COLUMBIA — The final First Ward candidate forum sponsored by the Central Columbia Get Out the Vote committee was also the most heated.
About 25 people came to the Salvation Army on Saturday afternoon to discuss their concerns with the four candidates . The issue that dominated the conversation was the neglect of the First Ward.
First Ward resident Mary Thompson was the first to approach the candidates with her frustrations about neighborhood neglect.
“There’s no one caring about the inner-city right now,” she said. Thompson added that crime, run-down houses and drug problems are prevalent in the First Ward but rarely addressed by anyone.
During the question-and-answer portion of the forum, audience members went back and forth with candidates on the issues of availability and participation in youth programs and how the neighborhoods can be changed for the better.
Candidate Karen Baxter, a licensed practical nurse and former vice president of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, said youth programs in the First Ward are not being used. She said it is important for residents to volunteer their own time and energy to mentor teenagers.
“If 50 people can change 50 teenagers’ lives, then that’s 50 teenagers whose perspectives might be altered and whose life path might be changed,” Baxter said, referring to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Baxter said she encourages people to go out of their comfort zone and take risks to improve their neighborhood in order to end neighborhood neglect.
“In Ridgeway, it’s 80 percent renters, and renters don’t invest in their neighborhood,” she said. “We as a group haven’t made enough of an effort.”
Candidate John G. Clark, a community and neighborhood activist, said he wants to create community resource centers across Columbia and the First Ward and make them a place where youth and adults can meet. He said that it’s the council’s responsibility to address this issue and push the school district to cooperate as well.
“I plan to work at a council level to propose a tax increase to fund community centers and get it done,” Clark said.
Clark said change in the neighborhoods come from neighborhood associations. He said he wants to train residents to effectively run their neighborhoods.
Three-term incumbent Almeta Crayton said she still wants a curfew for youth implemented.
“Our kids need somewhere to go,” she said. “We have the resources in the books, but the books don’t match up on the street.”
Crayton said the problem with neglect in the First Ward is that people have been talking about change in the ward, but they weren’t talking to the people who live there.
“The government can’t do everything,” Crayton said. “It’s time for us to quit hiding behind the door and say we need to get rid of this and that.”
Instead of neighborhood associations, Crayton said she’d like to see a “block unit” system formed, where those living close to one another would communicate enough that they’d know what’s going on with each other.
Candidate Paul Sturtz, co-founder of Ragtag Cinemacafe and the True/False Film Festival, said he would support the youth programs already in place to make them better.
“We need to say this is essential to the city’s future, to put our all into this,” Sturtz said.
In regard to neighborhood neglect, Sturtz said he felt there’s been a misallocation of resources. Rather than using community development block grants toward the ward’s infrastructure, Sturz said they need to be used for social programs. Sturtz said he’d like to see city money spent toward the First Ward’s infrastructure, just as it is on the outskirts of the city.
“Dealing with the crime is an outgrowth of poor planning,” Sturtz said. “We need to work as a community in the next 20 or 30 years to turn this around.”
Community members in attendance Saturday said afterward that despite all that was said by the candidates, they still feel they have questions that haven’t been answered.
Wanda Leech, a member of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, said she asked the candidates how they would improve her neighborhood but never got an answer from any of them.
Katie Young, a First Ward resident, said she hoped there would be more forums organized in the future so she could hear more from the candidates. Until then, she said she’s not yet sure who she’ll vote for.
“Another meeting would help me decide,” she said.
The Central Columbia Get Out the Vote committee will host a Community Coffee with the candidates from 3 to 6 p.m. March 30 at the Downtown Optimist Club.