Recently-elected mayor Skip Henderson said Columbus has its challenges but the city is poised to get stronger in the coming years during his inaugural State of the City address.
Henderson, who was sworn-in in January after serving on the Columbus council for more than two decades, spoke for nearly 35 minutes Friday morning. Economic development, infrastructure and public safety were three of the mayor’s major talking points.
Henderson touched on struggles with understaffed law enforcement agencies, the ailing Government Center and a new sales taxes he plans to bring before the city council.
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Henderson’s plans for economic development in Columbus mirrors the Columbus 2025 initiative, a holistic, multi-year development plan aimed at reducing poverty and improving the quality of life in the Chattahoochee Valley.
The goal is to create a skilled workforce which includes a focus on public education and jobs, Henderson said.
Jobs, Henderson said, is something the city will always keep an eye on. Employment makes addressing all the other city’s challenges like poverty, substandard housing, education and crime easier.
“We will make sure all of our citizens have access to opportunities. You can’t gift somebody to prosperity. But you can opportunity them to prosperity,” he said. “Columbus is loaded with resources that will help people interested in improving their employability.”
The city also has immediate capital needs like the Government Center, which has been plagued by issues since major flooding in June 2018. Henderson said he intends to ask the city council to consider a special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST) once the current ESPLOST expires in 2020.
“We’re going to have to deal with the Government Center,” he said. “I don’t know what that is going to look like. I really don’t. But I do know that it is gonna have to happen. We just put a $6 million band-aid on that building.”
If the council agrees, public meetings where residents could express their desires about what projects they want the tax to fund will begin, he said.
“With current estimates of nearly 40 percent of out-of-county contributions, this option would make certain that the Muscogee County property owners are not the only ones bearing the burden,” he said.
Major infrastructure projects Henderson also highlighted include 10 transportation projects underway with $300 million in committed funding. Most of those projects are in south Columbus, an area of the city that is sometimes neglected, he said.
“I am very bullish about south Columbus,” he said. “I think we are positioned today to try to generate investment in part of our community that sometimes gets neglected when we talk about opportunities.”
Henderson also mentioned increased economic activity near Westville, real estate currently controlled by the housing authority on the corner of Veterans Parkway and Victory Drive, the old Georgia farmers market property, and the old South Commons tank farm.
Henderson also cited law enforcement understaffing as a key area to address. Both the city police department and the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office are short-handed; the police department currently has 84 unfilled officer positions while the sheriff’s department has 38.
Pay increases for those officers and other city government employees is also a goal, he said.
Hiring more law enforcement officers won’t be the only crime-fighting strategy the city uses. Crime prevention techniques targeting the city’s youth and preventing recidivism are also key goals, Henderson said.
“You can’t police your way to crime prevention,” he said. “We have to find ways to cut off the food supply.”
The mayor said his administration is working on a strategy to bring the summer youth work program back. The summer pass, he said, will also make a return. The pass will include free or discounted prices for use of public transportation, pools, recreations centers and hopefully, cultural facilities like the Springer Opera House.
An important part of Henderson’s vision for public safety also includes dealing with blighted houses and trailer parks. Henderson pledged $1 million in the budget for the demolition of those properties.
“We will send a visual message to residents all across our community that they are important and that we care about them,” he said.
Henderson closed his speech Friday highlighting relationships with major economic partners like Fort Benning, Columbus State University, the Mercer medical school and other organizations.
“Government has one job to create an environment where the people who really drive the train — you — can chart a course, move ahead and continue to gather momentum,” he said. “The state of our city is strong but it’s going to get stronger because it has to. We have challenges. We have always had challenges. But we have, we will, and we do continue to work to meet those challenges together.”