Richard Bishop's fingerprints are all over Columbus.
First as an assistant director and director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, then as a deputy city manager and finally as the president of Uptown Columbus Inc., Bishop has been involved in many projects that changed the face of the city.
When a 1993 sales tax led to the overhaul of the city's recreation infrastructure and brought a new softball complex and a new Civic Center, Bishop was the city employee overseeing the projects. He was at the center of carrying out John Turner's vision of an urban whitewater course in the Chattahoochee River.
He has rarely been the person at the point, but he has been in the background pushing.
Recently, he sat down with reporter Chuck Williams to talk about Columbus.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
So, your background is parks and recreation?
Parks and rec 35 years ago was a very different thing than it is today, right?
I don't know if it's different in the sense of programming. Back when I first started, we had some real challenges. Our department was recognized as the worst in the state and maybe the Southeast.
All of the facilities were in really, really bad shape.
What year was that?
1974, and if you recall, there was a budget cap that kept the city budget at $50 million. With just that one vote, parks and rec's budget was cut in half. So, we went through that and then fortunately Rick Gordon was hired as director and with his vision and some of the others -- Michael Brown came to the city as city manager -- with those changes, the vision of what the parks and recreation department should be changed.
And Rick went through a long process of developing a master plan that set the stage for the 1993 sales tax vote when the funds were put in place to renovate nearly all of the parks within the city. So, that's how the change came about.
Give me an example of how bad it was in '74.
Rigdon Park, Lakebottom, you could go right through the city and every park in the city needed repairing. Remember the Civic Center, the old auditorium, the swimming pools. The swimming pools were like small bathtubs. It was pretty bad back then.
You look at Lakebottom now and it's probably one of the better city parks in the state.
It's a very nice park. Lots of activity at Lakebottom.
Should a park have something for everybody or should parks be more passive green space?
That's a great question. I think there is a place for a passive park in certain neighborhoods of the city where you don't want a lot of activity, but I think all of your regional parks or larger neighborhood parks have to have a lot of amenities that fill the need of everyone in that area.
But at the same time, some of those amenities that are in neighborhoods really attract activities that are not compatible with residence. So, you have to measure that and make sure you get the right combination.
In a city like Columbus, vision from directors and city managers can't be carried out without political will, right?
How hard is it to get political will? You were here when there was no political will to do anything.
I think the key component of that is having the right players on the government side to be able to set the vision so the political side can buy into it -- and at the same time, having that menu of projects that address a lot of the needs in the community across the board.
And one of the things that I think led to the success of the '93 sale tax was Michael Brown, the city manager then, understood that and certainly Rick Gordon understood it and was able to develop that menu of projects that if you recall it was two votes.
There was a vote on the parks improvement -- it was really three votes, I'm just talking about the parks side -- and it was a vote for the Civic Center. And those votes passed by big, big margins. That says a lot to the leadership that Michael and Rick provided back in those days.
What role did Mayor (Frank) Martin play?
An incredible role. Mayor Martin supported that whole process and he gave the city staff the ability to implement the process of getting people to understand what was going into those packages, and then certainly council. Council got really behind it back in that day because they saw the need and the opportunity. And you certainly can't leave out the community involvement -- the Little Leagues, soccer, all those youth athletics played a big role in it.
What would Columbus look like today if the '93 sales taxes had failed?
Unless there was another effort shortly behind that to start making improvements, we'd be in a tough situation, no question.
By the time the money starting flowing in the '93 sales tax and you had a softball complex built, the Civic Center built, public safety building built, you had all of these park improvements, what was your role at that time?
Well, shortly after the vote I became responsible for construction of all of those projects, except for the public safety building, along with another key player, Harry Westcott. He and I were involved in all of the construction process of the Civic Center and all of the park projects.
When you say "involved in the construction project," what do you mean?
We worked from the start to the end. Now, there were lots of people involved, certainly. For example, the South Commons. There was a lot of people involved in the vision of what we wanted it to be at the end. And Harry and I were involved in that process. And then once it was decided what South Commons would end up being, we were in charge of getting the documents drawn, hiring an architect, and managing the construction of it to close out.
One of the obstacles of South Commons was the Victory Drive golf course, right?
It was early on. And again, I'll go back to Michael Brown and his ability to work with that golfing community there in getting them to understand what they had to begin with, which was not a lot, and showing them what the vision was for the development of a nine-hole course in South Columbus, which ended up being Oxbow. And without question for a nine-hole course, Oxbow turned out to be an incredible facility. So, at the end of the day, I think that was a great direction for the city to go in.
Let's talk a little about deputy city manager. You were deputy city manager for how many years?
I think it was six.
Were all of them under Carmen Cavezza?
No. Actually, my last year and a half, two years, were under Isaiah (Hugley).
Carmen in an interview was talking about you and he said that when he came out of the military, nobody treated him like a military guy except you. He said of all the people who worked for him, you were the one who acted most like a military guy.
Yeah. I was his driver.
Lots of times.
What kind of city manager was Carmen?
Carmen is an incredible leader, not just a manager. I tell people this a lot of times: If you have the ability just to be around Carmen on a day-to-day basis and just walk around and listen and watch, it's an education in leadership. I think that's enough said. He's just an incredible leader.
What is the most important leadership thing you learned from him?
I think it's his people skills to a point... but when you have reached that point, you have to do some things that sometimes aren't probably what people expect, but you still have to do it.
You saw Carmen at that point at times?
I saw Carmen at that point a lot of times. Again, just an incredible leader, listener. And the thing that was so incredible about Carmen is that he loved to have input. He didn't want "yes" people around him. He had no problem with you telling him, "I don't agree with you, let's talk about this." At the end of day now, you knew who the final decision was going to come from. But you also knew that you had an opportunity to really participate in the process and give him your insight.
You and Isaiah were deputy city managers together for how long?
I think it was two, maybe three years.
What is y'all's relationship now?
Great. He's one of the finest persons I've ever been able to work with and work beside.
When y'all became deputy city managers, it almost became a rivalry situation in some ways, didn't it?
No, no, no. I wouldn't call it a rivalry at all. When he and I were deputy city managers, the divisions had already been set up. Prior to that, Dick Ellis was there and Isaiah had Metra and basically public services.
When Isaiah became city manager and you stayed deputy city manager for another year or year and a half, what was it like to work for somebody you'd been working side by side with and had been a peer for most of your career?
It was great because he and I knew each other, we knew each other's work habits, we knew what was expected of our employees and each other.
When you left the city manager's office as deputy city manager, were you looking to do something else, were you looking at being city manager somewhere else?
No. I think if you've been involved in city government at that level -- it's like when I was in parks, there was always a desire to be a parks and recreation director. I had that opportunity in three cities -- Eufaula, Phenix City and Columbus. And once I became deputy city manager, yeah, actually there was a desire to be a city or county manager. And I had that opportunity a couple of times and I turned it down.
Where would you have gone?
I could have gone to Lee County, Ga., or Bulloch County.
Why did you stay here?
You know, first of all my family. They were in great situations, Doris being a teacher and having her career path and retirement. And then my two children, at their ages and period of school -- Zach went to Brookstone and Katie was at Columbus High School -- and that situation was great for us. And then, I've been here since 1974, in and out, and I've always had just a great passion for Columbus, Ga. That had a lot to do with it.
Is it a good place to raise a family?
Absolutely. It is a great place to raise a family.
Well, first of all, if you go back to the community, you can walk the streets, go to the malls and always see somebody you know. The school system was great for us, and the government and way the government works here, I think is great. Even when you go to the depth of what has happened with the public-private partnerships, how that's all worked out made this community a better place. And then the location with Atlanta less than an hour and a half, the beaches -- so it's just a great location.
Let's talk about Uptown now. You obviously didn't start all of this, but you sure are here with a lot happening right now.
Yeah, it's an exciting time for today and the future of Uptown.
Let's go back. When you first started seeing Uptown, you were working for the city, you were involved in planning, so you saw some of this coming.
You saw what Buddy Nelms was doing and some of that through the planning stuff, right?
Twenty-five years ago did you see this?
Well no, I didn't see this, but you always know that communities that get it have to at some point in time get back to the development of the heart and souls of their communities, and that's their downtowns. Those movements had been taken place in other cities and you always hope that at some point in time this city could capture that. And they did, and that's why you see what's going on today.
When you say "what's going on today," give me a person's name -- it wouldn't have happened but for the efforts of...?
There's a bunch of them.
Throw some of them out.
Mr. Bill Turner, Rozier Dedwylder, Peggy Theus, Billy Turner, Mat Swift, Buddy Nelms. And then the other cool thing about it is that is the old guard, and I'm sure I've missed some. But now the new guard with the Jason McKenzies, the Kara Layfields, the Dennis Smiths with the gymnasium. Then you've got Edgar Chancellor and now Roger (Stinson). You've got Miles (Greathouse) and Garrett (Lawrence) at Maltitude. You've got all this new generation of folks -- Chris Woodruff -- that are getting buildings started -- Reggie Luther, John Teeples, Jason Gamache, Jud (Richardson) at Fountain City Coffee. This whole new movement, and that's what it takes because at some point in time the new guys have got to move in. And that's what I see happening here.
So, we're seeing a changing of the guard?
Absolutely. And it has happened naturally, but there's no question that a lot of that goes back to foundation.
You're not talking about the Bradley-Turner Foundation.
No, no, no. A foundation of Uptown. The foundation of Uptown was established by being able to maintain the historic character of the buildings, and Rozier was able to do that. And then even with Burnie Quick when he established the Business Improvement District, that's another milestone. And I mentioned Peggy Theus and Billy Turner, what they did with the RiverWalk. Those are the ones who went out and stirred the community up to get a RiverWalk done. And the other big one there is Mat Swift and what he's done. He's been a cheerleader all along the way of making sure that the pedal was always to the floor trying to get things done.
So, you have a young entrepreneur walk in and say, "I'm looking into investing in Downtown for XYZ business." What do you tell them, what's your pitch?
First, I would try to talk to them and make sure they've got a pretty solid business plan and their concept is something suitable for down here. And then from there, there's people we send them to to make sure all of that is confirmed. And then I talk to them about what the opportunities are down here with what these other entrepreneurs are doing.
What we like to see down here is the best of the best. You know, we've got the best bike shop in town. We've got the best running store in town. Now we've got the best locally operated restaurants in town. We've got two of the finest gyms in town. So, it's the best of the best and what we're seeing is that the environment that exists down here is attracting that type of entrepreneur and investor.
One of the things you see down here is this has become a recreation exercise center. Is that the right way to say it?
You have bike rides, runs every weekend, you have whitewater down on the river.
We call those rituals. It happens on a regular basis and people get used to it happening and they are attracted to them to get them down here. It was something that has been talked about but it happened naturally -- because what Jason has done with Ride On Bikes on his Tuesday night ride.
Are there any threats to derailing what's being built with what has happened down here?
Derailing? I don't know if that would happen, but I think some things could happen that would certainly set it back some. That's why I think one of the big deals that we have to work with on a regular basis is safety. We want this to be a very secure place and that's why we have off-duty police officers down here on a regular basis.
Certainly the presence of Columbus State University, they're down here seven days a week. So, we want to make sure as we get more residents here, that will make it safer, but at the same time, we as an organization have to make sure we've got security down here to make it as safe as we can make it.
The perception in this community once was that this was an unsafe place. Does that perception still exist?
I think unfortunately for some it does. But if you look at the bigger picture, why would the city and the private sector raise $100 million to build a $65 million RiverCenter? Or, why would CSU be coming down here and investing $20 plus million for the School of Education? Those things wouldn't be happening if it was an unsafe place.
So, sometimes people believe that perception is real, but the fact of the matter is this is a very safe place. That's not to say that something could happen down here tonight and we'd have to deal with it. So, back to your question, something like that would set us back but we would have to move on.
In the last five years you have had murders downtown, and you've had rapes downtown here, but those don't seem to have stemmed the tide of what's going on.
Well, because I think the community has an understanding, that unfortunately -- it doesn't make it right -- but unfortunately things like that happen in communities and they know that on a regular basis we have security down here to make sure it's as safe as we can make it. And there's no question if you went across the country and did surveys on other cities, they have those same situations in their downtowns -- that doesn't make it right. It gives us more of a reason to do a better job to make it as safe as we can make it.
You talked about residential a minute ago. How many non-student residential units are there in downtown?
A little less than 200.
So, it took 25 years ago from 10 units to 200 units. How long will it take to go to 500?
That is a real critical -- not an issue -- but a challenge for us now. We are way behind as far as residential inventory. Basically, everything we have down here stays 90-percent-plus occupied. Typically, it's over 95 percent occupied. Now, there are some plans to start dealing with that and I think within the next six months there will be some announcements made where some new construction would start to add some residential to the inventory we already have.
Care to tell us about those?
Not at this time, but it will be very public in the next few months.
You have million dollar lofts on the river now.
You have property values comparable with what's in Green Island Hills. Would you have thought that 20 years ago?
No. Actually the apartments we have are probably per square foot the most expensive apartments in town. But it's the culture that has come about down here. People love to live down here because of all the amenities that we have. You can walk to church. You can walk to the best restaurants. You can get the best exercise. You've got the river, the performing arts. All of those are in this little village here that people are enjoying. And there's no question in my mind that you'll see more people moving down here.
Are you the mayor of the village?
No. We have only one mayor.
Let's talk about whitewater. When you came on 10 years ago, whitewater was an on-again, off-again proposition.
What made it on-again?
John Turner and his vision and passion to keep moving it forward. But as many agencies as we had to go through, there was no pushback from any of them. It's just the time involved to get through the process. But with John Turner's leadership it continued to move forward and he had the ability to sell it to other community members to get us to where we are today.
When that project was going on, there were a number of critics, right?
Local critics, yes.
What do you say to those local critics today?
Well, you know, I don't really need to rehash that. I think the proof is in the pudding. The first year we did 16,000, last year we did 25,000, this year we're going to do close to 30,000. And if you add the zip line to it, we'll do between 35,000-40,000 people that are coming to Uptown because what has happened on the river.
You had a drowning this summer on the course that was not whitewater related.
Actually it was not and it was low water. The flow was 800 to 1,000 CFS. Even good swimmers in that water coming down the river in the channel is tough. So, we encourage and just ask people to make sure that if you're there, especially with small children, that they have PFDs on.
The river is inherently dangerous.
Do you think y'all have tamed the river for recreational purposes?
Yes. Even when you look at Cut Bait. The story was before we worked in Cut Bait you didn't get in there but one time and then you hoped you got out. Now Cut Bait was engineered to be very safe. It doesn't recirculate you. It gets you out of the rapid if you go through it. So yes, I think all of the things we've done have made it safer, but again, you can never be too safe around water.
When the child drowned earlier this summer, I know there were issues around that. I know Whitewater Express took some heat for continuing to run the raft trips while there was a river search going on. Have y'all addressed concerns on that?
What happened during that situation -- from my understanding, which is pretty accurate -- is this incident happened somewhere between 4 and 4:30. The rescue team got there around 5. Our 5 o'clock trip had already gotten into the water so they were coming down. And as they got close they knew something was going on. They got permission to go through there.
From my understanding, there was very little search going on, but the rescue team knew something was there. But actually getting into the water was very limited. So, they brought I think five boats on through. From that time on we shut the river down. We didn't get in the river the rest of the day Thursday and we didn't get in the river at all on Friday. The search continued Saturday morning. We had approval to go through with the understanding that if there was a rescue or recovery being made that we would stop our trips. And that's exactly what we did.
Do you have a policy in place now?
We have met with the fire chief, the assistant fire chief, and we are working on that policy as we speak.
Everything that you have touched as a city employee and a nonprofit guy here in town, what are you most proud of?
I have had the opportunity to work with some incredible people, both on the city side and in Uptown. During that time, that group of individuals have been able to accomplish a lot of things. And with all the park improvements that were accomplished in the '90s, again with the visions of the Rick Gordons, the Todd Tintlers, the Benji Brumbalows and the Harry Westcotts, working with those people and then the opportunity to come over here and work with Buddy Nelms, Mat Swift, Chris Woodruff, Edgar Chancellor, Roger, and all of the people that have been involved in the movement to make this a better place -- I'm proud of both of those. And the Olympics was pretty cool.
Fifty years from now, your daughter brings her grandchild down here and says, "My dad did this." What do you want her to show them?
I don't think she can show her kids anything that her dad did. I think she can show what I played a part in.
Where do you want her to take that child and tell them, "This was what your great-grandfather was involved in?"
What I would suggest is come early on a Friday, have dinner in Uptown and enjoy a concert, on Saturday get down to the Market, have lunch in Uptown, then take a trip down the river or zip line. If they have time, take a bike ride on the RiverWalk or go to one of the museums. What a weekend!
Tell me, did y'all stage that stack-up in Cut Bait the first weekend?
No, we did not.
So, when everybody swam Cut Bait and you had rafts piling up, that was not staged?
It was not.
What did you think when you saw that happening?
I was scared to death.
You thought you'd close it down the first week.
It was a tough situation to be in for somebody who hadn't been involved in something like that, and your first weekend. You have to deal with it. But it turned out well even with the situation as it was -- everybody responded well and we moved forward.
And you got a viral video out of it.
You didn't want that video out there, did you?
Thinking about it, it didn't hurt us.
Do you usually go on these inner city visits?
So, what have you seen out there on your visits the last couple of years that you might like to bring down here?
Well, every city you go to, you see things that they do differently from what you're doing -- I can't get into naming them all -- but what's going on in these other cities as far as their downtown development. One that we haven't gone to as a group is when you go to a Greenville, S.C., or when you go to a Chattanooga, the things that they are doing there that we might not have gone with the inner city visit but individuals as a group have gone to investigate what those cities are doing -- the aquarium in Chattanooga or the Peace Center in Greenville. Those are things that people of the Uptown area of the private sector went and saw and tried to get information on how they did those. So, there's a lot of benefit of going to other cities to see what they're doing.
Do we have other cities that come here?
We do, on a regular basis.
What's that like to start off years ago, we started visiting other cities to see what they're doing and now to get to the point where we host other people?
It's a good feeling to have, that you've done things along the way. I tell people all the time that what is going on here is a journey, not a destination. So, there will always be other things to do, but to have other cities come here and look at what we're doing is a good thing. And even while they're here you pick up things from them that they are doing in their cities that you could do differently here too.
What is the first thing they look at when they come to town?
Probably the cultural arts facilities and what CSU has done here. Cities are really attracted to trying to get their higher education to their downtowns. And what Columbus State University and Dr. Brown back in his day did to get all of this down here has really set a course for us that other people are interested in.
Is it Uptown or downtown?
Again, that would be something my board would have to vote on and decide how we want to move. But there's been a lot of branding that has been done not only by Uptown but Uptown businesses. ... So, I think it would be challenges there on how to deal with that. But at this point there's not a strong movement.
When you come to work, are going you downtown or are you going Uptown?
I typically use Uptown as the term, as the description of where I'm going.
Any expansion plans for the zip line?
Always. There's opportunities there. You have to freshen all of your activities just like we try to here in Uptown as far as concerts and different activities that we do.
Nothing concrete yet?
Nothing concrete yet but we're working on a couple of opportunities that hopefully we'll get pricing and that sort of stuff. So, maybe by the end of the year there will be an announcement that we're getting ready to do something else, but nothing yet.
Name: Richard Bishop
Job: President of three nonprofit organizations; Uptown Columbus Inc., Business Improvement District and Uptown Whitewater Management LLC. Bishop is a retired Columbus deputy city manager, having spent 16 years with the city in various roles.
Education: Manchester High School, 1969; Georgia Southwestern College, bachelor's degree in parks and recreation, 1974; Columbus State University, master's in public administration, 1992.
Family: Doris, wife of 35 years; children Zach, 27, who lives in Brussels, Belgium, and Katie, 25, who lives in Columbus