COLUMBIA — With Columbia's February unemployment rate at 5.9 percent — up from 4.1 percent in October — and indicators showing Missouri jobless claims on the rise, job creation and economic development weigh heavily on City Council candidates' minds.
All four candidates, Jason Thornhill and Allan Sharrock in the Second Ward and Rod Robison and Barbara Hoppe in the Sixth Ward, pledge to increase the number of jobs available. But their ideas for how to do that differ.
Hoppe, the only incumbent, said she is pleased with the city's current direction. But all three first-time candidates are proposing changes or expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo.
"We are on the right track," Hoppe said. "I just don't understand how my opponent can (in) any way say that this council or myself isn't doing wonderful things to put us in a good position in the future."
Those wonderful things, Hoppe said, include approving an economic development director and a sustainability director, as well as a focus on the creation of green jobs at every level, such as weatherizing homes and engineering alternative power sources.
Her opponent, Robison, said Columbia has a lot to offer businesses and should look to add tax benefits to that package in some cases.
"I think we really need to do everything we can to convince them (businesses) to come here," Robison said.
Robison also took issue with the city's processes for approving new commercial developments.
"It's not so much that we have to start something new, but that we have to stop some of these road blocks," Robison said of the cumbersome requirements that developers face when pushing projects through the city bureaucracy.
Robison said developers should not be forced to come back time and again for a series of excessively long meetings. "There are regulations, and either (developers) are meeting them or not," he said.
In the Second Ward, Sharrock said his first step, if elected, would be to ask Regional Economic Development Inc., and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce for a list of potential projects and ideas. Sharrock said he would not rest until the council had either voted for or against every proposal.
Thornhill, a member of the chamber, said his first goal would be to learn what strategies have worked for similar cities and then adapt them to fit Columbia.
"I do think we can streamline the approval process for those folks who do want to build here," Thornhill said.
Thornhill said there is more to economic development than just bringing new buildings to town. He said many high school graduates and high school dropouts aren't making adequate wages.
"Just because you have jobs doesn't mean you have wages that support home ownership and investment in the community," Thornhill said.
Thornhill said the City Council isn't doing enough to promote job creation and a stronger economy.
"We've lost more jobs than we've brought in the last five to 10 years," Thornhill said.
Sharrock agreed the city's economic environment is unacceptable.
"I've knocked on a lot of people's doors, and they've said they've just been laid off," Sharrock said. "If we're not proactive and we're not aggressive then we're going to be on the defensive, and that's never where we want to be."
Sharrock and Thornhill said the city needs to "close the financial gap" by providing high school graduates and dropouts with jobs "that they can be proud of and make a decent wage."
When discussing green jobs, Sharrock said the reality is that a business is a business and that if the city is not business-friendly, green employers won't relocate to Columbia, either.
The election, which also includes the Columbia School Board race, is Tuesday.
Missourian reporter Patrick Sweet contributed to this story.