City Manager Bill Watkins gave his fourth State of the City Address on Wednesday, in the middle of a recession. After expressing his belief that “we are at the bottom” of the downturn and on the way out, Watkins dove into a broad discussion of what he called “sustainability issues.”
Among the issues Watkins identified were land disturbance and energy efficiency. He also described a need to prioritize oversight of existing programs to determine whether the city is maintaining them and spending efficiently.
It's true that there’s only so much Columbia officials can do when revenue will most likely decline in the next fiscal year. But many people are worried about the possibility of losing their jobs, and there is still a hiring freeze in place at MU, which is among Columbia’s primary economic engines. So should more emphasis have been placed on initiatives the city could pursue to attract jobs or to lay the groundwork for future employment?
Watkins briefly mentioned that he recently appointed Mike Brooks as the city’s economic development director, whose duties include heading Regional Economic Development Inc. But that does little to increase REDI’s small staff and low advertising budget. And if Columbia officials expect to continue the city's shift toward a technology-oriented economy — while still trying to attract manufacturing jobs to provide middle-class employment in a retail-heavy city — won’t more than the token appointment of an economic development manager be required?
The city manager serves at the pleasure of City Council, and the issues outlined by Watkins are important. Efforts to update the city’s stormwater ordinances and land disturbance policies could go a long way toward helping businesses here. But Watkins admitted that he was not where he wanted to be on streamlining the city’s building permit process, a business-oriented goal outlined in his speech last summer. And the position of ombudsman, which could have helped guide businesses through the city’s arcane and scattered permitting system, has not been filled.
As Watkins said in his address, there’s only so much the city can do. But to what degree have Columbia officials assured the city's residents that they are doing everything they can do?
Should Columbia officials focus more on promoting economic development?