News

January 21, 2015

Bolton: Columbia, SC mayor, outlines promise to less fortunate

While declaring the state of the city “explosive,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin acknowledged that many citizens struggle to make ends meet in our capital city and called on council members and others to help him change that.

In short, Mr. Benjamin made the case that an exploding Columbia should offer opportunities — a promise, if you will — to those who are less fortunate but who are willing to work toward making a better life for themselves and their families.

He’s right: What good would it be if Columbia takes off economically, culturally and socially — making some people wealthier and even spawning a few new millionaires in the process — while one in four citizens remain in poverty, children continue struggling to read and homeless people continue languishing?

How can a city the mayor continually declares to be headed toward becoming “the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial city in America” have no heart for the needy, no plan aimed at lifting those at the bottom up and no more room at the table of prosperity?

An exploding Columbia that doesn’t offer the less fortunate an opportunity to take part in the explosion being handsomely supported through public dollars would be derelict.

During his annual address Tuesday, the mayor rattled off numerous accomplishments in recent years: dozens of new homes in Burton Heights, major infrastructure and park improvements; overall crime down 11 percent and violent crime down nearly 33 percent over the past four years; “historic investments” in public safety, including $4.5 million in new funds this year alone; North Main Plaza fully occupied for the first time; a Department of Transportation T.I.G.E.R. grant that, combined with funds from the Richland County transportation penny, will provide new infrastructure and economic activity in north Columbia; ground broken on Spirit Communications Park, a baseball stadium that also will be used as an entertainment venue, which is expected to boost the local economy.

“We’re not growing by chance, we’re growing by choice. And that makes all the difference,” the mayor said.

“In less than four years we’ve seen over $1 billion in new downtown investment,” he said, and that doesn’t include transportation penny projects expected to generate $1.2 billion in economic impact and hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in restoring and improving the city’s water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure.

Nor does that count Columbia Commons, the Bull Street development that is projected to create more than 11,020 new permanent jobs, $581 million in annual wages and another $1.2 billion in economic activity.

“We’ve done great things in Columbia. Now I ask you to help me do even more,” the mayor said.

“I ask you to help me fulfill Columbia’s Promise because right now in Columbia over 24 percent of our fellow citizens live in poverty, and nearly a quarter of them are children.”

Earlier in his speech, he had talked about those citizens who couldn’t afford to be at the State of the City address even if they wanted to because they work two and three jobs to feed and house their families. What about those who have no support system or who struggle every day, never getting ahead? Or those children who are never given any hope of being anything other than poor?

Economic security and prosperity are too far out of reach for many families, he said.

And then he asked a question: “Who will stand for them?”

“We will.”

In making his plea, Mayor Benjamin said a person making minimum wage must work two full-time jobs simply to afford a single-bedroom apartment in Columbia and that a single mother making minimum wage spends roughly a third of her annual income just on child care.

Ultimately, he introduced what he called “Columbia’s Promise,” which says to those willing “to work hard, contribute to your community and respect others” that they “deserve a quality education, a good job and a living wage; that your circumstance should not determine your success and that, regardless of whatever past sins you carry with you, if you’re looking to change your life for the better, we will do everything within our power to help you reach your goals.”

For sure, there will be those who view such a promise with skepticism and criticize it as yet another attempt to give people a handout. It’s not the government’s job, some will say. But there are things the government can do to help provide opportunities.

It also will take individuals and private companies and organizations providing financial and other support as well. The prosperity that could flood into Columbia should generate new jobs, new corporate wealth, new philanthropic dollars, some of which could be used to help bring new hope to those who all too often get left out.

“I’m asking you to help me write a new story because this is America, and in the richest, most powerful nation in the history of the world, you shouldn’t have to work full-time just to raise your kids in poverty,” Mr. Benjamin said.

He said that “if we can secure over $1 billion in new downtown investment in less than three years,” but can’t help those seeking to improve their lives, “then we don’t deserve to be here.”

Mr. Benjamin made some concrete requests: For example, while noting that a compensation study is due any time now that will recommend increases for city employees, he asked City Council to raise the minimum hourly wage for Columbia employees above the proposed $10.10. He also asked other local and state leaders throughout the Midlands to join the effort.

He challenged the audience to imagine having $100 million in new privately developed affordable housing; helping veterans sleeping in downtown storefronts to rebuild their lives; developing a public-private community partnership that raises the number of summer jobs provided to students through the Columbia Urban League’s Summer Work Experience Leadership Program from 250 to 1,000; and supporting Richland District 1’s efforts to attract and retain the best teachers with low-interest home loans if they live within the city limits.

He spoke of imagining apprenticeship initiatives that provide training in high-tech industries and skilled trades as well as training aimed at creating competent business owners.

“In cities like ours all across America, visionary business and community leaders have created a cooperative business model that supplies unemployed, underemployed and even undereducated citizens with the necessary skills to not only run a business, but to be successful in doing so,” Mr. Benjamin said.

“This isn’t about giving someone a job. It’s about giving them a future. It’s about creating new wealth in communities that have only ever known poverty.”

Imagine that.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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