January 12, 2012

Mayor calls 2011 'transformational' for Columbia

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin summed up the city’s progress in 2011 as “transformational” in his State of the City address Wednesday night, citing the blossoming of Main Street, companies adding hundreds of jobs in regional businesses and the city investing in public safety, transportation, water and sewer.

Benjamin also announced another milestone toward developing the Bull Street property once occupied by the Department of Mental Health.

“I am pleased to report that years of discussions, meetings and negotiations are now bearing fruit as today papers were filed with the city outlining a plan for developing the largest piece of undeveloped downtown property east of the Mississippi; the long languishing Bull Street campus,” according to the mayor’s prepared remarks.

“We’re talking about the single largest neighborhood project in our city’s history and the stakes are high. But by preserving our historic buildings, providing ample green space and laying out a mixed-use plan where people can live, work and play; I firmly believe that, when completed, this project will be a crowning achievement for our city and a source of great pride and satisfaction for the people of Columbia,” the mayor said.

Benjamin said that he is confident that Greenville-based developer Bob Hughes “will not only transform 165 acres of prime real estate into a vibrant landscape of design and function, but that he will do while establishing a new national model for sustainable development practices.”

“I am excited about the future of Bull Street just as I am excited about the future of Columbia. But I know that this moment would never have come to pass were it not for men and women who possess both the courage to embrace a bold new vision of the future and the determination to make that vision a reality,” he said.

“When I look around our city, I see a transformation taking place. I see smiles filling faces with comfort and ease. I see neighbors coming together, enjoying each other’s company and filling our parks and community gardens with laughter and conversation,” Benjamin said in the State of the City address Wednesday night at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

Benjamin said the city made substantial progress toward its goal of rejuvenating the city’s commercial core.

“You can feel it on Main Street where the storefronts are lighting up with new businesses like Mast General, whose president Fred Martin has joined us today, and the sidewalks crowd with eager shoppers and diners like never before,” he said Wednesday.

“It has been an exciting year to say the least and, with 15 facade grant projects ready to get under way, we’re not slowing down any time soon,” Benjamin said.

And improvements in critical infrastructure are being addressed, he said. Water system improvements totaled $54.4 million and sewer improvements reached $49.3 million, making total utilities upgrades almost $104 million.

And he lauded private investment in the region as investment in the future of Columbia.

“It’s the indomitable optimism of over $1.1 billion in new capital investment throughout Metro Columbia, more than 8,500 people going back to work in 2011 and over 9,000 jobs open and available right now,” he said.

“We promised to foster a new culture that values the arts and creativity and, by leveraging public and private investment, helped to open the new Tapp’s Arts Center right in the heart of downtown.

“We promised a new death benefit to support our first responders risking their lives on the job every day and exceeded our own expectations by providing that benefit to all city employees.

“We promised to make public safety a priority and delivered in grand fashion increasing our funding for police and fire protection to historic levels and secured nearly $2 million in additional federal public safety dollars. We’ve committed to putting 39 new police cars on the street this year and, thanks to first class leaders like our Chief Aubrey Jenkins and Police Chief Randy Scott, we have promoted more firefighters than ever before and our police department is at full capacity for the first time in 15 years,” Benjamin said.

“We’ve risen to the challenge in Five Points cutting all crime there by 15% while reducing violent crime citywide including a 23% drop in assaults and a 45% drop in homicides for the first half of 2011. If that isn’t worth cheering, if that isn’t worth a little hubris, then I don’t know what is,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin said even the first city-sponsored New Year’s Eve bash had a profound impact.

“We didn’t shy away when the critics said that a New Year’s Eve celebration on Main Street was a waste of time. We pushed forward pulling volunteers from across the community and, leveraging $15,000 in public funds with nearly $200,000 in private donations, filled downtown with some 20,000 revelers.

“We turned a lull into a rush as hotels that normally lay empty during the holidays were filled to capacity. Restaurants like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse had their biggest nights ever while others, like Drake’s Duck-In, had so many customers they actually ran out of food,” he said.

“And tonight I’m proud to announce that the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism is projecting a final economic impact of over $1.5 million from this one Famously Hot New Year’s Eve celebration. That’s a $100 return on every one dollar invested by the city.

“Don’t tell us what can’t be done. We did it and we’ll do it again next year!” Mayor Benjamin said.

Posted in the Columbia Regional Business Report
Staff Report