Sworn in Jan. 7 to serve as the 70th mayor of Columbus, Georgia, Mayor B.H. “Skip” Henderson III shares his thoughts on the best path forward for the Government Center, crime in the community as a problem of perception and reality, and how to stem the brain drain’s outgoing flow.
What is the biggest challenge facing Columbus, Georgia right now?
“It starts with jobs. We have to bring in jobs that pay well enough for people to get out of that cycle of hopelessness that they find themselves in. It’s a generational deal. The jobs are going to help us go into some of the neighborhoods that have a disproportionate number of people living below the poverty line, a disproportionate amount of crime, and where a disproportionate number of the young men and women going to jail come out of.
If we can create jobs that allow parents to provide stability without having to work two or three jobs at minimum wage, then we can start to impact the way this community looks and lives.”
What’s the biggest opportunity right now?
“We have a couple of things that make this a particular period of time in Columbus a time of great opportunity. I’m fired up about it.
We’ve got Uptown that’s thriving. Midtown is thriving. And we’ve got initiatives trying to link those through the 13th Street viaduct to create a more commercial and retail-friendly environment there on 13th.
Then, you’ve got the Mill District, which is going up north on 2nd Avenue. You’ve got the Liberty District sitting there — a prime piece of real estate ripe for development. And now you have Westville moving into the southern tip of the city.
I think you’re going to start seeing a lot of infill development, because we also have some of the most prime pieces of real estate in the hands of the Housing Authority, right there where Booker T. Washington [housing project] was on the corner of Veterans and Victory Drive.
It’s like a giant blank canvas. I think it’s really exciting when you think of some of the things we can get going.”
What is your opinion on the best way to proceed with the Government Center?
“Right now, we’re still in a discovery mode.
I can tell you what I think the mayor’s role is — we have to get accurate and thorough information to Council so they can make the best decision. I think we have to be financially intelligent and intentional about how we proceed. It’s going to be a big-ticket item, but we can’t just break the bank. At the same time, we have to prepare fo the future. I think we’ll end up with two different buildings. One for the judicial branch and one for general government.
The question is: What’s more cost effective: to build it here on site after taking it down? Or strip it down to its bones and try to cure some of the functional obsolescence and some of the safety issues we have with this building?
Or should we look at relocating? If we relocate it, where do we put it? Would it make sense for a judicial building to be over by the jail? Thinking outside the box, why wouldn’t it be an option, if we do a general government building, to put it in the Liberty? It would have the same effect that this building had on Uptown. Took a little while to take effect, but because of the momentum already existing here in Uptown, if you put some critical mass in that area, would it stimulate retail and restaurants going online down there?”
Considering how online purchases have negatively impacted SPLOST funding, what can the city do to make sure tax revenues are sufficient?
“Columbus has always been a retail hub for the surrounding Georgia and Alabama counties. But over the last 10 years, you’ve seen Auburn have a resurgence of development, which has siphoned off some of the sales tax money we had been getting from Smiths and Opelika. The online purchasing, we’re hoping to see that mitigated a bit because they are now allowing for some taxation of those sites now.
But what this highlights is the fact that we have to be very intentional about our recruiting efforts and our economic development stimulus so that we’re getting a good mix of development. So that we do have the retail that will support and keep our sales taxes fairly strong. The last couple of months, the sales-tax revenue has been up. The economy is good and we’re getting a bigger piece of the pie.
This points to the need to make sure our other tax-revenue—whether it’s ad valorem taxes, occupancy taxes, user fees, etc.—is all balanced.”
What can Columbus do to stem the flow of out-migration, the so-called ‘brain drain’?
“Part of that is continuing to evolve our brand. One of the things this administration is committed to is meeting with the young professionals, whether they’re in student government associations, CSU and Columbus Tech associations, urban league, or chamber, or reaching out to the youth advisory council.
We have to engage on a regular basis in conversation with our younger generation. We need to find out what do they want their columbus to be? What do they want their Columbus to look like? It’s their city. They’re going to be the ones in leadership roles and trying to move the needle on the economic development opportunities, and on the entertainment opportunities. That’s one thing we can do is to try to engage them and help them feel a bigger and better sense of ownership.
Now listen, when my kids graduated college, they wanted to go see other parts of the world. That’s fine. I think the idea that we’re going to stop them from leaving right after graduation is a fallacy. But if we can create a community really attractive to young people, a place where they feel they can chase their dreams, then that pipeline out? We can put a U-joint in it and get them coming back home after they left to spread their wings a little bit and enjoyed city life in Atlanta or wherever.”
When will housing prices in Columbus bounce back up to pre-Recession levels?
“When the recession hit in ‘08 and ‘09, we did not dive as deeply into the recession as other cities in terms of housing prices.
The downside is, we haven’t rebounded as swiftly. But what that does, is it gives us an opportunity to remind people what an awesome quality of life they can have here at a very reasonable price.
Housing prices are growing. And they’ll continue to grow, just very modestly. But the way to increase the value in homes, is to increase the wages we’re paying people to come in and take jobs in Columbus. That’s what drives it. Basic economic principle of supply and demand. Right now, there just hasn’t been the demand for upper price-range homes.”
Statistically, crime in the city has fallen over the last few years. Yet, the number-one thing citizens worry about here is crime. So, is crime in Columbus a perception problem? Or is it a problem in reality?
“I think it’s both.
In no other aspect, is perception more of a reality than in how safe people feel. When crime comes too close to where you live, your fear goes up. Your apprehension goes up. Your desire to go out and about in the community goes down.
Yes, our crime has fallen overall. But let’s be clear—I hate statistics. Particularly when it applies to crime. Unfortunately, it’s the only metric we have to determine whether we’re going in the right direction or the wrong direction.
What you’ve seen over the last 10 years is that crime has lost its boundaries. For years, there were several areas of Columbus where you had a high level of poverty and a high level of criminal activity. What has happened, is that has migrated to other parts of the community.
We have a police department that does an awesome job. But that’s law enforcement. That’s catching them after committing they do the crime. Government can’t fix this societal issue. So communities have to take control.
The trouble there is to not paint with too broad of a brush. Yes, there are single-parent households where the single parent is caught in a cycle of addiction. But there’s also single parents gone because they’re working three minimum-wage jobs. The result is the same.
To address this generational indifference, we have to teach some of these folks how to parent. How to create structure. How to create a sense of accountability.”
What’s it going to take to get city services—applying for a business license, for instance—to move online?
“There are two areas we are committed to trying to find efficiencies in.
One is opening a business. If you’ve got this idea for a business that’s burning a hole in your chest, but it takes you six months to get it up and running, the odds of your sticking with it and getting it open go down.
Why can’t we put this process online? If there are five areas where you have to submit forms, why can’t we just have one form where you hit send and it goes to all five of them?
We’re also looking at ways to streamline the process for large-scale development.
I was recently able to talk with many of our department heads. I told them we’re in the customer-service business. The citizens are our customers. And the only thing we have to sell is our services.
So I told them I never want to hear a no unless it’s followed by a but. Find a way. I told them I was going to empower them to show more initiative. But I also told them we’re going to hold them accountable for finding solutions to help people do what they want to do within our community.”
Education: “Columbus High School, graduated in ‘77. Went to the University of Georgia. My dad would tell you I had five years worth of fun and got one year’s worth of education. Then I came home to Columbus College. Never graduated.”
Family: “Karon and I have been married 36 years. We have two amazing kids—the fact that they came from my gene pool shocks me everyday. Daughter Kyle lives in Atlanta. Son Joey is 30 and is a Fire and EMT guy here.”
Professional background: “Primarily real estate and banking.”
Hobbies: “I don’t know how much I’ll be able to indulge it anymore but I love playing golf. Hanging out with my family. Reading.”
Favorite political figure in U.S. history: “The one that has always intrigued me is President Abraham Lincoln. Because we’re not judged by how we react when things are going smoothly. We’re judged by how we react when our ox gets in a ditch. There are occasions when there are no right answers and you have to make a choice that is less wrong for the greatest number of people.”