many architects, Chris Widener, FAIA, began his career with an interest in getting involved in his community. Unlike most architects, Widener has pursued community involvement to the point of developing a parallel career in public service. An Ohio State Senator since 2009, Widener started out as a member of the Mad River-Greene Local Board of Education, a position he held for four years. A desire for greater leverage in solving local problems led him to the Ohio House of Representatives, where he served for seven years until he began his current Senate term. Widener’s current term ends in December 2012, and he is up for reelection in November.

Through his years of public service, Widener, a Republican representing Ohio’s 10th Senate District, has found a natural congruity between his work in the legislature and his work as an architect at the helm of WDC Group in Springfield, Ohio. He says key ingredients in this reciprocal relationship are his problem-solving skills, which he applies to both legislative and architectural work; his accountability regarding stewardship, whether it be state or client resources; and his focus on employment, both as an elected official and a small-business owner.

LESSON ONE: It’s All Problem Solving
“Most or all architects want to be involved in the community. Once you’re involved, like I was in the school board, it’s a matter of finding out who others are in public service that influence what you’re trying to do. In Ohio, just like in every other state, school funding is determined at the state legislature level, not at the school board level, so it was a natural transition to want to be involved.

I was appointed into the Ohio House of Representatives in December 1999. The first full day I was there the speaker called me into her office and we had a conversation about the School Facilities Commission. At the time there was a pilot project: 15 school districts a year could get their facilities planned so they knew in the long term what the state was going to see for buildings in their districts. I thought every school district in the state should be able to create plans at the same time. I proposed hiring architecture firms in Ohio to do the plans and surveys. With the right amount of funding, the plans could all be done right away. As a result of that, we crafted a bill, and all school districts were able to get their plan the following year. The benefit was that schools wouldn’t have to spend money to replace or repair buildings that were going to be demolished at some point, when their plan came to fruition. It’s a matter of trying to use your skills and expertise in facilities or otherwise to make sure that public entities in Ohio aren’t forced into wasting taxpayer money. 

Architects are ideally trained and educated to solve problems. And public service--no matter whether it’s the school board, the Ohio House of Representatives, or the Ohio Senate--is problem solving. Architects have the ability to look at problems, design creative solutions to those problems, and, more importantly, to go out and sell their solutions, which is what we do every day with our clients. Once we have a solution, it’s our job to gain the support of the consulting engineers and other interested parties, as well as the owner. It’s the same thing we do in the legislature. If you have an idea, your job is to craft it well and detail it as much as possible. Then you have to go out and get support. We have 99 House members in Ohio and 33 senators, and you’ve got to have the support of the leaders of both the House and the Senate, and the [governor] to make something become law. So they’re very similar working environments, utilizing the same skills in different ways.”

LESSON TWO: Fiscal Discipline is as Critical in the Public Sector as it is in the Private Sector

“One of the areas I have focused on has been fiscal discipline. We fixed an $8.5 billion budget hole last year in our state operating budget. We did so at the same time we cut income taxes, we eliminated the estate tax, and we also paid down about $700 million in debt.

Nothing is going to change in our country until we decide to vote into our Constitution a balanced budget amendment. We have one in Ohio; we balance our budget every two years, and we did it in a bipartisan way. Legislators need to critically analyze every program that’s been developed over the past couple of decades to figure out how to save the ones that are actually returning the most to the country and scrap the others. And I suppose an architect’s perspective could be useful in that process because we, as practicing professionals, look at budgets, cost estimates, and bids on a regular basis, and often have to figure out what to scrap and what to keep.”

LESSON THREE: State Legislators Can and Do Affect Employment

“A major issue I have worked on has been job creation. I had a newspaper writer tell me once, ‘Really, politicians can’t do anything to create jobs, can they?’ I said, ‘Actually, they can.’ State legislators can create plenty of public policy and legislation that kills jobs by putting enough regulations on small businesses that they want to lay people off. We have seen that happen in the past. I have worked on legislation that creates jobs, and this is the kind of thing that small business owners are accustomed to doing. They want to put more people to work because our economy is still based on a consumer model, meaning if people buy things, then our economy is ticking along nicely. If people don’t have a job, they’re likely not buying things, they’re likely not paying the state income tax, likely not paying state sales tax on big purchases.

Last year, in a bipartisan legislature, we needed to do something related to renewable energy. Our tax structure was such that our tax per-kilowatt-hour of renewable energy, like wind and solar [power], was five times that of the surrounding states.

I introduced a bill [Senate Bill 232] to cut the tax rate on renewable energies. Wind and solar companies said, ‘If you do that, we’ll come and build facilities,’ which was all well and good. But working with the Democrats in the House and the governor, we also included in that law a provision so the higher the percentage of Ohioans’ companies used to build their facilities, the higher tax cut they got.

Most state legislators truly do have an impact on job creation and job retention. I’ve spent about 80 percent of my time working on legislation or working with companies in my district to make sure they keep people employed, or that they employ new people. One of the perfect examples of that in my district (and it’s a mash of the architecture and the legislative work that I’ve been doing) involved a company that we recruited to move its headquarters from Wisconsin to Springfield, Ohio, which is the heart of my district. Most companies say they want to be in a nice industrial park on the outskirts of town, but this company simply needed a lot of space, [it] didn’t matter where. I proposed a historic building in downtown Springfield because I knew a very aggressive building owner that had some job-creation tax credits coming to him from the state to do some renovations. That was four years ago. We worked for three years to get the economic incentive package put together. The company is now going on its second year in Springfield. It employs 200 people—170 of whom were previously unemployed—in a historic building that has beautiful retrofitted interiors and is back in viable shape. And, yes, a local firm out of Dayton, Ohio, did the renovation work.”


Chris Widener, FAIA (front). Image courtesy of the Ohio State Senate.


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