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On the Table brings thousands together for community-wide effort to make Columbus better

On the Table gatherings open up conversations across Columbus

"On the Table" events across the city brought people together to share food, experiences and conversation
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"On the Table" events across the city brought people together to share food, experiences and conversation

A group of young professionals rose early Tuesday morning to lend their voices to a community-wide conversation about the future of Columbus.

At 7:30 a.m., they gathered at Lakebottom Park, where they sat on blankets while pondering the questions: What do you feel our community needs? And what changes would you like to see?

Fueled by Chick-fil-A biscuits and hot coffee, it didn’t take long for the small group discussions to shift into full gear, as about 20 people discussed everything from dating challenges to the socioeconomic gaps in the community.

“In Columbus, the mindset has to change,” said one young woman speaking passionately to her peers. “And it has to be a community effort to bridge that gap.”

The event was sponsored by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals as part of the “On the Table” initiative organized by the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley. Made possible through a grant from the Knight Foundation, the daylong project brought together people of various races, generations and socioeconomic backgrounds for mealtime discussions about what they like about the community and what can be done to make it even better.

Hosts were given prompt questions to start the conversations. And participants were encouraged to post pictures on Facebook and Instagram using a cut-out thought bubble provided by On the Table organizers. The hashtag for the day was #ChattChat.

In addition to 35 public tables, there were dozens of private events throughout the day. Organizers said thousands were expected to participate. Several churches are also hosting events on Wednesday as part of their mid-week services.

“We think we’re looking at between about 6,500 and 7,000 people,” said CVCF CEO Betsy Covington, trying to estimate the number of total participants. “We have 22 super hosts and a total somewhere in the neighborhood of 560 tables, which I think is just phenomenal.

“... I mean, we’ve had people coming in during the day picking up (host tool kits),” she said. “They just heard about it this morning and they wanted to put together a table for later today.”

Covington said it was wonderful to see people respond in such a positive way.

“They are hungry for that conversation,” she said. “And now the next step is to get people to complete the survey, which is already up on the Onthetablechatt.com website, because this is going to dig a little deeper into what people think, and all that data will get shared back with the community, probably in about four months.”

Some organizations hosted dozens of people. Others provided a more intimate setting.

Davis Broadcasting Inc. welcomed guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the radio station, located at 2203 Wynnton Road. The morning event started at 8 a.m., drawing about eight people who participated in a lively discussion about troubled youth, the city’s growth and the need for more affordable housing.

At the Columbus Police Department, more than 65 people showed up at lunchtime to sit at tables hosted by Chief Ricky Boren and other police administrators. The food was provided by members of a new organization called Friends and Veterans on the Rise. The menu included smothered chicken, baked ham, green beans and rice.

Those in attendance included members of Greater Peace Baptist Church, the Citizens Law Enforcement Academy, Neighborhood Watch groups and other organizations. Many were pastors from various congregations.

At tables hosted by Maj. Gil Slouchick and Maj. J.D. Hawk, citizens and police talked about changes in society that have led many young people down the wrong path. They said the community needs to return to old-fashioned parenting and bonding with neighbors.

Citizens also expressed concerns about neighborhood security and the need for more officers on the street.

“So often our society says we want to decrease crime but we want to pay the officers the same amount of money,” said Marvin Broadwater Sr., the Georgia state representative for the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. “You can’t have it both ways. You’ve got to pay for someone to do law enforcement.

“... Not only do you need more officers on the street, you’ve got to retain them,” he said. “Because you have so many officers coming in, getting trained and then going off to Peachtree City.”

Also at lunchtime, members of the 2017 Leadership Columbus class and their guests gathered around 10 tables at Liberty Utilities off Victory Drive. More than 75 people participated, and they discussed a broad range of issues.

“One table talked about women’s work issues and another one talked a lot about transportation,” said Amy Bryan, Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President for Community Development and Growth. “Our focus was on community development, so it was a very broad discussion on that.”

Another diverse group of approximately 30 folks attended the On the Table conversation hosted by the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department in Comer Gym, where they lunched on Subway sandwiches.

Participants sat at five tables of eight and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of life in Columbus. At one table, participants praised the city’s improved options for entertainment, but one woman noted the development also has “highlighted the demarcation between the haves and the have-nots.”

The table’s facilitator, Chris Bass, the Community in Schools division manager for Parks and Rec, asked the participants what the city needs. Their responses included: more lending libraries, more streetscapes, more affordable activities for children and more mentorships to help reduce crime.

Bass also asked the participants what they like most about Columbus. Among their answers: city events, parks, the Chattahoochee Riverwalk, diversity, planned growth that limits urban sprawl while boosting underdeveloped areas, and having big-city amenities while keeping a small-town feel.

MidTown Inc. held a lunch event at Lakebottom Park, hosting 80 people. The organization’s executive director, Anne King, also participated in the breakfast at Davis Broadcasting Inc.

Later in the evening, public dinner events were held by several organizations, including one sponsored by St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Temple Israel and Greater Beallwood Baptist Church. The event was to be held at St. Thomas Episcopal, located at 2100 Hilton Ave.

Uptown Columbus organized another event in the 1000 block of Broadway, where participants were asked to bring an appetizer to share with a table of 12 people and bring their own beverages. The topic: What would you like to see in Uptown? What are we doing well, and what are opportunities for improvement?

Muscogee County Sheriff Donna Tompkins said she hosted two tables in the most unusual of places —inside the jail. The 22 people who attended included people who work with the inmates such as public defenders and ministers.

“We had five people from the public defender’s office and I discovered a problem that I did not know existed,” Tompkins said. “We now have more investigators working for the district attorney’s office and public defender’s office and they all want to interview inmates. That is creating some issues.”

The jail staff has not expanded to accommodate the requests to move more inmates for interviews related to court business, Tompkins said.

“One of the things we talked about with the public defender’s office is the possibility of more video conferencing,” she said. “It was interesting that I learned of an issue in the jail.”

Staff writers Chuck Williams and Mark Rice contributed to this report.

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter

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