The First Ward is the red-headed stepchild of Columbia. It contains a disproportionate share of the city’s poorest, a backlog of unmet infrastructure needs and not much in the way of public amenities.
It does have, however, at least two recent additions the rest of us can only envy. One is the new standout on the city’s skyline. The other is an impressive collection of candidates for City Council. If you haven’t yet made their acquaintance, you should. I’ll try to help.
Of course, we’ve all seen the new parking garage at Fifth and Walnut streets. How could you miss it? It looms over downtown and reinforces our proud boast to be the City of Parking Garages. In fact, I was reminded by Jill Stedem of the Public Works Department that this is our fifth city-owned garage, bringing the number of parking spaces on offer to 1,882.
I visited on opening day Tuesday. Pedestrian that I am, I trudged up all 17 flights of stairs to the very top level. I was alone on a sunny afternoon, except for a handful of vehicles already claiming their permitted parking spaces.
From the top, I could literally look down on the heart of our city. Among other sights, I spied four other parking garages and a depressing amount of asphalt dedicated to accommodating the automobile.
Once I descended, I stopped by the nearest of those older garages, a couple of blocks away at Sixth and Cherry, where I saw what appeared to be enough empty spaces to handle the cars then sitting in the new behemoth.
That was a misleading observation, no doubt, because Stedem assured me that the 703 spaces in the new structure are either already needed or certain to be needed, as certified by a study conducted in 2001 and interviews with downtown stakeholders.
She didn’t need to add the obvious point that if GetAbout Columbia succeeds, there will be plenty of room for the hordes of bicyclists who will be descending (or ascending to Level 9) on downtown.
The council candidates are even more impressive, if less visible. They’re also a lot less expensive. The garage is costing us about $14 million and is unlikely to pay for itself. The candidates so far have raised only a little more than $10,000 among them. And, unless the campaign for council salaries is more successful than it was the previous three tries, the winner will probably cost us less than a rented parking space.
As I listened a week ago at a Muleskinners meeting to three of the four candidates, I couldn’t decide which – were I fortunate enough to live in the First Ward – I’d vote for. The fourth candidate, Darrell Foster, wasn’t present.
Accountant Fred Schmidt is the best financed and seemed the most polished. Of course, he comes by his interest in public service naturally – or maternally. His mother, the longtime League of Women Voters leader Liz Schmidt, was there to critique his performance. He promises to work for better transit, job training and upgraded housing.
Pam Forbes, a toolmaker by trade, emphasizes her concern for the working poor, a class she once belonged to. She promises openness, support for job creation and a push for infrastructure improvements.
Mitch Richards, the youngest of the bunch, describes himself as a civil libertarian and fiscal conservative. He entered public life to work against the downtown surveillance cameras but sees himself as a “bridge” between contentious elements on the council.
Ms. Forbes seemed to speak for all three when she said, “It’s time to step back and take care of the core of the city.”
I came away from the session thinking that any of the three would serve us even better than a new parking garage.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.