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Ask The Mayor: Columbus Lienhoop on Fair Oaks Mall, urban grocer development

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Unknown Speaker
Okay. All right. Hello and welcome to a new month new show ask the mayor on WFIU. I'm Joe Hren. This week, we're pleased to have Columbus mayor, Jim Lienhoop. Hello and welcome.

Unknown Speaker
Today, Joe, how are you?

Unknown Speaker
I'm well, thank you so much. Let's just begin like, we always do a COVID update. I hear hospitalizations are leveling maybe even declining a little bit, but it's nowhere near saying it's over. What's the situation like they're in Columbus?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I point to a couple of things. And you're right. Awesome. hospitalizations have declined, which, as a community makes us feel good. But I want to remind people is if you're one of the folks who's hospitalized, that's cold comfort to you. And we still believe that the majority of the people who are hospitalized are unvaccinated. And we have some data that indicates here and we're following the county, we are about 54% vaccinated. So we still got a ways to go. And I believe what this means for us is that we will continue to see spikes from the Coronavirus, you know, on into the future until we reach a place where you know, 75 or 80% have either been vaccinated or had the virus itself in recovery. So it's still a topic that's on our on the front of our consciousness that we want to encourage people to get vaccinated in the meantime, until you're through the vaccination process, please wear your mask, because you're not only have your own house to worry about, but the others in your family and neighbors.

Unknown Speaker
What are you hearing about the booster shot? I know the state health commissioner says if you want one, you can get one.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, I've been boosted. You know, the first chance we get both my wife and I are over 65. So I, I don't really think of myself as being in a high risk category. But but we sat we satisfied the criteria. So we both signed up for and received the booster shot. And it was pretty simple. You just walked into our primary care provider and told them we were there for the booster shot. And that's what we got.

Unknown Speaker
Any city departments they're hurting with any type of labor shortage due to contracting COVID and quarantine? Or? Or is it just mainly trying to find people to work? Well, it's

Unknown Speaker
all the above and I kind of lump it all together. And we're we're particularly Oh, noticing that is in our transit department bus drivers. We have a acute and an acute need for full and part time bus drivers. As you can well imagine, it's not a skill that everybody carries with them, you've got to have a CDL commercial driver's license, and I forget which a B or C which one you have to have. But But yeah, you can't just walk in and apply for that when you have to have a little bit of experience and, and then that particular license. But in the areas that, you know, we that require us to respond daily, whether that's police and fire and sanitation, you know, we're able to, to meet the needs with the staff that we have. So we haven't had too much of an issue with respect to absenteeism, either due to COVID or, or other factors.

Unknown Speaker
Let's get to an email our emailed in a little bit a while ago, we couldn't get to it the last show, so I want to make sure I get it in now. He's asking about the former Fair Oaks mall was shut down before COVID. At the time there was talk of remaking it into a health and fitness facility if he remembers right. Is there anything happening with that site?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, there's a lot going on. And most of its indoors, I mean, meetings that we have with our partner, Columbus Regional Health. And then with the architects, we've hired a firm called MK SK. And with respect to our 75% with the city's portion, we have received what's called a schematic design. We're still and what that tells you is where where they would put the walls and put the Fieldhouse that's your first suggestion, I guess I should say. And so what we have to do is work through how much that's going to cost and whether that's within our within our budget. And we've had, I think we week before last we met with them for two and a half days, they were here in town and felt like we made some progress. We were waiting now for them to return with a more updated schematic design that I think fits our budget parameters. Columbus Regional Health is moving forward as well with their build out plans, they will have the Carson's space, and they're going to they're going to put quite a few physicians in there and build out that whole space. It may take them three years or so, to complete the build out. It will take us you know a couple of years to complete the build out but we're continue to move forward. The plans that we have now for the city space provides for a Fieldhouse 150,000 square feet so which is a soccer field and a half. Or maybe easier way. For me, I've never played soccer to get that it's three softball fields with 200 foot fences. So there'll be a significant amount of space in there that can be used for a variety of purposes, not just turf type sports, but we'll be able to bring in temporary hardcourt and play basketball volleyball in anything that you need a solid wood floor, you know, to manage. So we're moving forward. And it's like I told you before we turned on the recording, all our projects are moving forward the pace sometimes. You know, it's frustrating, but, but yeah, we're gonna get there.

Unknown Speaker
And I'll remind anybody listening right now, especially if you're from Columbus, you can always email news at Indiana public media.org. And ask your question as well. I did you know, a while ago, we talked about a parking commission for the downtown area. And I flipped on today in the Republic, and I see that the city approved updating the study. So can we get an update about the parking commission and maybe what it's found and where you are in that process? Well, it hasn't

Unknown Speaker
found anything other than the need to provide a little bit more study. And so we have approved a contract with a firm called Nelson Nygaard, they did a study for us back in 2013. That took a look at downtown parking. And it's interesting to note that, since 2013, we've seen changes in two directions. I mean, the number of employees who worked downtown went way up, you know, unreal, reached a high point in early 2020. And then they've now they've gone way down. And so, in terms of the number of people who report to work daily, in downtown Columbus, you know, Cummins has a significant presence in downtown Columbus, and they're just not filling up their buildings daily, we think that that census count will increase, but we don't know what to we don't know when, and hopefully, this study will provide a little bit of insight into that, the study will be broken up into four pieces, and I can't do I can't give you the names of those four, off top my head, but at each point, or after each segment, will have the opportunity to go forward or not. If the parking commission sort of likes the results feels like we're making some progress, they'll continue or authorize the next segment. And if we're not making any progress or not, the data is not available, then we'll just stop where we are, wait until it is. But the cost of that's around 19 519 $1,500 We expect it to start sometime after the first of the year. I and it could take a year, you know, to to play out. So So yeah, we know downtown Columbus is relatively small. I mean, it's Washington Street and a little bit of parking on Franklin and, and Jackson. And although we've got a couple of parking garages, sometimes they're not as heavily used as we would like so how we sort of encourage people to use those garages that they may be part of the way we encourage them is better enforcement on Washington Street and that's that's what we hope to learn you know, from from the study from the activity so, so yeah, it'll it'll excuse me the documents have been signed and will start when the contractor is ready and it wouldn't surprise me if it's after the holidays. Yeah, I

Unknown Speaker
remember this was former mayor of Bloomington Mayor Mark Roseanne years ago on the show saying when they wanted to install meters in downtown Bloomington it wasn't too is that said it wasn't to generate money but it was more about moving the traffic that was or the the parking availability that was available around the square and around downtown. So that's it's it's, it's more not about the trying to bring in money or whatever. But it's also about trying to figure out how where parking is needed when and how to keep open places available to so there's a lot of moving parts, I guess, is what I'm getting to this.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that indicates that some people park all day long in the downtown area and and are just prepared to pay the fine which seem it's doesn't quite ring true with me because after a while those fines get fairly hefty but But nonetheless, we do want to move traffic in the in the retail area for the day long area or a lengthy stay. We'd like for people to park in the garages and we want to do what we can to encourage that

Unknown Speaker
when I saw the city needed just to do some housekeeping, moving some funds fire transit departments to pay for overtime. This year, we've been covering the struggle for overtime and retention in the Bloomington Police Department. So is this is something that again, kind of goes back to what we talked a little talking about a little bit earlier, the lack of workers or just more work

Unknown Speaker
well, again, all the above. It's important to understand at least a witness back to Columbus. We're not, excuse me, it's municipal finance can sometimes be a little counterintuitive. And what I mean by that is that we're asking for more money on our overtime lines, and overtime breaks into two categories scheduled and unscheduled. You might wonder why you'd have scheduled overtime while police officers work a two week shift. I mean, it's it's easy for them to get 48 hours in a week. And so that's scheduled overtime, or at least eight hours in that example, to the extent that we have people who are out either because of quarantine or because they're what are your COVID themselves, then we ended up with unscheduled overtime. And between those two, we have exceeded exceeded the budget. And so we need to move some money from another budget category. We don't need more money we just needed in a different line than the one it's in right now. So that will go before the city council again, on November 2, and ask them to for permission, just authorize some additional spending on the unscheduled overtime line. And it will come from other salary and wages lines elsewhere in the in the budget.

Unknown Speaker
Let's talk about the downtown. I believe it's the downtown TIF district in regard to the urban grocer housing development. So the city uses a TIF to pay a bond to bring the development there. And I think that's $11 million in bonds projected. Is that correct?

Unknown Speaker
11.8. I want to say but somewhere

Unknown Speaker
okay. And then 2 million in TIF money to help with the developer to to build that and that is going up. Did you say tonight Tuesday night?

Unknown Speaker
Well that the first part of that will authorization for that will be on tonight's city council meeting November 2. But again, the area that we're talking about here is east of our jail South a second street, we've got about 10 acres there, that is grass. And we've accumulated this ground over a period of time, a good portion of it was gifted to the city by the year with Sweeney Miller foundation. Some of it was purchased by the city of Bob's carwash being the most recent example. And so we propose to to build something or have something built, you know, on this ground and got to keep in mind right now, since the ground is owned by the city, it generates zero property taxes. Okay, so what we have come forward with here is program where we would have a developer come to town build about 200 apartments, and a urban grocer about 15,000 square feet might be 12. But somewhere along in through there, and that will generate we think about a half a million in property taxes. And so that property tax that we will generate will be used to pay this additional bond payment that we just talked about. So we'll also issue a bond that will defray some of the developer's costs, it'll be in the 11 to $11.8 million range, and will be paid for by the property taxes that are generated by the project. And there will also be a guarantee by the by the developer, who will guarantee that if the property taxes for whatever reason are insufficient to pay the bond payment, he will pay the bond payment. So obviously, it's important to have, you know, a developer's skin in the game, as we say. And so not only do we have the corporate guarantee, but we have got an individual guarantee as well, that will go along with that and, and gives us a lot of confidence in their ability to perform this project and bring it online as as they have designed it. So again, we don't know if it'll be 194 apartments or 206, or whatever the final number will be. But it'll be somewhere around that 200. So you can think maybe 300 People might be a little bit of a stretch, we don't really know what the occupancy will be. But it's important to us to try to provide for some more foot traffic, excuse me foot traffic downtown. You know, we want to support the restaurants and the other entertainment venues that we have in the downtown area. We think this will help that a lot. It's also been important to us to provide for a grocery store. We've, you know, had a couple people look at downtown Columbus, they've identified that we may have what they call a food desert, which means that it's just a little difficult for people who are maybe not as mobile as some of us to get to grocery store. And so we want to be able to provide that option in the downtown area. And I know myself is working down here. Every now and then you'd like to go someplace where you can buy some aspirin I mean it we're not asking a lot here just you know place where where that's within easy walking distance. And so that's part of what we're trying to do.

Unknown Speaker
And what's the total I guess projected cost of that development, it's close to 40 million 40 million, right? And is the blooming food still part of the discussion of being that urban grocer,

Unknown Speaker
they're still under discussion. Those discussions occur between blooming foods and flirty and Collins, flirty. And Collins is the developer. And, you know, they're the ones that sort of have to, you know, make, make it work. And we get a report every now and then. And the last I heard was, they're still talking. So we hopefully, I would love to have blooming foods here, you know, my wife, and I drive to Bloomington as it is, you know, to visit their store, and I find it to be really, you know, an attraction. So I think it would go well here. But that's not my decision. Unfortunately, they're, they're going to decide

Unknown Speaker
something else. Interesting that you brought up, I wanted to ask about the central TIF share with the school. I think that's up for either discussion or vote tonight about $1 million. And that sounds that's not something I hear about in other cities. Can you explain that a little bit?

Unknown Speaker
Well, you know, in. In many communities, there's a little natural tension that exists between TIF districts and school corporations. TIF districts tend to skim is a word that some people use some of the property tax receipts off the top. And the idea is that they reinvest those back into the district and create more assessed valuation in that district. And so we've been very successful in Columbus with what we call our central TIF. You know, this stretches out to the Wellsboro area there where there's a significant industrial park and reaches downtown. I mean, it's it's pretty broad in its in its scope, and it brings in 8 million bucks here 9 million. And we feel like there's plenty there. I mean, there we were able to do what we need to do in the TIF area. And we can share. Yeah, so one of the places we've chosen to share with is school corporation. And it's interesting to note that state of Indiana and its TIF legislation provides for tips to be able to contribute up to 15% of their revenue with with school corporations or to school corporation. So the whole idea behind the TIF is economic development, you know, enhanced economic activity. And so what we've done is approach to Bartholomew consolidate schools and said, hey, you know, what kind of programs do you have, that will better prepare your workforce. And so they've identified those and given us an opportunity to enhance what they do in that area. And so we were happy to be able to do it. We had for the last several years, I'll say five, awarded $750,000 a year, and this year made the decision to go to a million. And so that's the proposal we'll put in front of the City Council this evening, that we fund a million dollars of economic development, education, if you will, that would be carried on over 30 consolidated schools,

Unknown Speaker
you know, by chance, just what more specifically that the school would use that money for?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, again, I, sometimes I'm real quick with this stuff, sometimes not. But we talk about STEM, science, technology, engineering and math, we talk about transition. And what that phrase implies, is perhaps, educationally disadvantaged kids who need a little bit extra training, to be able to participate in the workforce. And we talk about mentoring. And those are situations where you've got kids who are at a higher degree of risk for dropping out of the school system, I mean, just not completing their high school degree. And what we what we start to believe is that the teachers, you know, the administrators, they're at school corporation, they can identify those kids pretty early. And they, they kind of know what the characteristics are, that marked those kids as high risk for that, that result. And so when, when they can, they can apply, you know, some extra guidance, as I said earlier mentoring that would sort of reach out and counsel that child into trying to complete their degree and making them understand why it's important to do so and so on. So, you know, we're happy to be able to pay for those things because we believe that they enhance the workforce that we offer here in Bartholomew County, and he talked to prospective employers, particularly those who are considering a move to Columbus or Bartholomew County. I mean, they're all about wanting to know the workforce, you know, what, what kind of level of education do you have? What kind of school system have you got, if they need to be taught how to weld can you know, do you have that available and and so on. So, you know, we feel like somebody will spam we're glad glad to be able to do it.

Unknown Speaker
And just to remind those who are listening to this on Wednesday, this is recorded Tuesday, so the meeting is Tuesday night People, you have an online streaming right of your city council.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, people go to our website, Columbus dot i n.gov. And follow the various prompts. They can find their way to a live stream of the city council meeting, we start at six o'clock. We allow people to show up. I mean, the doors are open, we ask you to wear a mask. But But yeah, the public is welcome to attend the meetings. But if you want to view it online, you can at your store, city website, we don't have an easy way for people to comment. But I encourage people to email me for I check my phone during the meetings and I try to explain to everybody it's because I'm checking to see if I've received a public comment mayor@columbus.io n dot govt or mayor@columbus.in.gov? And you know if your comments pertinent to the discussion, we'll we'll try to air it and get it addressed. If not, we'll try to get back to you the next day.

Unknown Speaker
No, we're getting short on time any holiday festivities were November already. Next time I see you. Hopefully we'll be in December. But any festivities returning this year? We do

Unknown Speaker
we have our Festival of Lights Parade. And we've taken a few years our one year off from that that's the first Saturday in December. So I don't have my calendar in front of me. So if that's the second or the fourth, or what have you, but it's the first Saturday in December. And the the parade will be most of what it was, I think I heard that the organizers are going to limit the number of entries to 75, which is down from 100. Because I want to try to control the crowd a little bit. But But yeah, it'll be an opportunity to get outside. Hopefully the weather will be cool, but dry, and we can have a little bit fun.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you so much for your time. I always like to leave you with the last word. Do you have any special announcements or anything else that we should know?

Unknown Speaker
Oh, wow. Well, as I said earlier, I mean, all the things that we're working on here in Columbus are moving forward. Sometimes the progress is a little frustrating for me to take but but I think we've had a good year and it's particularly gratifying given the COVID challenges that we've had for 20 and 21. I look forward to sort of having a little bit of this behind us and a little bit more fun in 2022.

Unknown Speaker
All right, thank you and I hope to see you next month.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you. Bye bye
Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop

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

The mayor says a 54 percent vaccination rate is not high enough, Columbus Regional Health is beginning to take over the former Carson's location at Fair Oaks Mall, and city tax districts will help fund a mixed-use urban grocer development.

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 begin with another COVID update, hospitalizations declining, but not really seeing that decline to say it’s over?

Lienhoop: Hospitalizations have declined, which, as a community makes us feel good. But I want to remind people is if you're one of the folks who's hospitalized, that's cold comfort to you. And we still believe that the majority of the people who are hospitalized are unvaccinated.

And we have some data that indicates here we are about 54% vaccinated. So we still got a ways to go. And I believe what this means for us is that we will continue to see spikes from the coronavirus until we reach a place where 75 or 80% have either been vaccinated or had the virus itself in recovery.

Hren: Are there city departments hurting with labor shortage due to contracting COVID and staff quarantines, or just a lack of people?

READ MORE: As Indiana prepares to vaccinate Hoosiers 5 and older, pediatricians dispel COVID-19 myths

Lienhoop: All the above and I kind of lump it all together. We're particularly noticing that in our transit department bus drivers. We have an acute need for full and part time bus drivers. As you can well imagine, it's not a skill that everybody carries with them, you've got to have a commercial driver's license, and I forget which a B or C which one you have to have.

But in the areas that require us to respond daily, whether that's police and fire and sanitation, we're able to meet the needs with the staff that we have.

Fair-Oaks-Mall-storefront.jpg
Shuttered storefronts at Fair Oaks Mall. (WFIU/WTIU News Archival photo)

Hren: I want to get to this email from Art, he writes: "The former Fair Oaks Mall was shut down BC (Before COVID). At the time, there was talk of remaking it into a health and fitness facility, if I remember right. Is anything happening with that site?"

Lienhoop: There's a lot going on. And most of its indoors. We've hired a firm called MKSK. And with respect to our 75% with the city's portion, we have received what's called a schematic design. What that tells you is where they would put the walls and put the fieldhouse and so what we have to do is work through how much that's going to cost and whether that's within our budget.

I think the week before last we met with them for two and a half days. We are waiting now for them to return with a more updated schematic design that I think fits our budget parameters.

Columbus Regional Health is moving forward as well with their build out plans, they will have the Carson's space, and they're going to put quite a few physicians in there and build out that whole space. It may take them three years or so, to complete the build out. It will take us a couple of years to complete the build out.

The plans that we have now for the city space provides for a fieldhouse 150,000 square feet so which is a soccer field and a half. So there'll be a significant amount of space in there that can be used for a variety of purposes, not just turf type sports, but we'll be able to bring in temporary hardcourt and play basketball, volleyball - anything that you need a solid wood floor.

Columbus mixed-use development, urban grocer concept, 2nd Street North View
Columbus mixed-use development, urban grocer concept, 2nd Street North View (City of Columbus)

Hren: We've talked many times about the $40 million mixed-use downtown development that includes an urban grocer, 200 apartments, and see it's on the agenda to be voted on tonight by city council because it's using $12 million in TIF money for a bond and $2 million for the project. How does using those funds help the city?

Lienhoop: We've got about 10 acres there, that is grass. And we've accumulated this ground over a period of time, a good portion of it was gifted to the city by the Irwin Sweeney Miller foundation. Some of it was purchased by the city. Keep in mind right now, since the ground is owned by the city, it generates zero property taxes. So what we have come forward with here is a developer come to town build about 200 apartments, and a urban grocer about 15,000 square feet.

That will generate we think about a half a million in property taxes. And so that property tax that we will generate will be used to pay this additional bond payment that we just talked about. So we'll also issue a bond that will defray some of the developer's costs, it'll be in the $11 to $11.8 million range, and will be paid for by the property taxes that are generated by the project. And there will also be a guarantee by the developer, who will guarantee that if the property taxes for whatever reason are insufficient to pay the bond payment, he will pay the bond payment.

But it's important to us to try to provide for some more foot traffic downtown. We want to support the restaurants and the other entertainment venues. It's also been important to us to provide for a grocery store. We've had a couple people look at downtown Columbus, they've identified that we may have what they call a food desert, which means that it's just a little difficult for people who are maybe not as mobile as some of us to get to grocery store. And so we want to be able to provide that option in the downtown area.

Hren: Any word on signing Bloomingfoods as the grocer?

Lienhoop: They're still under discussion. Those discussions occur between Bloomingfoods and Flaherty & Collins, the developer. And, they're the ones that make it work. We get a report every now and then. And the last I heard was, they're still talking. I would love to have Bloomingfoods here, my wife and I drive to Bloomington as it is to visit their store, and I find it to be really an attraction. So I think it would go well here.

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