Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin has never been one to shy away from the big, dreamy idea, especially in his annual State of the City address.
For years, the third-term mayor has used the yearly speech — which is typically delivered in a program with a healthy amount of pomp and circumstance, with police officers and firefighters in their full-dress uniforms and the city’s municipal judges decked out in their robes, sort of like the Supreme Court justices during the president’s State of the Union — as a sounding board for aggressive possibilities, a clearinghouse of what might fly with the city’s populace.
There was, for instance, his 2016 address, where he pitched the idea of “launching a small flotilla of small watercraft on a fact-finding mission” down the river from Columbia to Charleston, a flotilla the mayor himself would join, in an effort to bolster “nature-based tourism.” Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler says such a fact-finding flotilla has not yet launched.
Or there was the 2018 State of the City, when Benjamin said he wanted to explore what he calls Columbia’s Promise, an initiative to provide funding for every graduate of a Richland School District One public school to go to college at an in-state school, including public or private four-year institutions. Other communities — Kalamazoo, Michigan, perhaps most famously — have established similar college tuition programs.
Also in 2018, the mayor said he was prepared to hatch a plan that would make battered, beleaguered Finlay Park a “national draw.” That idea came into clearer focus in late 2018, when it was announced the city would collaborate with Charlotte’s U.S. National Whitewater Center to embark on a revitalization of the park, one that could include a hotel, residences and an outdoor attraction of some kind.
However, in his 2019 address — delivered Jan. 29 in the University of South Carolina School of Law’s courtroom — Benjamin seemed more grounded in his aspirations. Certainly, he touted gains the city has made in the last year — the hiring of nearly 70 new police officers, the receipt of nearly $4 million in grant funding, etc. — and he talked about areas where he wants to push the city. But, clearly, he focused the Jan. 29 remarks on coming benchmarks the city can reach out and touch.
For instance, in a city that has long been plagued by maddening traffic delays caused by the trains that crisscross town, Benjamin says there is an app in development that will help first responders better anticipate when trains might block major intersections.
“The City of Columbia is working with USC in their partnership with the federal government, CSX, and others to develop an app this year that monitors railroad crossings and communicates with trains,” Benjamin said. “This technology communicates with our first responders to predict when trains will prevent or delay police, medical and fire services from getting to their destinations. We can then reroute these emergency vehicles and work with railroad transportation to minimize, and hopefully eliminate, these issues and protect our citizens and property.”
The mayor also touted a coming town hall and recommendations from the city’s Food Policy Committee, and said neighborhood leaders and city officials will work to establish policy to address food insecurities in Columbia. (For more, see Insecure, page 12.)
And Benjamin, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says he’ll introduce a city law that would encourage companies that do business with the city to remove boxes from employment applications that ask applicants if they have a criminal history.
“Regardless of what you believe or where you come from, many of us can agree that getting a second chance is something of significant value,” Benjamin said. “But what if you never really got a first chance to begin with? That’s why I will support a ‘Ban the Box’ ordinance that will require city contractors to remove the question regarding past criminal offenses from job applications citywide.
“The City of Columbia already implements Ban the Box tactics in its hiring, but we also want people who work for small businesses, for large corporations, for nonprofit organizations and everything in between to have those same opportunities.”