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Ask The Mayor: Columbus Lienhoop On Afghan Refugees, Proposed Amtrak Service

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Unknown Speaker
Very good. God, she always cracks me up when I hear that I don't know why.

Unknown Speaker
Hello everyone and welcome to Ask the mayor on WFIU I'm Joe Hren and this week we're joined by Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop. Hello, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Oh, you're welcome. Happy to be here. Thank you. And I this is a delayed ask the mayor, I know you were very busy. Yesterday's. We really appreciate you taking the time on another day on Wednesday, to be able to do this show and get this in this week. Let's just start with COVID-19. Update. Obviously, we know vaccines bent out half of the state has yet to take it. But rates around the state almost highest since January. Same with hospitalizations. Just an update there in Columbus Bartholomew County, kind of boots on the ground, how was it there? How are hospitals and what needs to happen next?

Unknown Speaker
Well, what needs to happen next is a whole bunch of people need to get vaccinated. I don't think that we want to soft pedal that that notion at all. You know, I keep track or I get reported to me the inpatient data at Columbus Regional Health related to COVID. On Monday, I think it's Monday. But July 25, we had for August 1 A week later, it was eight a week after that it was 18 then 22. On August 22, it was 29. And on August 29, a couple days ago, it was 28. And and there have been some higher dates in between, you know, those are just the Mondays and Sundays that it gets reported to me. But this virus isn't going away. I mean, this is an airborne pathogen, it lives and breathes by getting inside humans and replicating. And to the extent that we share the same air, we share the risk that that we will, you know, contract the virus contract the disease. And, and I just amazing to me,

Unknown Speaker
either a horse medicine or you know, what have you. And the simplest, most easy, effective solution is just to go get vaccinated, it is safe, I've had it done, my wife had it done, my kids have had it done. And we've had no no after effects as a result of it. And I will just share with you that sooner or later. If you're whether you're vaccinated or not, you will find yourself at Disney World or a Colts game or at a big box retail store where you're in rather close proximity with others, a virus is going to be blown around in the briefs. I mean, it's going to be out there. And if you don't have the vaccine, if you don't have the protection that the vaccine affords, well, it'll get sick. And when you do, if you've not been vaccinated, your your symptoms will be a lot worse. And they may be and maybe fail, you just don't know. But but one of the worries that we have is whether or not the healthcare system gets overwhelmed. And I think the numbers that I've shared with you earlier, make it a little easier to see that we can fill up and then the hospital can can reach its capacity. And when that happens, not only is there a shortage with respect to beds, but personnel, you know, they they've only got so many people out there and and so I think we ought to be mindful of ourselves, me in terms of trying to protect your own health. But mindful of those who we come in contact with, you know, that we we have a little concern for their health as well. Not all, not all about me. Right. And we have to be able to take care of those those around us and particularly kids, those who are under 12, who are not eligible for the vaccine. I mean, they are particularly at risk. So and we've seen some of that out at Barthelemy consolidate schools. I think we have about 100 kids who are out now due to COVID issues, and I believe it's all or most part of it is preventable. So, so would just encourage everybody who has not yet been vaccinated to please Please get out and do that. And

Unknown Speaker
most of the state is in that orange metric level, including there any thoughts about any further restrictions, mask mandates try to get those levels down. Well,

Unknown Speaker
you know, mask mandates are easy to say is it difficult to enforce We've got one here at the city of Columbus, we expect all visitors, I mean, I, I'm, if I've stepped outside those doors, you know, behind me where my phone is, I need to put my mask on, you know, long as I'm in my office by myself, you know, I'm allowed, our protocol allows me to take my mask off. But we expect all employees who work in an open setting to wear a mask while they're at work. And we expect all visitors to wear a mask, and we continue to, you know, contact, conduct our public meetings, virtually, which works but doesn't work as well as it did, you know, when when we could all meet personally, or in person. And so, you know, we'll continue to try to emphasize the necessity of masking and vaccinations. And hopefully, hopefully people will, will get the message.

Unknown Speaker
We just heard news that Camp atterbury will be accepting Afghan refugees. For those that don't know, Columbus is not that far from Edinburg, just first, your your thoughts on that, and any details on how that will unfold?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, you know, we've watched what's going on over in Afghanistan, and then watched it on on the news. And yeah, it's, it's, it's a little frustrating, you know, to see see it unfold as it has. But it is what it is particularly, you know, to those of us in Columbus, Indiana, there's not much of an opportunity for us to, to affect what's going on over there. But as I understand it, these people who are coming have been friends of the United States, you know, they have been helpful to us in our endeavors over there. And I believe that if they stay, they are at risk. So I'm somewhat motivated to try to help them enter the United States and start a new life. So some of them are going to come in, in proximity, want to try to be available, if needed to to assist with that. And so yeah, I watched or watch parts of the governor's press conference here just a couple of minutes ago. And they talk about 5000 refugees coming to atterbury. Camp atterbury is a huge place. And so it should be able to handle 5000 individuals without too much difficulty. From in terms of physical space, the the difficult part, and this was mentioned several times in the governor's conference is that you know that these people will need services, they will need to be fed, they will need to be attended to medically, they'll probably need some kind of counseling, you know, in terms of how you, how do you how do you act? How do you behave in the United States, because you're not, you're not home anymore. And so we've been told that the Department of Defense and Homeland Security and some of these other groups will be providing individuals to do that was particularly important to me to hear that the government will be bringing their own health care personnel. So we will not should not see an additional stress on the health care systems in Johnson or Bartholomew counties. Because, as I mentioned earlier, I mean, you know, we're fairly well full, trying to take care of COVID related issues. But so it's good to know that the government's not that far ahead. And they're going to bring, you know, some some health care personnel and as well as some counselors, you know, we don't know yet what the English proficiency is for the people who will be coming. But you know, if you're going to be here, you're gonna live here, you're gonna have to learn how to speak English, or at least become reasonably proficient at it. It was a, it was interesting to understand that if some of these people have visas already, I mean, if they have a visa to enter the United States, they will stay at a very for 14 days long enough for the medical quarantine to to expire, and then there'll be free to go move about the country. I mean, which is what they could have done if they did this phone here on a commercial, commercial airline, you know, in the regular course of business. It we have already had employers from some of the industry here in Columbus contact us, and it just making us aware that, you know, if there's an opportunity, they would like to talk to these immigrants to see whether or not they could be candidates for a job at one of the factories here that, you know, our unemployment situation is such that we've got a number of open positions in factories all around Columbus. And so if these, if these people have a willingness and desire to work and have adequate to have sufficient English proficiency, you know, there'll be something for them to do if that, if that makes sense. This is all to be determined. We'll we'll, we'll obviously be learning as, as we go along. But, but the big key for me is that, you know, we've we've identified the need for some medical,

Unknown Speaker
medical and medical people to, to come make sure that these folks are vaccinated, not just for COVID. I mean, we spent a lot of time talking about that. But, you know, if you go visit another foreign country, oftentimes you're asked to vaccinate for a variety of viruses and bacterial infections. And so it's no different than when somebody comes from Afghanistan to United States. So we expect them to have polio vaccine, we expect them to have vaccine for measles, mumps, rubella, you know, some of the normal childhood vaccines that we take, they may not have had administered to them. So, you know, the medical personnel will evaluate, you know, whether these people have received the appropriate vaccines, if not, then, you know, there'll be given to them, and then they'll, you know, you'll wait for, like a, say, 14 days before, before they might be released, those folks who do not have a visa will have a process that they have to go through to attain one, you know, so there will be background checks, and these folks will have been vetted, I think it was four times, by the time they get here, you know, they're they're looked at before they get on the plane and Afghanistan, they're looked at, again, in Europe, looked at again, in Washington, DC, or when they when they first come into the country, whether it's Dallas or one of the other large airports, and then they'll be looked at a fourth time when they get to atterbury. And so hopefully, that'll be a thorough screening, and not just for, for medical issues, but for any other kind of political issues that might exist. And then we'll, we'll have a better handle on on who's gonna be here, but, but it's kind of interesting to watch. You know, I, I'm old enough to recall the fall of Saigon, and, you know, the, the refugees that came to this country from from Southeast Asia. And so it sounds like it's going to be a little bit of a similar, similar kind of process takes several years to sort out.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, yeah, sure. You know, another news item that came up, I think it was about a week ago about Amtrak wanting to re establish service between Nashville and Indianapolis. It's a route that used to service into 2003. But they talked about the stops in Jeffersonville and Columbus. Is there a background of rail service in Columbus? And do you can you fill us in just briefly on that?

Unknown Speaker
And, yeah, you're gonna find out how old I really am. I can recall when that when we had passenger service in Columbus, but that was back in the 50s. A long time ago. We pretty much throughout this country have dismantled, you know, passenger rail, and it's going to be very difficult to, to bring it back in any kind of volume, any kind of quantity. But I was it was kind of heartening to hear about this. I got a phone call. Maybe it was a year ago, by from a representative of Amtrak in Chicago. And, you know, he was just alerting me to the fact that we were on the west, and that we were going to be part of the proposal and would like to know whether or not I would be supportive of that. And I said, Yeah, sure, don't really know a whole lot more than what you just shared with me. But the based on that, I think we would be supportive. And it's been interesting to me that ever since then, you know, I look at a map of the United States and the and it'll have on it the the Amtrak lines, and they'll be in black or blue, and then there'll be green lines for proposed routes. And sure enough, I mean, we're a green line we're on we're on the map. So, you know, when Amtrak produces its its system map. We talked a little bit about a rail station, and we used to have a rail station downtown, it's been gone. Oh, golly, 50s or 60s, you know, so whatever that is, 60 or 70 years ago, we would be asked to, to assist in the construction of a new rail station. I think it'd be interested in that. But we have to think a little bit about the location. You know, one place that would set up really nicely is at no race center. We've got a bus station there right now. But we've also got crossings at eighth Street and 11th Street, and it's hard for me to imagine a train that would stop at the train station there and not block both of those streets. I just, you know, so so we may move them a little further south to Melrose Park. There's a nice parking lot there that could be used. We may or may find another place somewhere else. But that that'll be a challenge what? What we've just got to wait to see is whether or not the funding comes through, you know, for the for the, for the train? And if so, you know, how long do we think that funding is going to be there? You know, if this is a long, long term commitment, and we've got confidence that it will be, then we'll feel a little bit better about trying to build the station, or trying to assist in the construction of the station. But But yeah, I was kind of excited because I, you know, I've made a few trips overseas, and when I have to Europe and Asia, you know, you ride the trains, and it truly is relaxing way to travel. I much prefer, you know, the time works out to take the train rather than the plane. But, but we'll see. Yeah, it's it's kind of kind of interesting, I hope it happens.

Unknown Speaker
But in the past city stops have paid Amtrak a monthly fee for service to help fund it. I think one point West Lafayette was paid somewhere around $7,000 a month, when Columbus pay help pay for it.

Unknown Speaker
Nobody said anything about paid, I mean, that never came up when they was asking for whether or not we would be supportive. You know, the notion that there's some money in this for them, that didn't come up, but it would all be based upon use and ridership, you know, if there would be a way for us to recover the fee, by, you know, some kind of a fee that we charge travelers I you know, it's hard to say, I really don't know, we'll just have to wait to see what the proposal actually looks like.

Unknown Speaker
I have to tell you, I came to Columbus to report on exhibit Columbus a couple of weeks ago, third installation is up throughout the city. My first time Columbus since the pandemic, it was nice to drive over the overpass it just a whole new way of entering Columbus. And it was exciting. Because we've talked about it, I've seen photos and to actually do it was was something else. I couldn't imagine what what everyone they're in Columbus felt like, but you're welcome.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, you're welcome to come over anytime and try to wear the overpass out. Okay, we could, it's gonna be there a long time. But it really has made a significant difference. So the train traffic really hasn't reached the levels that we had anticipated. We think a lot of that's got to do with the pandemic. And with currently a reduction in the amount of output from the Ford plant wall. Because they were shipping cars north. I mean, that was a big part of what those trains carry. But what we found in our studies was that the intersection that we had there of State Route 46 and State Route 11, it was a poorly performing poorly designed intersection in the morning and in the evenings, and it was only going to get worse as traffic as traffic grew. So, you know, we feel that the the overpasses not only significant improvement in terms of traffic movement, but it's much safer. You know, we simply have, you know, people banging into each other. Down there that interchange.

Unknown Speaker
So I I did want to ask you when it when I was downtown, I see the comments, construction renovation is still ongoing. This has been going on a while I think there were some unexpected delays. Do you have any more information on that?

Unknown Speaker
I think right now they're working in a few parking lots across the street that the corporate office building, the world headquarters building is open and in use. At least that's what I've been told. So. So yeah, what what we're seeing here right now is some tree removal and replacement, and then some landscaping at some parking lots on the east side of Jackson Street. So I don't I don't anticipate that being. You know, much of an issue.

Unknown Speaker
I think I'm sorry. I think I was referring to more. Is it the commons playground?

Unknown Speaker
Oh, the comments. I'm sorry. I thought you said comments. Oh, no, no, yeah. Yeah. Well, excuse me, I delete that. Later those parts but yeah, the commons playground is is subject to some delays. We've put a new flooring, new for covering, you know, in there, and we're having a little problem getting some of it adhered to the sub floor. And we know that once the kids get out there, it's going to get a lot of use. And if it's not down properly, it's not installed properly. It's going to come up quickly. But, but I think people will enjoy You know what, what we've done there with the new comments. I mean, it's some of the old play. playground items are still there. But mostly it's new. There's a little bit more opportunity for interactive play. I mean, there's a few items there. That really takes too People, you know, are three people to, to make them work. And so if you're a young kid and you show up by yourself, well, you may need to interact with somebody, maybe make a friend to, you know, to sort of get this thing to work. There's some pieces that make some noise, not that we needed noise, but, you know, their their auditory or tactile, you know, with respect to the way they work. And so there's a game that gets played, and I think people will like it. Yeah. Is there a timeline? Six months ago? We, yeah, continue to be a little frustrated. But like most other places, we've ordered the parts. They're on their way. You know, when they get here, they'll get installed. But, but yeah, it's taken a lot longer than we had hoped. And we're still hopeful when it gets gets all good to hear you're finished here by the end of September. But I you know, we can't guarantee anything.

Unknown Speaker
I know, we have to go in a couple minutes. But we did get an email from art. And he wants to know about the old Holiday Inn that was demolished more than a year ago, maybe two, three years ago, there's a big hill of rubble, right at the entrance to town, and it's an eyesore. So we want to know if there are any plans for development of that site or cleaning up of the rubble.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, that sites owned by Columbus Regional Health. And they have plans. In fact, I'm going to meet have meeting for this afternoon for want to talk to their developer and hear what they have to say. But they have plans to develop the property. I will tell art and anybody else that Columbus Regional got a permit from the state of Indiana to do what they're doing, basically, that pile of rubble that you see is some concrete that had been i 65, you know, the partial portion of the pavement between State Route 46 and want to say State Route 11. But that portion of the the interstate was recently rebuilt. And so the old concrete is what you see there in the pile. And it's it's piled there waiting, you know, development of the site. And like I say, they've got a permit for that. So. So yeah, there, it's it. I know, I agree that it is frustrating. I agree that it is unsightly. But I can tell you that they are taking the appropriate steps to get it taken care of.

Unknown Speaker
Okay. And art, we'll get to your other question next month, because we're out of time. But I always like to give the mayor a minute does have any special announcements or things that that you'd like everybody to know. Now, I

Unknown Speaker
just like to repeat one more time, you could get vaccinated. And and if you're not going to get vaccinated, then please, you know, wear a mask and and stay away from others. I mean, it's, you're carrying the virus, most likely. And so I think you need to be mindful of the fact that you don't have an effect on other people who, you know, we need to try to be concerned for their health as well. It's not all about it's not all about me. It's about we.

Unknown Speaker
Alright, well, thank you so much for taking time to join us today. Mr. Mayor, and hope we'll see you boy October.

Unknown Speaker
Hard to believe but yeah, so yeah, yeah. You have a good day. You too. Thank you. Bye bye.
Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop on Wednesday's Zoom interview (Zoom)

Lienhoop says a whole bunch of people need to get vaccinated and another mask mandate would be difficult to enforce. He's also motivated to help refugees start a new life in America, and is supportive of Amtrak service through Columbus.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop addresses these issues and more on a Zoom conference call. Listen to the full conversation with Indiana Newsdesk anchor Joe Hren by clicking on the play button above, or read some of the questions and answers below. A portion of this segment airs 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Wednesday on WFIU.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Hren: We know as far as vaccinations, half of the state has yet to take it. COVID rates around the state as high since January. Same with hospitalizations. What's the update there in Columbus, Bartholomew County?

Lienhoop: Well, what needs to happen next is a whole bunch of people need to get vaccinated. I don't think that we want to soft pedal that notion at all. You know, I keep track or I get reported to me the inpatient data at Columbus Regional Health related to COVID. But July 25 we had four, August 1 a week later it was eight, a week after that it was 18, then 22. On August 22, it was 29. And on August 29, a couple days ago, it was 28. This virus isn't going away.

If you're vaccinated or not, you will find yourself at Disney World, or a Colts game, or at a big box retail store where you're in rather close proximity with others, a virus is going to be blown around. I mean, it's going to be out there. And if you don't have the vaccine, if you don't have the protection that the vaccine affords, well, you'll get sick. And when you do, if you've not been vaccinated, your symptoms will be a lot worse. And they may be fatal, you just don't know.

READ MORE: 133 COVID-19 Hospitalizations In District 8 Thursday – Highest Since Jan. 9

But but one of the worries that we have is whether or not the healthcare system gets overwhelmed. And I think the numbers that I've shared with you earlier, make it a little easier to see that we can fill up and then the hospital can can reach its capacity.

Hren: Any thoughts about further restrictions, mask mandates to try and get those levels down?

Lienhoop: Mask mandates is difficult to enforce. We've got one here at the city of Columbus, we expect all visitors, I mean, if I've stepped outside those doors, behind me where my phone is, I need to put my mask on. And we continue to conduct our public meetings, virtually. And so, we'll continue to try to emphasize the necessity of masking and vaccinations. And hopefully people will get the message.

Hren: Camp Atterbury will be accepting Afghan refugees. For those that don't know, Columbus is not that far - first, your your thoughts on that, and any details on how that will unfold?

Lienhoop: As I understand it, these people who are coming have been friends of the United States, they have been helpful to us in our endeavors over there. And I believe that if they stay, they are at risk. So I'm somewhat motivated to try to help them enter the United States and start a new life.

These people will need services, they will need to be fed, they will need to be attended to medically, they'll probably need some kind of counseling. And so we've been told that the government will be bringing their own health care personnel. So we will not should not see an additional stress on the health care systems in Johnson or Bartholomew counties.

READ MORE: Indiana Prepares For 5,000 Afghan Evacuees At Camp Atterbury

If they have a VISA to enter the United States, they will stay for 14 days long enough for the medical quarantine to expire, and then there'll be free to move about the country. Which is what they could have done if they did this on a commercial airline, in the regular course of business. We have already had employers from some of the industry here in Columbus contact us, just making us aware that if there's an opportunity, they would like to talk to these immigrants to see whether or not they could be candidates for a job at one of the factories here. Our unemployment situation is such that we've got a number of open positions in factories all around Columbus.

Hren: I think it was about a week ago Amtrak looking to re-establish service between Louisville and Indianapolis. It's a route they used to service, but they talked about the stops in Jeffersonville and Columbus. Would the city support this?

Lienhoop: I think we would be supportive. I look at a map of the United States and it'll have on it the Amtrak lines, and they'll be in black or blue, and then there'll be green lines for proposed routes. And sure enough, we're a green line on the map.

READ MORE: Amtrak Unveils Plan For Extended Service In Indiana

We used to have a rail station downtown, it's been gone - oh golly, 50s or 60s. We would be asked to assist in the construction of a new rail station. I think we'd be interested in that. But we have to think a little bit about the location. One place that would set up really nice is at Mill Race center. We've got a bus station there, but we've also got crossings at 8th Street and 11th Street, and it's hard for me to imagine a train that would stop at the train station there and not block both of those streets.

So we may move them a little further south to Melrose Park. We may find another place somewhere else. But we've just got to wait to see whether or not the funding comes through for the train? And if so, how long do we think that funding is going to be there?

Hren: In the past city stops have paid Amtrak a monthly fee for service to help fund it. I think at one point West Lafayette was paying around $7,000 a month, would Columbus pay help pay for it?

Lienhoop: Nobody said anything about paying, I mean, that never came up when they was asking for whether or not we would be supportive. You know, the notion that there's some money in this for them, that didn't come up, but it would all be based upon use and ridership. If there would be a way for us to recover the fee by some kind of a fee that we charge travelers, it's hard to say, we'll just have to wait to see what the proposal actually looks like.

READ MORE: Third Exhibit Columbus Explores Future Of The Middle City

The Commons, Columbus, IN
The Commons, Columbus, IN (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: The Commons playground is overdue - any update on completed renovations?

Lienhoop: The commons playground is subject to some delays. We've put a new flooring, new covering in there, and we're having a little problem getting some of it adhered to the sub floor. Is there a timeline? Six months ago? We continue to be a little frustrated. We've ordered the parts. They're on their way. When they get here, they'll get installed. But yeah, it's taken a lot longer than we had hoped. And we're still hopeful it's finished by the end of September. But we can't guarantee anything.

Former Hotel site near Columbus
Former hotel site off of S.R. 46 in Columbus. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: We did get an email from Art. And he wants to know about the old Holiday Inn that was demolished more than a year or two ago. There's a big hill of rubble right at the entrance to town, and it's an eyesore. So he wants to know if there are any plans for development of that site or cleaning up of the rubble.

Lienhoop: That site is owned by Columbus Regional Health. And they have plans. In fact, I'm going to have a meeting this afternoon to talk to their developer and hear what they have to say. I will tell Art and anybody else that Columbus Regional got a permit from the state of Indiana to do what they're doing, basically, that pile of rubble that you see is some concrete that had been I-65, the partial portion of the pavement between State Road 46 and want to say State Road 11. That portion of the interstate was recently rebuilt. And so the old concrete is what you see there in the pile. And it's piled there waiting for development of the site. I agree that it is frustrating. I agree that it is unsightly. But I can tell you that they are taking the appropriate steps to get it taken care of.

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