Ohio's economy has seen better days.

At the heart of the Rust Belt, the state's growth has trailed national averages. However, things have been a bit brighter in Columbus than they have for the state at large. The city, with 1.7 million residents in the metro area, is the largest in the state. And its economy has unique catalysts from the rest of the Buckeye State, says Bill Lafayette, economic analyst for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

Financial services, government and transportation account for more than 50 percent of the jobs in the state capital. And, the metro area boasts an unemployment rate of 5 percent compared with 5.7 percent for the state. It continues to grow as well. Its residents already account for 15 percent of Ohio's population. And in 2006 the metro area gained 113,000 residents — representing 90 percent of overall growth in the state.

As a result, Columbus' retail market has emerged from its dormancy after a period of overbuilding during the late 1990s and early 2000s. City leaders have worked hard to revitalize the downtown area, specifically its waterfront. The new developments follow the standard set by the Arena District, which is a mixed-use entertainment district anchored by the Nationwide Arena home to the National Hockey League's Blue Jackets.

The downside? Like other cities across the U.S., Columbus saw some new home construction. But overall, the metro area didn't experience strong housing gains with single-family home development slowing. In the U.S. last year, single-family residential building permits declined 29 percent, reported the chamber of commerce.