A pivotal moment is approaching for City of Columbia government.
In the Nov. 5 municipal election, three City Council incumbents — at-large Councilman Howard Duvall, District 2's Ed McDowell and District 3's Moe Baddourah — will look to retain their seats and help govern the Capital City for another four years. But to do so, each of the councilmen will have to fend off multiple challengers seeking their respective posts.
With roughly a month to go before election day, the Columbia Chamber hosted a candidate forum at the main branch of the Richland Library on Oct. 1, one in which the Council hopefuls were quizzed on their positions regarding economic development, public safety and more. Nine of the 10 candidates for the three Council seats participated in the Chamber forum. Baddourah was the only candidate not in attendance.
The at-large — i.e. citywide — race finds Duvall facing three challengers: attorney and businesswoman Sara Middleton, refugee services coordinator Dylan Gunnels, and former victim advocacy coordinator Amadeo Geere.
Candidates were asked about Columbia's development and population growth. The Capital City has not seen its population grow like other large cities in South Carolina in the the last decade. Statistics cited by Chamber leaders show that Columbia's estimated population growth since 2010 is just more than 3 percent, while Greenville has had 17 percent population growth and Charleston has grown by 13.4 percent.
Duvall, the former director of the state Municipal Association, decried the lack of local control in regard to taxes and regulations, but also insisted Columbia's economy is strong.
"Our tax system is so screwed up by the state Legislature that it is impossible to get things done at the local level where it needs to be done," said Duvall, who also referenced a U.S. Conference of Mayors report that showed the Columbia metropolitan area ranked 73rd in the nation (out of 381 cities) in gross metropolitan product.
"I think we are continuing to grow," Duvall added.
Geere said he thinks Columbia should be growing faster, economically and in regard to population.
"We are very close to Charleston, we are very close to Greenville, we are very close to Charlotte," Geere said. "All of those surrounding cities are growing. ... Our priorities are different for our current City Council. We need a common sense approach for economic development. And we need to start supporting small business, rather than putting red tape on them."
Gunnels suggested a collaborative approach to addressing stagnant job growth in Columbia, a government-and-nonprofit heavy city where 70 percent of the property is not on the tax rolls.
"We've had job growth and population growth across the state, but we lost jobs in Columbia last year," Gunnels said. "That's statistical. We can't fluff that, it's statistical. We have to address this as an actual issue, and we have to look at it with the facts and we have to bring the experts to the table to address it."
Middleton, whose family has been integral in redevelopment on Columbia's Main Street, namely the 1600 block, said she would focus on streamlining licensing and other processes for business owners, but would leave room for regulation.
"With The Grand on Main, one of our restaurants, it took us 18 months to get an encroachment permit to get tables and chairs out in front of our restaurant," Middleton noted. "A lot of people say, 'Well, just get rid of regulations and that will streamline it.' That's not at all the point. I think you have to do it in a safe way. But, you have to be able to do it in a faster way."
The chamber's forum directed questions about Five Points to the District 3 candidates who were in attendance, John Loveday and Will Brennan. The decades-old entertainment and nightlife area is in District 3, which covers the central and southeastern parts of Columbia.
Five Points has continued to draw attention, as crusading neighbors and attorney Dick Harpootlian, elected to the state Senate in 2018, have used the court system to shut down several bars there, and the district still occasionally sees highly publicized instances of late night violence.
Brennan, a construction and design firm owner, said he would push for better and more parking in Five Points.
"The city has a role to play," Brennan says. "Parking is an issue in Five Points. The city is turning a blind eye to that. ... We have to provide parking in Five Points. With our commitment to put public safety as a priority, we are going to see Five Points become a safer destination."
Loveday, who is the principal of a public charter school, said Five Points has grown in positive ways, but public safety remains an issue.
"Five Points has come a long way, and I'm excited about the future of Five Points," Loveday said. "As far as safety? Absolutely not. Clearly it is not a place that I would take my young children after dark, to be frank. Now, we have a great leader in [Columbia Police] Chief [Skip] Holbrook. He is doing the best he can with the resources he has available to him.
"With the influx of people [in Five Points, courtesy of expanding enrollment at the University of South Carolina], we have to adjust, we have to grow and we have to adapt. To me, it's all about public safety and putting the right priorities in the right places"
In the District 2 race, McDowell, a retired pastor, is facing challenges from author and activist Catherine Fleming Bruce and Anna Fonseca, an executive officer with development firm Hilburn Holdings.
Fonseca, who once worked in the planning department with Richland County, is seeking elected office for the first time. The Governor's Hill resident said she felt compelled to jump into the District 2 race.
"My issue is mostly about accountability," Fonseca said. "There really hasn't been much accountability for District 2. I think we have a fiduciary responsibility to see how government is run and what we are spending our money on. I've worked behind the scenes, so I know how the machine works."
District 2 is in the central and northern portions of the city and is highlighted by longstanding, mostly African American neighborhoods such as Martin Luther King, Celia Saxon, Edgewood, Waverly and Booker Washington Heights, among others.
Bruce said she was spurred to get into the race by the incident earlier this year in which two men were killed by gas leaks at Allen Benedict Court on Harden Street. She said the tragedy at the Columbia Housing Authority housing project, which was subsequently evacuated and closed, was "Columbia's Chernobyl."
"I'm looking at those places where we need to do a better job of listening and engaging people," Bruce said. "We need to have better methods of providing housing, economic opportunity and equity for everyone in our community. The District 2 area is going to be my focus."
McDowell is seeking his second term on Council after first being elected in 2015. He said at the recent forum that he has been meeting with officials from the United Way, Transitions and other organizations, and hopes to address homelessness issues in Columbia in a significant way.
"While there are instances where the homeless will always be with us, how can we bridge that gap?" McDowell queried. "There has to be an adequate triage, there has to be an adequate assessment of persons. ... The homeless will always be with us, but we are engaging ourselves in a collaborative way to make sure that lives are changed and enhanced."