To me, the most memorable thing about Columbia Regional Business Report’s “Power Breakfast” this morning at Embassy Suites, where a cross-section of the business community heard a panel of Midlands mayors (Columbia’s Steve Benjamin, Lexington’s Randy Halfacre, Cayce’s Elise Partin, and Blythewood’s Keith Bailey) talk about our community’s future, was this tidbit:
Steve Benjamin said a study has determined that the city of Columbia has 400 more employees than it should have for its size and what it does. Maybe this has been widely reported (perhaps while I was in England) and everyone but me knew it. Anyway, the mayor said the city is trying to reduce payroll by carefully examining every open position, and not filling any that it can possibly do without. The exceptions to this reduction strategy are police, fire and economic development, where he envisions the city spending more, not less.
Of course, that wasn’t the only important thing said, by far. A wide range of critical issues were covered. But the one overall impression I came away with was this: Local elected leadership is more committed to regional approaches — to growth, services, and everything else of importance — than ever. I didn’t just gain that impression this morning, of course. It’s been forming for some time, and it’s very encouraging. Its what the actual economic community of Columbia (as opposed to the much smaller political entity of that name) has needed, more than anything else, for at least a generation. As I was telling restaurateur Bill Dukes afterward, that’s why, the whole time I was heading The State‘s editorial board, we always grilled candidates for local office about their commitment to regional cooperation. With the kind of governmental fragmentation that afflicts us, bridge-building is essential to community improvement. So this trend we’re seeing is extremely gratifying, and bodes well.
What reinforced that impression today? Not so much any one thing they said, but the way they said almost everything, combined with their confident ease in each other’s company (a small thing, but something you might not have seen very often in the past).
Now rather than try to tell you everything else that was said, I’m going to share this excerpt from Mike Fitts’ report. Why should I do all the reporting myself? I have a long-established habit of delegating things to Mike, who once served on my quarterdeck as ably as Tom Pullings or anyone else you care to name (and I can’t say fairer than that), and I see no reason to stop now:
… Two other mayors emphasized that handling current growth is among their current concerns. Lexington Mayor Randy Halfacre said the town is launching a major program to deal with “a huge problem with traffic congestion” downtown. Phase 1 of the project will cost $12 million, more than half of which will be spent to buy right of way easements, Halfacre said.
Blythewood has prepared a master plan to handle what looks like major growth in the next 20 years, Mayor Keith Bailey said. That includes beautification of the main exit off Interstate 77, which he called “a front door” for the Midlands.
This kind of growth needs to be planned for, Halfacre said.
“If we don’t get a handle on it now, it’s going to slip away from us,” he said.
Cayce Mayor Elise Partin said her town has a different challenge: getting the word out about the community and its opportunities. Its many longtime residents love it, she said, but others don’t know about amenities such as the riverwalk, she said.
“Pride in our area and our city is strong,” she said.
The loss of Southwest Airlines to two other in-state markets showed the need for regionalism, Halfacre said. At a recent meeting with Southwest, Columbia Metro Airport Executive Director Dan Mann was told, “We did not see your region, your area, working together.”
Two new groups are seeking to remedy that, Halfacre said. He has helped put together an alliance of midstate chambers of commerce, and West Columbia Mayor Bobby Horton is chairman of a new group of Midlands mayors. These groups should help build teamwork and draw legislative attention when necessary, Halfacre said.
Benjamin said the community needs to work on the big picture — a regional master plan. He recounted some of the area’s assets but said that the vision to tie all these things together has been lacking.
“We need to start moving aggressively forward,” Benjamin said.
Overall, it was a good session, like the others I’ve attended under CRBR’s auspices.