Act in haste, repent at leisure, the old saying has it.
Having acted in haste when they passed a resolution in February to start Columbia on the path toward our own enhanced enterprise zone, our City Council servants repented unanimously Monday night.
The lead repenter was City Counselor Fred Boeckmann, who confessed to having given bad advice back then. That first step should have been a formal ordinance. His confession of error was greeted warmly by nearly everybody in the room.
Council members, who had intended to rescind only the overly broad map of areas to be deemed “blighted” while leaving the EEZ advisory board intact, instead voted to reverse the earlier action entirely and, in effect, start over. (Indeed, during a two-minute meeting Wednesday, they voted unanimously to re-create the advisory board. There’ll be a public hearing in a couple of weeks. The audience consisted of Karl Skala, a couple of reporters and me. The Missourian had a good report Thursday.)
About 20 residents who addressed the council before Monday’s vote, including some of the strongest critics of the February resolution, made clear that they hated the sin rather than the sinners. Mr. Boeckmann, who I’m sure hasn’t had much practice apologizing in public, looked uncomfortable as speaker after speaker granted him absolution.
Nearly all the speakers proceeded to urge more inclusion and greater transparency when the process resumes. There was also near unanimity that Columbia, despite its low unemployment rate and its education-centered economy, has a serious need for more good jobs, especially in manufacturing. (The Columbia Business Times recently reported that our 10 biggest manufacturers have more than 2,000 employees total. That’s less than a fifth of the 13,000-plus people who work at MU.)
To me, the most persuasive speakers Monday were Peggy Kirkpatrick, who heads the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, and Tim Rich, her counterpart at the United Way. Both took care to say they weren’t taking a position on the merits of either the process or the EEZ. Both laid out sobering statistics that show the underside of Columbia.
Ms. Kirkpatrick said that the Food Bank’s pantry on Big Bear Boulevard, the largest local source of free food, has seen an increase of more than 10 percent in its clientele, to 22,638, in the past year. The increase in hunger demonstrates the urgency of job creation, she said.
Mr. Rich pointed out that Columbia’s poverty rate is 21 percent. To most of us, comfortably in the middle class, that poverty is invisible. But in the Columbia Public Schools, 43 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. And 80 percent of those children are black.
The United Way is shifting focus to combat “generational poverty.” For that effort to have a chance of success, the council must, he said, “Do whatever it takes as fast as you can” to create more jobs at a living wage.
When Dave Griggs approached the microphone, he jokingly identified himself as “the villain of the community.” In some quarters, that’s no joke. He’s chairman of the board of Regional Economic Development Inc., the public-private organization that leads Columbia’s economic development efforts and seeks to create the EEZ.
Knowing it was fruitless, he nevertheless urged the council not to throw out the EEZ advisory board along with the blight map, which is already being redrawn to focus on only the sections of the city that really do have high unemployment, low incomes and sites for industry.
“Do we want to provide good jobs or do we not?” he asked, rhetorically.
When he left the chamber after the council vote, I followed him outside to ask what he made of the evening. I was surprised, and told him so, when he said there will have to be a concerted effort to lobby the council to move quickly toward the EEZ.
Surely, I thought, the meeting we’d just left showed a widely shared understanding that Columbia needs good jobs at good wages for the jobless and underemployed. Surely, with more community involvement and a narrowly drawn map, council members will see the EEZ as a useful lure for manufacturers.
He wasn’t so sure. He worries, he said, that citizen pressure for diversity on an expanded advisory board will lead to further delay and renewed argument about recruitment incentives.
While we talked, Mr. Rich walked up. I eavesdropped shamelessly. Afterward, I realized that I just might have overheard the start of something unusual and important.
What if this controversy were to result in a uniting of the poor with the powerful? How could the council — or even the critics — say no to job creation proposals backed by not only the REDI board but also the jobless and the hungry themselves?
After last year’s attempt to gerrymander council ward boundaries was beaten back by angry citizens, Mayor Bob McDavid offered a lesson learned: “Never get in the way of an engaged citizenry.”
With job creation as the goal, what if it turns out that we’re really all engaged on the same side?
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He has been a volunteer at the Food Bank for nearly 10 years and is a member of the board of directors. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.