Mayor Teresa Tomlinson looked toward the future Thursday while speaking to a group of young professionals at the Columbus Museum.
Sitting in the room were about 75 people who attended her 28th “Let’s Talk with the Mayor” forum. Event sponsors included the Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals, Urban League Young Professionals, Young Art Patrons and Young Lawyers Division. City department heads, public safety and other personnel also attended.
“Obviously, there’s a theme there,” the mayor said, acknowledging the young sponsors of the event “These folks are our future leaders. They’re the ones that are going to be running for office. They’re the ones that are going to help us craft solutions for some of the challenges we face today and certainly challenges we’ll have in the near future. So we thought how appropriate to get them involved in this civic conversation that we have on a quarterly basis.”
Before entertaining questions, Tomlinson commended city emergency management, public safety and public works personnel, as well as other city and community leaders, for their successful response to Tropical Storm Irma. And she invited citizens to share their observations for a report the city is developing for future emergency situations.
Following the mayor’s introductory remarks, Deputy City Managers Pam Hodge and Lisa Goodwin provided updates on several community projects.
During the open mic, some of the young professionals asked the mayor some tough questions.
Terrance Lewis said he recently moved back to the city after graduating from the University of Alabama, and he’s looking for a place to live. He wanted to know what the city is doing to develop affordable housing and create jobs.
Answering the residential part of his question, the mayor highlighted the city’s plans to transform a blighted corridor between TSYS and Bibb City into City Village, which she described as a “hip” environment that would include narrow roads, coffee shops, creative spaces and amenities to attract young adults. She said the area offers one of the best views of the Chattahoochee River.
The city owns about 50 percent of the vacant land there, she said, and the Housing Authority of Columbus owns a lot of property that can be developed into affordable housing.
“Things have changed,” she said. “Twenty-five, thirty years ago when you thought about the Housing Authority, you thought about a certain kind of stock of residential units. I mean, if you see what they’ve done to BTW. If you’ve seen what they’ve done at Arbor Pointe. It’s really great stuff. And a lot of those are 50 percent market rate, 50 percent subsidized.
“We’ve been to places around the country where you literally couldn’t tell,” she said. “This particular place I’m thinking of was near a hospital and they had doctors and radiology technicians, totally at other ends of the income scale, living in the same places because they were that cool, that close to work. That’s the concept of City Village.”
Earlier in the meeting, Tomlinson said Columbus is in a transformational phase, which will provide career opportunities for a younger population. She referred to a Columbus 2025 initiative developed by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce to reduce poverty and spur economic growth. The plan focuses on five action areas: targeted economic growth; talented and educated people; enterprising culture; vibrant and connected places; and cohesive image and identity.
“... This era of entrepreneurship is really coming home to roost,” she said. “... We had the era of manufacturing in the last century, and that’s what this city knew, and that’s what this city thrived on. And then we had the era of finance and financial services — the Aflac, the Synovous, Total Systems. We have prospered and continue to prosper in that era as well.
“But coming at us like a freight train is this millennial GenZ,” she said. “ ... And they don’t think quite like we did. And they don’t desire to have the same types of jobs we did when we were their age. And so we want to build a city where those younger people want to come and live in and thrive.”
Tomlinson said there are fewer and fewer instances of cities like Columbus being able to lure corporations with 600 jobs from bigger cities.
“Now, it costs so much cash on the table to lure them to move,” she said. “... So what a lot of people have learned is that we get more bang for our buck when those services, those goods are invented here. And you invent something, and you create a business and begin to employ people, and before you know it you have 300, 400 employees because of your entrepreneurial endeavor.”
Renita Sweet, president of the Urban League Young Professionals, asked the mayor why she denied a request made by NAACP President Tonza Thomas to move a Confederate monument in the city last month.
“... When I hear Confederate anything it’s linked to me being a second-class citizen,” Sweet said. “So I don know how decisions are made to turn things that were once about oppression into things that are used today.”
Tomlinson said: “First, let me say there is no harbor for hate in this city. So, when you come with the objective of making people feel like second-class citizens, you will not be welcomed and we will make that very clear.”
She said no Confederate flag would fly on any public property in the city, but there’s an ongoing discussion related to a Confederate cemetery. She said the city is conducting surveys to see if Sons of the Confederate flag poles are on private or public land.
There’s a state law that prevents the city from taking down any memorial, regardless of the war, the mayor continued. She said she began researching the background of the Confederate monument on Broadway after the fatal mass shooting of black church members by a young, white-supremacist in Charleston, S.C.
“I began looking at it, and there was no general on it,” she said of the local monument. “It was not put up in what we think of as the Jim Crow era, which a lot of these statues that are now becoming the subject of a lot of discussion, they were put up for a reason. It was not even veiled.”
She said the monument on Broadway was erected as a memorial to the Confederate dead, and she thinks that’s appropriate.
“It was put up with private funds, and it was put up during the time that the families of the Confederate dead were still alive,” she said. “And so it was truly a memorial to the loss of those who fought a war of secession, and frankly, treason.
“... I think we have to be very careful about eradicating our history; because we all know it, and if I took it down, it wouldn’t change what you know about our history,” she said. “But three generations from now, it may lose its impact. The kids won’t really know what exactly happened and be able to have objects to say, ‘What’s that about?’ ”