Chamber hosts first forum for City Council contenders
COLUMBIA — Candidates for the First Ward seat on the Columbia City Council focused largely on downtown issues during a forum hosted by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, while those seeking the Fifth Ward seat said planning and zoning issues are among their priorities.
The chamber forum was the first of the 2011 council campaign season. Four candidates for the First Ward and two candidates for the Fifth Ward attended, along with about 30 other people.
In the First Ward, Darrell Foster, Pam Forbes, Mitch Richards and Fred Schmidt are competing to replace Paul Sturtz, who is not seeking re-election. Helen Anthony and Glen Ehrhardt are facing off in the Fifth Ward to replace Laura Nauser, who also will step down after the April 5 vote.
The First Ward forum touched on several issues, including the city budget and efforts to improve downtown. Persephone Dakopolos of the Special Business District asked the candidates to explain their priorities for downtown.
Richards said he wants to support small businesses and to address downtown's status as a "food desert," meaning it lacks a large grocery store.
Schmidt, too, said that's important. “In the long term, we need to bring in a medium-size grocery store. ...”
Foster said safety is a big concern, and he thinks improving employment downtown is the way to improve it. Foster encouraged small businesses downtown to employ young people who have just gotten out of school.
“If we want them to be safe, we need to practice inclusion,” Foster said.
Forbes said she supports the planned apartment complex at Walnut Street and College Avenue, which was approved by the City Council on Monday. The developers plan to build 100 apartments along with retail space.
“If the infrastructure can support it, ... it is going to be a big stimulus downtown,” Forbes said.
Schmidt said he supports downtown improvement in general. “It’s good to encourage projects in downtown, and it has a bright future,” Schmidt said.
Fifth Ward candidate Ehrhardt also weighed in on downtown, saying he wants to see it improve. The more businesses thrive there, the more jobs will become available, he said.
Ehrhardt and Anthony emphasized city planning and zoning, specifically what’s broken about it.
“We need to simplify the process, so it’s easier to do development,” Ehrhardt said.
Anthony said streets and other infrastructure have failed to keep pace with the growth of the city. “If we don’t have them in place, we are not that welcoming to businesses,” she said.
Anthony said zoning classifications are broken, too. “We need to incorporate more flexible rules.”