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Ask The Mayor: Columbus Lienhoop on masks, Ukrainian solidarity, conference center study

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Unknown Speaker
Hello and welcome to ask the mayor on WFIU I'm Joe hren with WFIU/WTIU news. This week as always, the first of the month, we're joined by Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop. Hello, and welcome. Mr. Mayor

Unknown Speaker
Joe, good to be here hard to believe it's March

Unknown Speaker
at every month, but it's so true. I just want everyone to know that you can submit your question to news at Indiana public media.org. You can tweet us at Ask the mayor. Let's get started. As always, just a quick COVID update. You know, I'm hearing many, especially in the hospital realm say we've weathered the storm, you know, it's not over. But the cases really are falling hospitalizations are falling. How does that feel over there in Columbus? Well, it

Unknown Speaker
feels kind of good. I mean, if I don't know the proper, appropriate analogy, but maybe we're on the back end of the hurricane, you know, I mean, the winds are finally starting to die down. And maybe the rain is now in drizzle. But but the numbers that we looked at have improved. I mean, they're they're not zero. I mean, in terms of hospitalizations, or infections related to the Coronavirus. It's not zero, but it's a lot better than it was. And so we anticipate making a change in our mask policy. This Friday, that'd be May or March 4, we anticipate going mask optional. And what that means is that in city venues, there will no no longer be a masking requirement that's on Friday of this week, we ask that, you know if there are people in the crowd who want to wear a mask that you'd be respectful of that, if you find yourself in close quarters, with such a person, you know, please consider putting one on my wife's a good example she's got she suffers from a little bit of asthma. And we've always been a little concerned about, you know, since COVID is a respiratory illness that it might affect her more severely than than others. And so she just needs to be a little bit more careful. And, and so my sense is that when you see somebody who's wearing a mask, they've got a reason to do so and, and would ask that you respect that. So So again, with respect to city employees, masking is optional. But if you've got a meeting with a member of the public or with another employee, and and they ask or signal that, you know, they'd like to see a mask, go ahead and put one on it just a little bit of deference to somebody who's, you know, got some concerns about the lingering virus that's in us or around us. So. So yeah, that's it's kind of neat. I mean, we thought we'd try to have a I mean, I got it right here never gets too far away. Right. But I don't know whether we'll have a bonfire. I don't think we're quite ready. For but, but we are excited about sort of getting to the end of the mask tunnel. So So yeah, well, and I say that I say all this in anticipation that we do not hear anything negative from either the CDC or the governor's office, you know, may March 4, they keep on to say maybe March 4 is the end of the current executive order that the governor is issued related to the pandemic. And it's set to expire on March 4. And so in anticipation that that is not extended, and in anticipation that we don't hear anything significant. If to change our minds from the Centers for Disease Control, you know, we anticipate, you know, going forward with a mask optional on Friday, so, so nonetheless, it's it. We're temper our enthusiasm until 8am on March 4, but But yeah, it's kind of an exciting time.

Unknown Speaker
You know, it's hard not to mention other news, the Ukraine invasion. We've talked with some local Ukrainians here. I'm sure there's some in Columbus, or just a terrible situation. Sanctions being placed against Russian goods, the governor last night calling Hoosiers to sever ties with Russia. Have you heard how that could affect or trickle down there in Columbus?

Unknown Speaker
No, not really. I'm sure that as you mentioned, we've got people here who either are from Ukraine or have strong ties to Ukraine. I was at the NAACP banquet last night. And yeah, a couple came up to me and said, Yeah, our parents were from, from your client or Ukraine or, you know, what can you do, you know, to try to show a little bit of solidarity or difference to them. And, and we would like to find something, you know, that would indicate that we appreciate what they're going through. It's just just hard to believe. I mean, you know, we think we live in a civilized era. And I guess you're only as civilized as your next door neighbor. It's just, it's just sad. But, but yeah, no, to answer your question. No, we've not really been told of any effects that will affect Columbus directly. So we'll wait to hear.

Unknown Speaker
We get an email Kelly wrote in From last show, and said, the number of people who run red lights in this town has to have doubled or tripled. People seem to think the pause before it turns green for crossing traffic is included in the yellow. So she was wondering if the city could invest in some traffic cameras, and it would recoup some of the expense right away. What are your thoughts on that?

Unknown Speaker
Well, it's not exactly out of left field. But you know, I've noticed too, that there seems to be an increase in the number of people who, who, who run the red light or run an orange light or? And I'm not sure that I mean, I've been to other cities where, you know, those kinds of cameras have been installed to, to photograph license plates, people who do that i I'm not aware of any place in Indiana. That does that. There may be some, but I'm not aware of that. But it's a it's generally the kind of thing that we refer to our police department and just ask for them to be a little bit more cognizant of and, and it'll get better for a while. And then then yeah, it tends to tends to recur. But I would share with Kelly that I've, I've sometimes felt as well, that, you know, people's willingness to obey traffic laws seems to be waning a little bit. And so will we, as I said, we typically just tell the police department and they'll increase some enforcement for a while and we'll see how it goes.

Unknown Speaker
Something we talked about last month, I wanted to follow up the downtown Conference Center and Hotel proposal, it's been in the works for a while pandemic came along. Some of the groundwork has been underway, you you've talked about that the last few months. But from what I've been gathering, the city kind of wants to take another look at the project. So what instigated this new evaluation?

Unknown Speaker
Well, part of what instigated it is we got the project across the street that move forward. I mean, when we first started this, we, we viewed the apartment complex and the Hotel Conference Center as one project. And when the pandemic came along, and this was travel fell off, we realized that if we wanted to move forward on either of those, we're going to have to separate and, you know, concentrate on them as separate projects. And so we made them project A and project B. One, a one b kind of thing. And the apartment project now is it's off and running. I mean, we have signed all the paperwork that I'm aware that the city needs to sign. And so it's in the hands of the developer. And candidly, that frees up a little bit of staff time, you know, in terms of, you know, how we try to manage our projects, and gives us the opportunity to refocus a little bit on the Hotel Conference Center. At the same time, you know, we have to kind of understand that the hotel we're talking about here is two miles from the interstate. And good news, bad news is that puts it in a little bit different category of hospitality, you know, when you're out at the interstate, a lot of that is what am I called leisure, or family travel, when you're two miles away, that's considered to be business. And so it's a little bit different category as far as the hotel flags are concerned, and the bankers are concerned. And so part of what we have noticed here is that the number of hotel stays out at the interstate, I 65, those have I'm told have rebounded to nearly pre pandemic levels. But there's still a lack of business travel, you know, which means that during the week, and that's a little bit easier, a lot easier to find a room than on the weekend. And so what we have to try to understand now is how does that affect our project downtown, you know, the project downtown was sort of sized to all fit together, you know, 140, tea room hotel, 9000 square foot ballroom with 4000 square feet of breakout space. And so part of what we'd want to understand is whether that sizing still makes sense. Whether the market when it re normalizes, will will, will the market be able to support that? And so we have engaged reengaged I should say the the original consultants that we had to give us a little bit of an update on the hospitality market, in particular with respect to business travel, and, you know, just to give us some, either their reason to continue to go forward with that project or to reconsider what sighs it ought to be so, so we'll see what Yeah, excuse me. We signed that contract. I want to think last week, and we'll, we'll anticipate his report in about three or four weeks. So we'll just have to wait and see what happens but, but the whole notion was we were able to finish up what we could do on the apartment project. And so we're just moving on across the street.

Unknown Speaker
And you have what a full block available for this purpose. If needed to,

Unknown Speaker
yeah, we have a full city block. And there's a building on that block now that currently houses the pathology mechanic Court Services Department. We also call that the probation department. And as you may recall, we're building a new building south of the jail, that will house that department. And so that new building is slated for occupancy around May 1. So about two months away, when that happens, we'll move the probation department, and we will raise the building that exists there in anticipation that the hospital excuse me in anticipation at the hotel will go forward, we just want to be ready for it when it does

Unknown Speaker
it, can there be any use or any indication of how a new conference center could work with the use of the commons? Or is that too much of a different venue?

Unknown Speaker
It's, you know, the Commons is a great place to have a meeting. But it has its limitations. I mean, if what you want is a breakout space really doesn't offer much. If you'd like to hold two events at the same time, it's really difficult to nearly impossible to do that. The Commons design Commons was designed to try to minimize noise from other parts of the building. And in general, it doesn't have But occasionally, if you've got a big crowd down there at the playground, and people coming in and out in and out around the sculpture, chaos, you know, there's some noise that filters upstairs and and so becomes a little bit disorienting for speakers and in whatever the program is up there. So it would, it would certainly be possible to to book an event at the comments at the same time, there's something going on at the conference center. But it's unlikely that there will be a draw. We really don't anticipate that.

Unknown Speaker
And we got an update last month on Nexus park and I believe the city opened some bids to build the Fieldhouse. And I think New tonight we do this on a Tuesday, but City Council was looking at some appropriations or city council work on Nexus park tonight. Can you give us a quick update?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, we didn't open any bids. What we opened request for qualifications. We're doing this pursuant to a design and build process. And state law requires that we request qualifications for interested designers and builders. And so we received two responses to that RFQ. And one was from force construction here in Columbus and other one was from a company I'll recommend is the way I pronounce the name from Shelbyville and we'll take those under advisement or have taken under advisement, we'll make a determination as to who to ask to propose. But tonight City Council on March 1, we will put forward two ordinances related to funding for Nexus Park. There'll be a second reading of an edit bond and a first reading of a parks bond. So those will come forward tonight. And yeah, hopefully we'll will those will be approved, and then we'll be able to continue to move forward on next as part.

Unknown Speaker
A lot of those pieces are really starting to come together too, aren't they?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, it's you know, it's a lot of work. And but what's the old? You know? Wait, wait, wait, and then hurry up? You know, the old phrase. Yeah. So it's once the once the funding process starts it in others, a statutory clock that takes that starts ticking. And so we, you know, have to do certain things in a certain sequence and within a certain period of time. And so we're in that right now and anticipate being busy with that the next month, really, you know, through the end of March, and then we should have most of this stuff settled and we'll be able to set the final budget and design area. Proceed with design and build contract and get a little bit maybe get a shovel in the ground. So middle of March, right. Excuse me, middle of June. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker
June, June. Yeah. I think that was also some it was at City Council action on the riverfront project. But that was a rezoning.

Unknown Speaker
Right? There's some ground on the south end. Actually, it's not there. It really doesn't touch for river but we consider a part of that project. But there's been some interest in by some real estate developers and coming forward with a project for this particular site which right now just houses it's a warehouse that the city owns where we store toters garbage totes and and some other items in there. But in order to do anything on that we have to have the zoning needs to change and you know, right now, excuse me, this area down here is pretty vacant, and we're excited about having some interest in it. But But yeah, we need to sort of ready that for some kind of residential activity because that's probably what will what we would want to See there's some people living in the downtown area.

Unknown Speaker
So that's a residential,

Unknown Speaker
it would be the zoning classification of reach over here. We would rezone it from commercial community to residential established. And again, the those words in there for me are from Commercial to Residential, you know, and the secondary words there means something to our planning department. A little bit lost on me, but but, yeah, it, it should come forward this evening as well.

Unknown Speaker
Before we go, just wanted to ask you to any updates from the State House. I know the governor recently citing for those major tax cuts that we talked about, most of what I see, though, is the income tax rate decrease, but I know cities are watching for that business, personal property tax cuts, what are you seeing?

Unknown Speaker
What I'm being told is that the business personal property tax cut is been taken out of the legislation, you know, you never know till you know, and then things get added back at the last minute, just in anticipation of a vote, you know, in the next few minutes. But, you know, what was proposed was to eliminate or reduce as a portion of the business personal property tax. And while you know, we're pretty pro business here in Columbus, and we want to try to do what we can to enhance our desirability to for business investment, that particular change would have pulled, I think it was about a $6 million rug out from underneath the county of Bartholomew. And like I say, Well, we're all for low taxes and being desirable for business location. Without that would have happened next year. We can't react that quickly. And, and so the legislature just needs to put some thought into how it might redesign the property tax structure in Indiana and and if it wants to take that away, then so be it. There's probably some good reasons to do so. But it like sake just can't pull the rug out from under us that is asking quite a bit there. So So I was glad to see that that pulled was pulled. And I'm hopeful that we can put some some decent study into that issue before. Before the legislature reconvenes, I

Unknown Speaker
only have about a minute left. And I always like to leave the last word to you any big announcements or anything else you'd like to say?

Unknown Speaker
Now, you know, like I said, we're February went pretty quickly. And a lot of that was because we had to stay inside. And we're still, you know, sort of combating mask fatigue, if you will. But I feel really good about the the progress that the community has made in terms of maybe reaching some point where we can gain some renewable, excuse me can gain some normal normalcy in our lives again, as you mentioned earlier, and I really would I feel badly that we didn't start with this, but I feel a lot of empathy for the folks in the Ukraine. I just cannot emphasize enough how bothersome that is that you know you somebody who you live next to just decides that they want to conquer you. And so here they come. But, but today, right here in Columbus, we're holding around and I look forward to march.

Unknown Speaker
Alright, thank you very much for your time. Appreciate it, and we'll see you in April.

Unknown Speaker
Take care. Bye
Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop on a Zoom interview Tuesday. (Zoom)

The city plans on loosening the mask requirement in government buildings, a new study on the proposed downtown conference center, NexusPark funding, and the mayor responds to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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: I'm hearing some healthcare workers say "we've weathered the storm." It's not over, but cases are really falling and hospitalizations are falling.

Lienhoop: I don't know the proper, appropriate analogy, but maybe we're on the back end of the hurricane. But the numbers that we looked at have improved. I mean, they're not zero.

READ MORE: District 8, which includes Monroe County, counts lowest hospitalizations since Aug. 1

We anticipate making a change in our mask policy. This Friday we anticipate going mask optional. And what that means is that in city venues, there will no longer be a masking requirement. If there are people in the crowd who want to wear a mask, be respectful of that. If you find yourself in close quarters, with such a person, please consider putting one on.

And I say all this in anticipation that we do not hear anything negative from either the CDC or the governor's office. March 4 is the end of the current executive order that the governor issued related to the pandemic.

IU students protest Russia's attacks on the Ukrainian people
IU students protest Russia's attacks on the Ukrainian people.

Hren: It's hard not to mention other news, the Ukraine invasion. We've talked with some local Ukrainians here. I'm sure there're some in Columbus. The governor last night calling Hoosiers to sever ties with Russia. Have you heard how that could affect or trickle down in Columbus?

Lienhoop: No, not really. I was at the NAACP banquet last night and a couple came up to me and said our parents were from Ukraine. What can you do to try to show a little bit of solidarity or difference to them. And, and we would like to find something that would indicate that we appreciate what they're going through.

It's just just hard to believe. We think we live in a civilized era. And I guess you're only as civilized as your next door neighbor. It's just sad.

Hren: I wanted to follow up the downtown Conference Center and Hotel proposal, it's been in the works for a while - the pandemic came along, some of the groundwork is underway... but from what I've been gathering, the city wants to take another look at the project. So what instigated this new evaluation?

Lienhoop: When we first started this, we viewed the apartment complex and the Hotel Conference Center as one project. And when the pandemic came along, and travel fell off, we realized that if we wanted to move forward on either of those, we're going to have to separate them. The apartment project now is off and running.

Columbus mixed-use development, urban grocer concept, 2nd Street North View
Columbus mixed-use development, urban grocer concept, 2nd Street North View

At the same time, we have to kind of understand that the hotel we're talking about here is two miles from the interstate. And so it's a little bit different category as far as the hotels are concerned, and the bankers are concerned. And so part of what we have noticed here is that the number of hotel stays out at the interstate, I-65, have rebounded to nearly pre pandemic levels.

And so what we have to try to understand now is how does that affect our project downtown. And so part of what we'd want to understand is whether the sizing still makes sense. Will the market be able to support that? And so we have reengaged the original consultants that we had to give us a little bit of an update on the hospitality market, in particular with respect to business travel.

Hren: We got an email - Kelly wrote in! She says the number of people who run red lights in this town has to have doubled or tripled. People seem to think the pause before it turns green for crossing traffic is included in the yellow. So she was wondering if the city could invest in some traffic cameras, and it would recoup some of the expense right away.

Lienhoop: I've noticed too, that there seems to be an increase in the number of people who run the red light or run an orange light. And I'm not sure that I've been to other cities where those kinds of cameras have been installed to photograph license plates, people who do that. I'm not aware of any place in Indiana that does that.

There may be some, but I'm not aware of that. But it's generally the kind of thing that we refer to our police department and just ask for them to be a little bit more cognizant of and it'll get better for a while. And then yeah, it tends to recur. But I would share with Kelly that I've sometimes felt as well that people's willingness to obey traffic laws seems to be waning a little bit.

Hren: We got an update last month on NexusPark and I believe the city opened some bids to build the Fieldhouse. And I think new tonight (we do this on a Tuesday), City Council is looking at some appropriations on NexusPark?

City of Columbus render NexusPark
City of Columbus render NexusPark

Lienhoop: We didn't open any bids, we opened request for qualifications. We're doing this pursuant to a design and build process. And state law requires that we request qualifications for interested designers and builders. We received two responses to that RFQ. And one was from Force Construction here in Columbus and other one was from a company Runnebohm Construction is the way I pronounce the name from Shelbyville and we'll take those under advisement, we'll make a determination as to who to ask to propose.

But tonight City Council on March 1, we will put forward two ordinances related to funding for NexusPark. There'll be a second reading of an EDIT bond and a first reading of a parks bond.

Hren: Quick Statehouse update. I know the governor recently citing for those major tax cuts that we talked about, most of what I see, though, is the income tax rate decrease, but I know cities are watching for business personal property tax cuts, what are you seeing?

Lienhoop: What I'm being told is that the business personal property tax cut is been taken out of the legislation, you never know till you know, and then things get added back at the last minute. But, what was proposed was to eliminate or reduce a portion of the business personal property tax. And while you know, we're pretty pro business here in Columbus, and we want to try to do what we can to enhance our desirability for business investment, that particular change would have pulled, I think it was about a $6 million rug out from underneath the county of Bartholomew.

We can't react that quickly. And so the legislature just needs to put some thought into how it might redesign the property tax structure in Indiana and if it wants to take that away, then so be it. There's probably some good reasons to do so. But it just can't pull the rug out from under us - that is asking quite a bit there.

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