WHILE MIDLANDS residents outside of Columbia's limits can't cast votes in the April 6 election to determine who will be the next mayor of the capital city, they have reason to be more than casual observers of the race.
The mayor of Columbia is the figurative head of the Midlands. No, he doesn't have any official authority in unincorporated Lexington and Richland counties or their municipalities. Yes, Cayce has its own mayor, as do Blythewood, Forest Acres, Irmo, the town of Lexington and the many other municipalities.
But the mayor of Columbia - with his six cohorts on City Council - plays a large role in determining the fate of the region. As Columbia goes, so goes, for the most part, the surrounding area.
The next mayor must lead the city back to financial stability and position it - and by virtue, the surrounding area - for growth and development. The city must not only come up with a financial fix for its recessionary and self-inflicted problems but also continue to improve the city core, preserve its neighborhoods and play a role in the development of Innovista, which some predict could transform the Midlands economy.
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Some people live so close to and are so directly affected by Columbia that they identify more with the city than with their own local government. I can remember a couple of mayoral and council elections when people who lived outside the city called me wanting to know if they could they vote. Some had even gone out only to find their regular voting place closed. Actually, they knew better. They were just reacting intuitively: They pay for city water; they see the city regularly rezoning land near them; they see city police patrolling nearby; and they see city garbage trucks picking up, in some cases two doors down - or even next door.
It's not just people close in who are affected by the city's leadership and the policy those leaders might push. Columbia has annexed well beyond its core - from parts of Lexington County to Northwest Richland to Northeast Richland. Who knows where the next mayor and council will annex? Much of the focus has been on taking in doughnut holes, unincorporated property surrounded the city. The city's financial crisis might affect its annexation in the future. One school of thought is that the city can't afford to take in lots of new property because police and other services already are stretched to their limit. Another thought is that annexing commercial property, some of which already has begun, and upscale homes could deepen the city's coffers.
Those who live deep in Lexington County or municipalities in Lexington or Richland might feel disconnected and insulated from Columbia's actions. But Columbia plays a major role in determining the success or failure of the entire region. While industries, businesses or prospective residents might move to the suburbs, they often make the decision based on how viable the core city is. People like the idea of living near a strong center city. Folks in Eastover, Red Bank, Irmo, Chapin, Dutch Fork and Northeast Richland benefit from having Columbia as a hub.
A thriving Vista, art museum, main library, children's museum and riverfront draw people to the region. (Of course, Columbia needs thriving suburbs to support it as well.)
Lexington and Richland county officials know that. Why else would they help build the convention center and buy land for the Colonial Center? They know their citizens and businesses benefit from visitors, new tax revenue and industry drawn to a strong city center. Richland County and Richland 1 helped develop the Vista via a special tax district for the same reason.
Instead of avoiding Columbia, those outside the city should encourage their elected leaders to engage and collaborate with Columbia and its elected leaders. After all, they've invested in Columbia.
Another reason for those outside Columbia to take interest in its politics is the fact that the city is the region's dominant water and sewer provider. While it's good that the city can accommodate growth and development, its policy of charging customers outside its limits double for water angers many. Columbia can dictate where growth occurs by where it runs water and sewer lines, sometimes to the dismay of non-residents and other locally elected officials. Columbia also uses water to force some people to be annexed.
At the moment, Columbia is considering a 5 percent increase in water and sewer rates. As the city works to improve its aged water and sewer systems and takes on other large projects, chances are those fees will continue to rise.
Ultimately, if only in some small way, we all identify with Columbia. While many prefer to live in an unincorporated area or small town, the fact is that when we travel, we don't tell people simply we're from "the Midlands" or even Irmo or Sprindale. We say we're from Columbia or "just outside of Columbia."
The political entity we know as Columbia makes up only a portion of the real city - the economic city that includes two county governments, nearly a dozen municipalities, seven school districts and a number of special purpose districts for water, sewer, fire and recreation.
With revenues declining, it's imperative that the economic city of Columbia come together and seek efficiencies to maintain good-quality services to keep up with expected growth and lure new jobs and industry.
Columbia's mayor ought to lead that process. But he must be capable of articulating a clear vision that energizes not only his constituents and council but other elected leaders and their citizens. A mayor who can effectively communicate and interact with other leaders could help get the entire community to focus on and address issues of import. He can't confine himself to the geographical Columbia, but must be concerned about the real city.
And everyone who lives in the real city ought to be more than casually concerned about who that leader will be.