The Columbus Dispatch – Adam Heeter, CEO of Oxford, speaks to the value in Leadership Columbus

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Despite thinner wallets and the continuing fight against a difficult economy, many central Ohio companies continue to support Leadership Columbus and the annual professional development program it offers.

“Historically, organizations that have sent people to Leadership Columbus have seen a return on investment,” said Adam Heeter, CEO of Oxford Consulting Group of Westerville, who soon will graduate from the program.

“They looked past the short-term recession. It speaks to the resiliency of Columbus.”

Tonight, graduation will be held for Leadership Columbus’ 35th class. The 10-month program, starting in September and ending in June, focuses on developing leadership skills that can be used in various ways in the community.

Of the more than 1,000 leadership programs in the nation, Leadership Columbus is one of the oldest, said Laurie Marsh, executive director of the program.

“We target high-level executives and rising stars,” Marsh said. “Companies are investing in human capital.”

Marsh said that as the economy worsened, it became harder to recruit businesses to take part in the program, which costs participants $4,200 each. The Leadership Columbus board helped Marsh ramp up recruiting.

“It’s a critical time in the nation and Columbus,” she said. “Usually, Columbus is very healthy, so it was the first time we were propelled to action.”

Heeter isn’t surprised at the program’s continued success.

“I gained more appreciation of the elements that make Columbus functional and able to grow as the economy grows,” Heeter said.

Rod Houpe, chief information officer for Columbus City Schools, was encouraged to go through the program by his bosses, one a past graduate.

“The tool set I’ve taken away is the relationships formed, interpersonal skills and how socio-economic factors tie together,” Houpe said.

Those relationships continue to make the program valuable, he said.

Marsh said a significant part of the program is developing and completing a group project.

One group this year created a homework room in the Huckleberry House, a crisis shelter for youth.

Jessica Lineberger, senior grants manager at Cardinal Health, was involved with the project. Besides housing, Huckleberry House provides counseling and encourages education.

“The homework room has supplies, desks, printers, educational resources,” Lineberger said. “(The collaboration) was stellar; we all worked methodically.”

Heeter’s group collaborated with Columbus Coalition for the Homeless and local businesses to create Columbus Green Works, a recycling program that employs homeless and at-risk people.

“It begins to build the work experience needed to re-enter the work force,” Heeter said.

Participants in Leadership Columbus commit to a full day once a month for 10 months. Their activities include talks, panel discussions and visits with community members.

“They get to really have conversations with leaders,” Marsh said. “Columbus is welcoming for people who want to be engaged.”

Marsh said graduates of Leadership Columbus often go on to start businesses or rise in the ranks of their company.

“It was a fulfilling 10 months,” Lineberger said. “I got a clear sense of what leadership means, because it’s an obscure word that can be taken in lots of directions.”

The next class is about to be chosen. Acceptance letters have been sent out to the class of 2011, with 50 selected from about 80 applicants.

hpoturalski@dispatch.com