Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It Is Time To Define Ourselves

By mayoral candidate, Aaron Johnson

Columbia's government has been under the control of a small handful of power brokers for decades, now. The elite membership of this insiders' club have accomplished very little beyond benefiting themselves and one another. The results: a hodgepodge of half-baked plans, half-cocked schemes and half-actualized opportunities. A city that is rudderless, with no clear direction and no distinct ambition, no chartered course, no sense of cohesiveness at all.

To put it another way, despite having several high quality educational institutions, bountiful natural beauty and resources and some of the most creative and visionary citizens in the Southeast, Columbia remains completely unestablished. We live scattered, adrift, isolated and lost. When great things are accomplished in this city, they are accomplished from below. It takes individual artists and business leaders to rise up against - despite - the city government. It has been that way for as long as I have lived here. Our municipal leadership has never been an asset, nor a guiding light, though it has in many cases been a hindrance, and has in many instances muddled circumstances and dispensed with opportunities.

The authors of our local government have been filling in the blanks of this city as if it were a “Mad Lib.” A random program here, an under-utilized resource there, with nothing to draw it together. Examples:

Why did we let the opportunity to become a filmmaking capital of the East coast slip through our fingertips in 2006 and 2007, when so many studios and production companies wanted to do business with us?

Why doesn't Columbia have any sort of plan, goal or agent of change to deal with the issue of homelessness? Indeed, why has it done so much to act as a roadblock for the Midlands Housing Alliance (MHA), which, despite city council, has managed to raise over 11 million dollars in private funds to build a homelessness transition center?

Why did Leon Lott have to come in from the County Sheriff's Department to help deal with the pernicious problem of gang violence in our city? Why do we still not have a consolidated plan to deal with and manage gang activity in our city?

We are a city undefined. We have no claim to fame, no cause to celebrate, no goal to strive for. And yet, dear friends, and yet...

Perhaps, from the proper perspective, this can be a good thing.

For now, as the Old Guard's political machinery begins to loosen and dissemble, we have an opportunity, unique in our nation, to define our town. Upon its founding, Columbia was one of the first planned cities in the nation. We owe those founders for our simple, precise block system and the ease with which downtown can be navigated. Can we apply that principle of organized vision and careful planning to the roadmap of our destiny?

We have an economy that is bottomed out. We have no system, no method, no destination. In other words, we have a blank canvas. And the next decade can be worked into an exciting opportunity to paint whatever we want on that stark white canvas. We have a chance to pull together and build whatever city we can imagine.

With over 1,000,000 square feet of dead, empty space on Main Street, downtown is an empty vessel. Imagine the potential. Columbia could be the world's largest small business incubator. Main Street could become a world famous center for entertainment and the arts. Columbia could become the technology capital of the world. We can encourage "small town feel" businesses like green grocers, malt shops and toy stores to line the streets and draw tourists from the State House. With so many empty buildings we can make downtown literally whatever we want!

And what the current administrators of our city don't seem to realize is that these measures can be accomplished without the panacea of money. That's right, dear reader. You heard me right. Leadership and vision can be established in ways beyond spending money! Imagine if the mayor of our city stepped up to the podium and made a stirring call to action. Imagine if city council came together and elicited ordinances that fostered and promoted a cohesive, thought-out plan of action. This novel concept of "long term planning" and "setting goals with time components that are measurable" has worked for decades for private businesses and families. What if we used these same methods in running our city government? The results could be incredible. If we play our cards right, we might even end up with a real city. A place where young people will want to stay. A place where businesses will want to relocate. A place we will be proud to call home.

Just think.

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