Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said it himself: His job is to be the No. 1 salesperson of the city.
Speaking to the Columbus Rotary Club on Tuesday, Smith did that job rather well.
He spent 30 minutes enumerating the city’s accomplishments over the past year. In case you haven’t been paying attention, there’s plenty to say on that front.
City sales tax revenues exceeded $10 million this fiscal year for the first time ever. City acquisition and clean-up of the old Gilmer Inn and adjacent parking lot downtown have already turned an eyesore into the makings of a nice green space and set the properties up nicely to draw future commercial development.
A project to renovate the 113-year-old city hall downtown is nearly complete, and construction for a Riverwalk extension project that has garnered about $3.5 million in state funds is underway.
Further, this month the city will advertise for bids on a $5 million bond-funded project that aims to pave parts of 92 streets citywide, and the city’s $23 million budget for fiscal year 2016-17 will include funding for up to 77 police officers … once, of course, the police department finds qualified candidates to fill its 25 vacant spots.
Most impressively, Smith did not back away from a pair of tough questions Rotarians posed after his speech that hit on topics he probably would have rather not come up — his impressions of the needs and leadership at the D-rated Columbus Municipal School District and the ongoing struggle between the city and Lowndes County over the best path forward for the parks system.
In response to the first question, he prefaced, “Let me be as candid as I can.” Then he followed with an answer that fulfilled that promise.
Smith said leadership that is “looking for a scapegoat” and “making excuses” isn’t going to solve anything with a district that is struggling both financially and academically. For CMSD to improve, he said, “there’s going to have to be some changes from a leadership standpoint.”
What exactly those changes are, he didn’t offer, but he did say leadership is lacking when leaders blame their predecessors for their problems — as Superintendent Philip Hickman has repeatedly done, most recently earlier this year when he pointed his finger at previous administrations when unsuccessfully stumping for a millage increase.
To the parks issue, which entails the county recently giving notice it intends to leave the jointly managed Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority to start its own parks system, he was more amicable. But he made his position plain, saying it is incumbent on city and county leaders to get together and come to a conclusion that serves the best interests of all citizens.
“I’m open,” he added, spreading his arms and smiling as he looked to County Administrator Ralph Billingsley sitting less than 10 feet away.
As he acknowledged earlier, the mayor was accentuating the positive. While the city faces no shortage of challenges — challenges more daunting than cleaning up eyesores and executing capital-improvement projects funded with state and federal grants — it is refreshing to pause for a moment and consider some of the positive things happening in our lovely town.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.