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Ask The Mayor: Columbus Lienhoop On COVID Hospital Spike, Downtown Development

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Unknown Speaker
All right. Hello

Unknown Speaker
and welcome to Ask the mayor the first week of the month and we're back with Mayor Lin up in Columbus. Good to see you, especially since we didn't get to see you last month due to the election. So lots to, to catch up on. Before we move on to the you know, the more obvious COVID situation that's going on. I just thought maybe get some quick thoughts, any post election thoughts from yourself, you know, big turnout, strong republican victories throughout the state, but then no second term for Trump and peds?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, what we're obviously mostly focused on what what happens here in Bartholomew County, and, and I was really pleased with the way the whole election process worked out. So a little shout out to our county clerk, Jay Phelps. You may recall, we use Fair Oaks mall, the former Carson's location as a early voting site. And I think we had well over half If not, two thirds of the voters vote early, or vote Yeah, vote early in person, you know, at a ATM machine. And so that worked out really well. It was a big space, they had eight voting stations inside, and plenty of room to physically distance. So it, it worked out well. And I think it helped facilitate the turnout that we had. Yeah, the the results are what they are. And, you know, Bartholomew county broke almost two thirds for Trump, maybe not quite that maybe 62%, or somewhere along through there. And so perhaps there was a little bit of a desire to see our hometown boy returned returned to office. But again, you know, the results are what they are, and, and we'll just learn to live with them.

Unknown Speaker
So COVID-19, you know, the worst now that it's, it's bad. And now with thanksgiving just over, you can't help but wonder what's going to happen these next couple of weeks. We've always talked about the hospital rates, they're in Columbus. And I just saw on Twitter that it's at an all time high there as well almost tripled than what it was back in August or April, can you just maybe give us a little bit of an update of what's the situation like in the Columbus Regional Hospital right now?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, I talked to the hospital folks, really not an hour ago. And so again, this is Tuesday. It's a, it's, it's full, I mean, you know, they really have reached pretty much a saturation point with respect to the number of COVID beds they have available. And in really, it's not so much beds, its staff, you know, they've got sufficient space, it's being able to treat, you know, the patients that they have there, because they've got their own quarantine issues that they have to deal with human plus, plus, you know, it's a holiday time, and, you know, they've got some staff that, that need to get away and spend time with their families. And I think all of this, you and I had the similar conversation with the police chief, there's just a certain amount of covid fatigue, that has crept into our society, and it's particularly acute at places that, you know, deal with this day in day out and hospital being one of them. So, so they've got some challenges out there. And and they mentioned that not only are they more or less full, but the surrounding hospitals, you know, Decatur, Jackson, and Monroe counties, Johnson County, you know, they are not in a position to accept any patients from Bartholomew County. So it's, it's concerning, particularly that be at this point. So closely after the Thanksgiving holiday. I mean, I think we've mentioned before, after every other holiday, we've had Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, we've had a spike. And so to get a spike on top of where we are right now is kind of concerning. So we never want to miss an opportunity to remind everybody to mask up physically distance and avoid crowds. There's plenty of evidence that indicates that plenty of anecdotal evidence that indicates that family get togethers, you know, which is what we sort of thought we'd see if that Thanksgiving, or that those are troublesome. Now, that's tends to be places where first spread is occurring. Because when we talk to the folks at school system, or folks at the hospital, you know, they are fairly convinced that the cases that they're aware of did not come from within the institution, they came from the community. So the virus is out in the community, it may not be in the hospital per se. But But nonetheless, you know, the people who work there, you know, live in the community. And so they, they contract it, whether it's, you know, at a restaurant or a big box store or a church or more, you know, again, when I just mentioned family type get togethers, be they weddings, or funerals or are just parties, so, so we just want to remind everybody to be cautious, and yeah, the hospital is, is under some stress right now. And so They need to, they need our help in terms of being able to mitigate the transmission of this virus.

Unknown Speaker
Do you have any insight we're talking about hospitals in different areas I just saw where Jackson County, which is just south of you, they're in Columbus, Columbus and Bartholomew county has the highest seven day positivity rate 20% all tests 33% unique test. And and that communication between different hospitals. How does that work? And what happens to to a point, I mean, you would think that there's some type of plan in place where hospitals are just full. So what happens?

Unknown Speaker
Well, you're getting a little bit outside of, you know, my area of expertise. But when I've asked those questions of the local hospital, where it where eventually yields, I mean, if you play it out all the way to the end, is what they call a field hospital, which is attempt out in the parking lot. And and that's really the everybody's last choice, you know, the last resort kind of thing. So, you know, we just hope we don't get there. But But again, is that what I was what I was told earlier today is the issue really isn't capacity in terms of physical capacity, it's not beds, which would lead you to that that parking lot. solution, the issue staff, and that's going to be difficult for them to manage.

Unknown Speaker
You mentioned in the virus is spreading, people aren't taking the necessary precautions these last month or so. So what what needs to be done? How does that happen to get the curved head down again?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I think we, we need to have compliance with respect to the the things we talked about. And again, we're talking about masking up, being able to maintain adequate distancing physical distancing from others, and then be cautious at these gatherings. I mean, that the governor has issued an order, I think the order current order for an orange county has 50. I think that's, that's pretty generous. My guess is the way the numbers are headed Bartholomew county be read for here pretty soon, which would cut the capacity from 50 to 25. And again, that I think is fairly generous. You know, we've we see in other states where they've limited that to 10, or even fewer. So the whole point is just to be smart about what you're doing. And if you find yourself in a restaurant where that is filling up. And people are not able to adequately distance then you need to get up and get out of there. And it's the same going to be the same answer, whether you're in a big box store, or at grandma's house, I mean, it's you just got to be cautious about who you find yourself with, even if you think that their family and your friends and their head they're safe, risk free that, you know, that's really difficult to to assess. I mean, again, one of the statistics that was discussed earlier today was that 45% of all positive cases are asymptomatic. And, and so you can't necessarily tell that the person you're seated next to or across from, whether that person has the virus or not. So it's again, incumbent upon all of us to to wear the mask, not only takes care of or protects ourselves, but protects others, others in our family, but avoid the crowds and maintain your distance.

Unknown Speaker
See in this course, is Tuesday, and there are 69 new cases in Bartholomew County, the positivity rates, they're about the same as the state. Do you see any more local restrictions from there?

Unknown Speaker
Well, we're constantly discussing, you know, what we could do on a local level. And, you know, part of what we've got to do is gather some data. And it's, it's difficult, we get plenty of anecdotal stuff, you know, we get plenty of phone calls, emails telling us that, you know, yesterday at this store in Aisle 12, there was a guy walking around without a mask. And, you know, I appreciate the fact that that happens, and I don't dispute it, but it's really difficult kind of thing to be there at the right time to enforce that. I like in a lot of this to speeding, you know, traffic violations, you know, people speed all the time, but you've got to catch them in the act the to have any kind of ability to constrain what they do. And so that's, it's just difficult to do that. And you might say that, well, you know, why don't you just enforce that with the businesses and and close down a store that has non compliance? Well, you know, there are a lot of compliant people who get their groceries at at these various stores. And so if you're going to close one down, you You not only affect the folks who are not not wearing the mask, but you also affect the folks who need that establishment. Just to continue To keep food on the table, so it's a real challenge. I don't dispute that. And, you know, it's part of the reason that part of the fact that it is a challenge is why we've not received any greater guidance than we have from from the governor. I mean, I think that they that Governor Holcomb and his team have done an excellent job guiding us through this to this point. But, you know, now when we sort of need some enforcement mechanisms to, to get a greater or higher degree of compliance, it's just a, it's just difficult to arrange. We know we've got a country that's based on, you know, a lot of personal freedom. And, and so that time tends to run counter to telling people how to behave when they're out in public. And so, again, we just find ourselves challenged in terms of trying to be able to do that.

Unknown Speaker
You know, there's been some good news about it, about a few vaccines that could be available this month, even. And I believe I've read some articles there from the republic in Columbus about some steps that local, the county is doing, just to plan for that, and for administering the vaccine, is there are you involved in any of that to?

Unknown Speaker
Not really, you know, I tend to pay attention when it's discussed. You know, and there was some discussion about that this morning, but mostly that's handled between the county health department, the emergency emergency management, and the county hospital. Columbus Regional is a there's a name for it, I escapes me, but it's a regional distribution site. So vaccines will come here and then be distributed to some of the neighboring counties. Our County Health Department has made the initial steps in terms of trying to be able to store the vaccines they receive the temperatures that they have to keep these things at around, you know, kind of ridiculously low. So, you know, it requires some special equipment, and that's been ordered. But, you know, we don't know for sure when, when it's going to be delivered. But at any rate, they're gearing up for the receipt and eventual distribution of those vaccines. And but nonetheless, I mean, they all tell us, it's going to be it'll, it'll be the first couple months next year, before they, they're really able to get at that. And, and again, when we go back to thinking about surges that occur after holidays, it gives us all the more reason to be cautious about Christmas and New Year's holidays. Because I don't think we'll have Well, we will not have substantial compliance or substantial vaccination, you know, by those dates, it just won't happen.

Unknown Speaker
I did see where unemployment rates are declining, is the city seen many closures downtown,

Unknown Speaker
we've had a few of our restaurants close, some have closed for a week or two, particularly through the Thanksgiving holiday. Some have told us that they will be closed until further notice. We've had a couple and then maybe three or four that have indicated that they're closed for good. And so, you know, we we will admit that. But it's difficult for us to do much other than, you know, try to, but well, we had a loan program, you know, that we instituted a couple months ago, Congress invigorated and so we, you know, sort of threw those folks up an opportunity for, for some short term credit, to allow them to, to get through the through a few months, and I'm fearful that a few months is going to turn into a few more months. But at the end of the day, yeah, we've had a few downtown restaurants closed. But we're heartened by the fact that the, the job market seems to be recovering, particularly in the manufacturing sector. So we'll just, we'll just have to see what what happens over the next several weeks.

Unknown Speaker
Any holiday closings that people should know about our traditions that happen there in Columbus that now have to kind of think twice about?

Unknown Speaker
Well, our festival of lights parade would normally be this Saturday, you know, it's typically the first Saturday in December, but that's been canceled. And they'll be most of all the holiday observations have been we've we spent a little extra effort to, you know, put on a live show. We've decorated the trees and some of the other places down around City Hall up and down Washington Street and hopefully that will give people a little bit of cheer in what would otherwise be rather bleak holiday season. But But yeah, we normally have a tree lighting ceremony and that's been canceled. We just, you know, flip the switch and and turn it on. But But yeah, the big thing for us is the loss of the festival light of lights parade, it was pretty well attended well over 100 floats. It's it's been a little bit of a you know, a fixture here in Columbus for a number of years. And so we're we're just gonna have to take a year off

Unknown Speaker
kind of adds to that fatigue. You know, you were talking about earlier of the Coronavirus. But really, you know, we sound like sometimes a broken record sometimes about this, but they're really, that really is the bottom line isn't it is just keep your mask on social distance stay home. I mean, there's not much more to say is there?

Unknown Speaker
No, that's that's pretty much yet, again offer myself as an example, my wife and I have two, two kids are both they're not kids anymore. But you know, they live one lives in New York City the other lives in San Francisco and neither one came home for Thanksgiving. And so we we had a little zoom happy hour, in the afternoon, and, and it was it was nice to be able to share that but wasn't the same at all being able to get together. But you know, you do what you can. And and I shared with both kids that you know, every generation every now and then you've got something that's problematic that you have to deal with. My father served in World War Two. And if I remember correctly, he was gone for about 18 months, which was, you know, it covered a couple holidays and a few birthdays and other kind of events where families normally get together. And it was not easy for him or his mother. But but they got through it. And we'll get through this. I mean, it's a comparison. I mean, nobody's shooting at us. And we'll, we'll we'll be fine. But it is going to be it'll be a test, you know, to see how well we can can handle this the emotional strain of being under this for for a few more months.

Unknown Speaker
There are some other things going on besides Coronavirus, as the city continues to function I did catch something about and maybe you can kind of fill us in because when you talk about water or sewer rate increases something that affects everybody. But I know we talked about this in Nashville in Bloomington. And, and and back when we were talking with Mayor Good night in Kokomo A few years ago, that every city is need of infrastructure. And is that something that's happening there too?

Unknown Speaker
Right, right. You know, Columbus is not unlike a lot of other cities, you know, we're going to have our Bicentennial in 2021 will have 200 years of existence as a city. And along with that, comes some pretty old infrastructure. You know, we've got some sewer mains and some water mains that are, you know, 100 years old. And that's pretty much you know, the end of their life. I mean, that's when they begin to collapse, or they, you know, begin to break, fill with filled with dirt. We've had a couple sinkholes, you know, develop in some of the older parts of town. So, you know, our utilities department has embarked upon a multi year project to upgrade our facilities, particularly in the older parts of town to install a new West Side interceptor, which is, which is sorely needed to manage the sewage from the west side of the town down to our sewage treatment plant. And so, you know, none of this stuff happens for free. And so we've got to, you know, consider the effect on what our rates might be. And one of the things we notice when we look at rates is we haven't changed them for about 20 years. You know, our sewer and water rates have remained unchanged for that period of time. And so it's a little bit of a testament to how hard the folks at utilities have worked. I mean, again, 20 years ago, I'm told we had about 90 employees out there, and now we've got around 60. And so we've had some productivity gains. I mean, you know, some, we're able to do things a little bit smarter today than they did 20 years ago. But, but it's caught up with us. And so we need to revisit our rate structure. As I understand it, the city council will approve the wastewater rates as sewage rates, the water rates need to go before the Indiana utility Regulatory Commission, and they will have a public hearing, I want to say tomorrow, or maybe Wednesday, Wednesday evening, you know, so that process will move forward. And, and yeah, nobody likes to pay more, but, but it's been good to have the same or flat rates for the last 20 years.

Unknown Speaker
Now we're getting short on time. I did want to bring up one more item and it came from I covered a Monroe County Bloomington Convention Center. It was a virtual public forum few weeks ago, there was some mixed reviews about building convention centers during or after a pandemic, some say, will it revive, others say the money should go there. higher priorities. Of course, many still say that the convention center business will come back but better and bigger than ever. So I know they're in Columbus. There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes and your conference center. And there's some land acquisition. Do you want to give us an update there?

Unknown Speaker
Right. We've got several projects underway in the downtown area. And sort of central to that is what what I've sometimes referred to As a property dance, we need to move. Bartholomew county court Services Building from the location it's on, to allow us to build that hotel Conference Center. At the same time, that will we move that displace another building, that's a 555 First Street. So we've got to acquire that property and then build a new facility on there. And the owner has indicated a willingness to sell that property to us. But we'd like, like a trade for some other property that we've got. And at the same time, we've got some property that is east of there that we want to develop into a apartment complex along with a urban grocer. But we're going to put a little parking in on there that would serve the county's needs as well. And so there are several are just series of transactions that should take place here over the next month to two months to sort of bring all that into into focus. The hotel conference center is on hold. And, you know, some of the concerns that you mentioned are present here. But the driver so to speak, at this time is financing. There aren't any lenders out there who are prepared to invest in hospitality, at this time, they want to wait to see, you know, the extent to which the business travel comes back. And when they're comfortable with that, then we'll be able to move forward. We don't have a timetable, you know, for that now, with respect to the ground that is east of our jail and South a second Street, in a way intend to see a apartment complex and urban grocer on there, and the developer for that project has indicated they can go ahead, you know, that they don't have the COVID restrictions or the lending concerns that the hospitality and Hospitality Group has. And so we're on schedule, to break ground over there sometime in March, we've got a couple of agreements that need to be signed between now and then. But confident we'll get that done and, and be able to, to have, like I say, break ground in March, we will also be building a replacement for the Bartholomew court Services Building sometimes what we call probation Probation Department. And that, likewise, I think we'll be able to break ground in the March or April timeframe. Again, that'll be on First Street behind the jail. And then we've we continue to move forward. We've had some discussions recently with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources related to Riverfront. And so we we're still in the permitting process. We don't have a permit yet. But we think that that'll be of course, coming, you know, relatively soon. And so hopefully, with a little bit of luck, we can break some ground down there in the fall.

Unknown Speaker
All right. Well, that's all the time. That's all I had. I know we're over time here. But is there anything else? Any announcements, anything you'd like to say?

Unknown Speaker
No, just to remind everybody to wear their mask, maintain your distance and be smarter background.

Unknown Speaker
All right. Appreciate your time and I guess we'll see you next year. Hmm.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, I'll see you next. I'll see you next year. Right. Okay.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you.
Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop (Zoom)

Hospital room supply is low - and so is the amount of healthcare workers. Enforcing the mask mandate is still a challenge. And the city is moving forward on a number of downtown developments.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop addresses these issues and more. 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: I just saw on Twitter that hospital rates at Columbus Regional Health is at an all time high during the pandemic - almost triple than what it was back in August or April, can you give us a little bit of an update?

Lienhoop: I talked to the hospital folks, really not an hour ago. And so again, this is Tuesday. It's full, they really have reached pretty much a saturation point with respect to the number of COVID beds they have available. And in really, it's not so much beds, its staff - being able to treat the patients that they have there, because they've got their own quarantine issues that they have to deal with human, plus it's a holiday time and they've got some staff that need to get away and spend time with their families.

I had a similar conversation with the police chief, there's just a certain amount of COVID fatigue that has crept into our society, and it's particularly acute at places that deal with this day in day out and hospital being one of them.

The surrounding hospitals, Decatur, Jackson, and Monroe counties, Johnson County, they are not in a position to accept any patients from Bartholomew County. So it's concerning, particularly that be at this point, so closely after the Thanksgiving holiday. To get a spike on top of where we are right now is kind of concerning. So we never want to miss an opportunity to remind everybody to mask up physically distance and avoid crowds.

Hren: As of Tuesday, there are 69 new cases in Bartholomew County, the positivity rates are about the same as the state. Do you see any more local restrictions?

Lienhoop: Well, we're constantly discussing, what we could do on a local level. And, part of what we've got to do is gather some data. It's difficult, we get plenty of anecdotal stuff, you know, we get plenty of phone calls, emails telling us that, you know, yesterday at this store in Aisle 12, there was a guy walking around without a mask. And I appreciate the fact that it happens, and I don't dispute it, but it's really difficult kind of thing to be there at the right time to enforce that.

And you might say that, well, why don't you just enforce that with the businesses and close down a store that has non-compliance? Well, there are a lot of compliant people who get their groceries at these various stores. And so if you're going to close one down, you not only affect the folks who are not wearing the mask, but you also affect the folks who need that establishment.

I think that Governor Holcomb and his team have done an excellent job guiding us through this to this point. But, now when we sort of need some enforcement mechanisms to get a greater or higher degree of compliance, it's just difficult to arrange. We know we've got a country that's based on a lot of personal freedom. And, and so that tends to run counter to telling people how to behave when they're out in public. And so, again, we just find ourselves challenged in terms of trying to be able to do that.

Rendering of what an urban grocer would look like in Columbus
Rendering of what an urban grocer could look like in Columbus. (Courtesy: 2019 Envision Columbus)

Hren: You still have projects underway downtown, including acquiring some land and a new urban grocer development, could you fill us in on that and any update on the conference center?

Lienhoop: We've got several projects underway in the downtown area. And sort of central to that is what I've sometimes referred to as a property dance. We need to move the Bartholomew County Court Services Building from the location it's on, to allow us to build that hotel Conference Center. At the same time, that displaces another building, that's at 555 First Street. So we've got to acquire that property and then build a new facility on there. And the owner has indicated a willingness to sell that property to us.

But we'd like a trade for some other property that we've got. And at the same time, we've got some property that is east of there that we want to develop into a apartment complex along with a urban grocer. But we're going to put a little parking there that would serve the county's needs as well. And so these are several transactions that should take place here over the next month to two months to sort of bring all that into into focus.

The hotel conference center is on hold. But the driver so to speak, at this time is financing. There aren't any lenders out there who are prepared to invest in hospitality, at this time, they want to wait to see, the extent to which the business travel comes back. And when they're comfortable with that, then we'll be able to move forward. We don't have a timetable for that now.

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