Columbia mayor hails progress, encourages volunteerism in annual speech
Two-and-a-half years ago, few people would’ve expected to see the current vivacity on Main Street, where an outdoor ice rink brought nearly 14,000 people to the downtown area this season and where more than 20,000 gathered for a “famously hot” New Year’s Eve celebration.
Columbia has realized a lofty goal of downtown revitalization that Mayor Steve Benjamin set when he was elected to office in April 2010, and Wednesday night he praised the city’s many recent and continuing improvements.
And Columbia is just getting started, Benjamin said in his 2013 State of the City address at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
“Look around you today and you’ll see. It’s not a dream. It’s not a hallucination. It’s not a pack of empty promises for political gain and profit,” Benjamin said. “It’s our vision coming true. It’s our present meeting our potential. It’s our city living up to its promise."
Benjamin addressed Columbia’s role in a changing world where “talent no longer follows industry,” but where people decide what place they want to live, move there, then look for jobs.
“This trend will impact our city for better or for worse for the next 50 years or longer,” Benjamin said. “It shouldtell you people are looking for a sense of place when they decide where they will live and bring their time, talents and treasures today. Together we must create a sense of place in Columbia."
Benjamin devoted much of his speech to the city’s focus on the downtown area, noting the impact of the arts and new local businesses in bringing jobs and residents to the Main Street area.
He also praised the downtown farmers market initiatives and upcoming historical renovations that continue to make the area “a hub of activity."
“The future holds great things for this city. I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” Benjamin said. “Main Street is not only alive and well, but its best days are yet to come."
Benjamin cited a laundry list of the city’s gains in the past 30 months including a nearly 2-percent drop in metro unemployment, i m p r o v e m e n t s in sustainability efforts and public transportation and investment in water and sewer system infrastructure.
But the mayor also acknowledged areas of needed improvement, and one of the first issues he said he will ask City Council and new city manager Teresa Wilson to address is pay disparity for city employees, particularly Columbia’s firefighters.
“I have little doubt that many if not most of our city employees are making less money than they deserve,” Benjamin said. “And I support a comprehensive wage disparity study to identify these problems and develop a comprehensive strategy to bring all city wages up to the market rate.”
Benjamin also encouraged citizens to take a role in their city’s ongoing quest for improvement, particularly through volunteer efforts. He introduced to the audience his 17-year- old “little brother” Paxton and told them, “If I can find the time to volunteer as a mentor for young Paxton there, then maybe some of you can too.
“Imagine each of us reaching out with the gift of opportunity and the impact we would make across this city,” Benjamin said.
He added that Columbia plans to roll out a new citywide service initiative.
One big current issue that Benjamin skimmed over was recent downtown violence, particularly in the Five Points area, though he did praise the police force for its crime- solving and prevention efforts in the area and the city. He also noted the two-year decreases in violent crimes by 12 percent, aggravated assaults by 23.5 percent and homicides by 50 percent.