State of the City address

Columbia mayor talks safety as 2nd term starts

cleblanc@thestate.comJanuary 21, 2014 

Steve Benjamin

  • Highlights

    Some of the primary initiatives Mayor Steve Benjamin announced Tuesday in his State of the City address:

    •  Convert Five Points to a pedestrian district on weekends

    •  Permit a private company to build a plant that would convert sewer sludge into fertilizer and natural gas

    •  Develop a center to help the city’s young African-American boys become more successful

    •  Eliminate fees for the city’s initial reviews of construction plans, but raises prices for later reviews

— Mayor Steve Benjamin laid out on Tuesday a road map for his second term, floating ideas from banning cars in Five Points on weekends to allowing a private recycling company to build a sludge-to-fertilizer plant next to the city’s sewer treatment facility.

“The city we are today is only a pale reflection of the city we can be, are meant to be,” he told a crowd in the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center after listing accomplishments of his first administration, “a city of ideas – new and bold.”

His agenda for the Five Points entertainment district calls for more patrols by police from the city, Richland County and the University of South Carolina and monthly meetings with business owners and a pedestrian district during weekends when Five Points swells with students. USC president Harris Pastides called for a pedestrian mall after a freshman was shot and paralyzed in the fall by what police say was a stray bullet.

Sounding another public safety theme, Benjamin said he would push City Council to adopt all the local recommendations from a violent crime and bond review panel he organized as well as press the Legislature to adopt stricter state laws on releasing violent, repeat offenders while they are awaiting trials.

He called on council to approve a private company’s plan to build a plant that would convert sewer sludge into fertilizer and natural gas that could fuel the city’s fleet of vehicles.

“We have private-sector partners who are ready, willing and able right now to build a facility,” Benjamin said without naming the company. He the project would entail “several hundreds of millions dollars” in private investment and would become “the single most impactful green initiative our city has ever undertaken.”

Right now, it costs the city “tens of millions of taxpayer dollars” to pay to have tons of sludge hauled away and buried in landfills, he said.

In announcing an initiative to especially help African-American boys, Benjamin departed from his prepared text to tell the audience an anecdote about happening upon six boys late one recent morning talking and using their mobile phones at a McDonald’s restaurant at Two Notch Road and Beltline Boulevard.

The boys recognized him, and they spoke a few minutes before Benjamin asked how many of them had eaten that morning. None had.

“Every child deserves the chance to shine,” he said. “But right now, that’s not the case. Right now our children are struggling and we must do more.

“Children don’t fail en masse. Adults fail children en masse. I’m talking about changing the entire way we measure success ... ,” Benjamin said in calling for a Center of Excellence for Black Male Achievement. He asked the city’s business leaders to team with Columbia government and nonprofit groups, academics and churches to make the center into “a model for thoughtful, solution-oriented ideas that improve the lives of our children.”

The mayor did not provide further details.

He set a $1 billion goal for private investment in high-rise buildings by the end of his new term in 2017.

To encourage investment, Benjamin proposes to eliminate fees the city charges for its first reviews of construction plans. But prices for second and subsequent reviews would shoot up. The idea, he said, is to encourage contractors “to get it right the first time, saving city resources and taxpayer dollars.”

The mayor also took an opportunity to cheer for the controversial proposal to spend upwards of $90 million in public money to spur construction in the proposed Bull Street neighborhood. Just minutes before his speech, council in a 5-2 vote decided to begin formal negotiation with an Atlanta-based minor-league baseball team owner to help build and operate a city-run stadium in the center of the former state mental health agency campus.

“What we’re talking about here ... is about more than baseball,” Benjamin said. “It’s about bringing half a million people downtown every year ... . It’s about new shoppers and diners booking 35,000 room nights and spending $201 million in our local hotels and restaurants.”

Benjamin acknowledged that some might scoff at his ideas.

“Criticism is a defense of mediocrity,” he said. “So let the doubters doubt. Let the critics criticize. Let the naysayers say no. We choose instead to believe. We choose to dream big and act boldly.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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