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Ask The Mayor: Columbus Lienhoop on pandemic fallout, housing development

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It's like we never left we're back with ask the mayor on WFIU in person this time, the first time in two years.

Unknown Speaker
it has been two years. Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Yeah,

Unknown Speaker
we've been zooming for a while. And things have been up and down good and bad. But we've stuck it out online. We appreciate you doing this. And sure. It's nice to be back in the city of Columbus. And it looks great. Despite the rain today.

Unknown Speaker
It's uh, you know, it's rainy. It's a little overcast. But as we were talking earlier, this is the time of year where we're the blooms show on the pear trees downtown. And it you know, we've got, I don't know what the number is six bucks worth of these. So it's quite attractive, you know, for him to all show at the same time. Unfortunately, yeah, today's a little rainy. But the sun's gonna shine tomorrow.

Unknown Speaker
You know, I should say, for those of you who don't know that we are in Columbus with Mayor Jim lint up. Don't forget, you can submit your question to news at Indiana public media.org. You can tweet us at Ask the mayor. So COVID numbers at an all time low since the start of the pandemic? Is it? Is it business as usual. And

Unknown Speaker
I don't know if it's as usual, but it's certainly getting back there. I mean, I've noticed just on the drive to work in the morning, and and again here at lunchtime today. We see people downtown, you know, walk in the sidewalks. And that's kind of heartening, you know, just to see folks returning to maybe a little bit more normal routine, or maybe a new normal routine. So So yeah, it's kind of kind of good to see.

Unknown Speaker
So are you hearing anything about still the pandemic? Maybe fallout? It, it's over, but it's not, there's still things that i I'm sure still kind of you hope get it back,

Unknown Speaker
there are some things that were waiting to settle down at business travel is pretty important to us. You know, we may talk a little bit later about the hotel project that we've planned for downtown, that's primarily affected by by business travel. We're also, you know, a little concerned about the the unemployment rate, and just getting people back to work and return into a little bit of a sense of normality with respect to just the number of folks who work and the size of the workforce and how easily people can can find a job when they need one. And if and as easily or difficult as the case may be for employers to find workers. That's something that we haven't yet seen sort out. So. So yeah, there'll be more to come. And we're hopeful that maybe as future variants show up that the vaccines and, you know, policies that we put in place to try to help people understand the effect of being in crowds that, you know, that mitigates the the effect of any variance.

Unknown Speaker
Another general assembly session is complete after some uncertainty, we talked a lot about the business and personal property tax. Right. At first it was going back and forth, it was on the table off the table, they were going to do it in increments, and then it ended up not passing. And I know you and Mayor Bennett, both were really pushing against that, and I'm sure are pleased with

Unknown Speaker
the always happy when the legislature adjourns, you know, it just takes take some of that anxiety off the table and and in particular with respect to that, for Bartholomew County, that would have made about a $6 million hole in our collective budgets. And, you know, while we can certainly understand that there may be a need for that tax to be revisited. viewed a little bit more strictly. We can't just get away, do away with it all at once, you know, and that was the concern that we had that there was no identified replacement. So whenever the folks in the legislature want to resurrect this notion, we're happy to have the conversation, but we need to know what we replace what we do to replace the revenue. It was interesting,

Unknown Speaker
just talking to different cities Nashville, of course, are more concerned about the food and beverage taxes and Innkeepers taxes. They're more focused on tourism, they don't have the big industry that Columbus and Terre Haute has. So every year is learned I learned something new in the General Assembly. Right, right. Right. Were there other legislation or that you're pleased with her or not?

Unknown Speaker
You know, I didn't find too much in there to be too anxious about I mean, we're always concerned about new rules that relate to either TIF or annexation. And there just wasn't a whole lot in there this year. So so we felt good about that.

Unknown Speaker
I covered one hearing on annexation and something that I believe will come back next year as they keep refining and discussing how that moves forward. We do have one email Michael emails in and wanted to know what actions the City of Columbus has taken concerning climate change. Since you've been mayor?

Unknown Speaker
Well, since I've been mayor, that's six years worth of activity, it's a little hard to summarize all that just in the time that we're sitting here. But we have pursued the purchase of vehicles that are hybrid style. I mean, we're interested in cost because we're spending taxpayer dollars. So we have to be a little cautious about that. We've also pursued the installation of some water fountains, we've done studies on the electric usage in our buildings, I mean, this room that we're sitting in here, I mean, we have the low, whatever the phrase is, I get it all wrong, but the LEED certified lights, you know, we have investigated from time to time the installation of solar panels on various city owned properties, it's difficult for us to get enough mass to to really be effective and in terms of the installation, but we continue to try to find ideas that will will make us a greener place. And hopefully, we'll come up with a few more as time goes on.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, and you kind of answered part two, unless you want to elaborate, elaborate more, he wanted to know, additional efforts that you would be making.

Unknown Speaker
Well, we continued, as I said, to pursue solar, where it makes sense. We've got some ground out at the sewage treatment plant, we've got some ground here beside behind city hall. But again, it's difficult for us to get the correct amount of acreage, if you will, to really make a meaningful impact and, and come up with a project that's enticing to, you know, some of the contractors, but we'll continue to work on that.

Unknown Speaker
Thanks, Michael, for your question. And don't forget others listening right now. You can email in your question as well. Your official groundbreaking on the Housing and Urban grocer development April 21. At 3pm. That's the what the southeast corner of second and Lafayette Avenue Yeah, 200 apartments $40 million investment. Right, right deal.

Unknown Speaker
A very big deal. I mean, part of what we wanted to do here in downtown Columbus really two things to choose me two things. One was to provide a walkable residential option. So what we're way we define that is a place where you can walk to work, walk to your recreation, and walk to a grocery store. And so the the addition of the grocery store as part of this project is really important to us. Because we wanted to have a place downtown where people could walk down by a quarter milk, get an aspirin, you know, basic stuff, now, it's not going to be a really huge place. And they were talking about 12 to 15,000 square feet, the local Kroger as I understand it's about 120,000. So about 1/10, the size of what you would might may expect to a Oh, the Sam's Club or the WalMart super Walmart to be. Nonetheless, it'll be a welcome addition downtown. The second thing we're after is trying to just create a little bit more foot traffic in the downtown area, we've got several restaurants downtown, now we'd like to have a few more, we want the ones that are here to be a little bit more successful, perhaps I mean, have a little bit better underpinning economic underpinning than what they've got. And part of the way we do that is to bring people downtown who hopefully will have some disposable income and patronize those places. So we're looking at 200 apartments there just east of City Hall. And you know, hard to sell. But if it's 200 apartments, make that 300 people and not far away up on Seventh Street, we've got about 75 units that are really close to completion. And again, you know, it's hard to say but that's 100 125 people, you know, so they're all within walkable walking distance of downtown. And we feel like it's going to be a good thing for our city just to be able to provide a little boost, if you will, to the economics that occur in our downtown area.

Unknown Speaker
Now, blooming Foods was thought to be in consideration for that urban grocer. Do you know anything more on that?

Unknown Speaker
No, I don't, you know, we've left that choice tenant up to the developer, and they've guaranteed us that there will be a grocery store, they haven't been able to tell us who it's going to be yet. Now,

Unknown Speaker
the developer is also paying about from what I remember, we talked in the past, just as the update 70% of that cost, and the city is helping out with

Unknown Speaker
the Well, the way that it's you got to be a little cautious. You know, in terms of help, what we're going to do is sell some bonds that would obligate the property taxes from the project, it won't really get into the city's general revenues won't get into our edit revenues. But the the bonds themselves will be paid back by property taxes that the project will generate. So there's no real out of pocket costs, you know, from that activity related to the city. Now we are going to grant the land I mean, we've given them the land for the project. And I think we did put about $2 million of cash into it, but the bulk of the the so called City contribution is a bond that will be repaid by the property taxes generated by the project and that bond does not require the city you know to be a guarantor so so yeah, it's it's a fairly low cost project for us.

Unknown Speaker
Let's get an update on Nexus Park. Last time we talked The city was looking at I think it was request for qualifications. Correct, right. And now the city is looking for request for proposal,

Unknown Speaker
right? You know, we're going to use what's called a design build process here. And state law tells us, you know, the process that we have to follow for. So for the first step, you request qualifications from interested parties. And we received two submissions for that one from a local company called force construction, another from a company out of Shelbyville, called run a bomb, both of those companies, they met our test with respect to their qualifications, they're both deemed to be qualified. And so we've asked them to submit proposals. And so we sent out an RFP request for proposals. And I want to say we did that about a week ago, maybe two, and anticipate having responses from them here within the next week. So once we get those, we'll sit down, evaluate, you know, who best meets our criteria in and then we'll make a choice, you know, as to who, who builds and this will be for the Fieldhouse, there'll be a separate construction contract for activities within Nexus Park, that would comprise the parks department offices, and meeting spaces and so forth. So the rest of the mall, yeah, so there'll be another round. Oh, yeah, with respect to what goes on inside the mall, the the RFQ RFP that we just talked about, that's for the Fieldhouse, that will be built on the north side of what used to be Fair Oaks mall now we call Nexus Park,

Unknown Speaker
what timeline,

Unknown Speaker
we expect to get the RFP back here within a week or two, then we'll be able to make a decision within a week or two. And we anticipate being able to demolish the old goodie site. If you're familiar with the configuration of the old Mall. We expect to do that in quarter three, and then break ground and quarter for

Unknown Speaker
just a couple of minutes left. But I did want to bring about the Terre Haute Convention Center is having a grand opening early next week. And something that took a backseat here, of course is the Conference Center. And the city last time we talked conducting a survey to reevaluate the situation. What's the latest on that?

Unknown Speaker
Well, we're still waiting, you know, we've we've commissioned the an update to the study we had previously paid for, we've got a consultant by the name of Herndon associates out of Chicago. And what we want them to do is to give us their best guess, and I hate to phrase it that way. But their best educated scientific, you know, thoroughly researched estimate as to what the state of business travel is, and where we think it's going to normalize to that information is critical to the developer, and then the, you know, the flag, the hotel sponsor, whether that's Marriott, or Hilton, or whomever it might be. And it also is important to their lenders. So, you know, we want to be able to get some information that we can rely on to figure out whether it makes sense to go forward with the configuration that we had, I mean, we had talked about, I want to say 140 unit hotel, a conference space with around 14,000 square feet, and then a five or six story parking garage. And so does that size continue to make sense, you know, going forward. And my sense is that it does, but we'd like to have some validation and that's why we've contracted out with her and and to give us an update on the study that they previously did.

Unknown Speaker
I'm sure that be interesting, too. Now that the Terre Haute has a convention center, I know Bloomington Monroe County has been looking at one. So there may be a little bit of competition too.

Unknown Speaker
Well, there's always competition. And and that's part of the reason we want to want to have one of these because we don't want to be what what's the phrase, we don't want to be left out because we got zero, right? That what we had before we called the Clarion. It was a hotel app by the interstate i 65. And they conducted a lot of events out there, I brought a lot of people to the community. And it's not just the fact that they brought folks to the community. But it was a place where we could all gather in in significant size. And so we want to be able to replicate that sort of put back a little bit of what we lost when that hotel went down. And so So yeah, we're going to pursue this and see where it goes.

Unknown Speaker
We're at time, but I would like to leave the last minute to you know, there's some construction here behind city hall. And you might want to give people an update about

Unknown Speaker
well, the City Hall is excuse me, First Street, which is a street just south of City Hall is undergoing some major changes, just to south east of this is what we'll call the Court Services building. We anticipate that to be ready for occupancy about May one so just a few weeks here. When that happens. We'll move the probation department from its current location on Third Street down to this new new facility on first. Right in front of the other between us on First Street We're planning to rebuild the street. And we've given it a name we call it the 1821 trail. And that's sort of a nod to the Bicentennial that we celebrated last year. We thought it was important to have a legacy project that you know, we could point to as well that came out of the the Bicentennial effort, but we're looking at the replacement of some waterlines and some Were lines, as well as I think there's some bricks, you know, underneath the street there, those are kind of come out, we'll get a new layer of asphalt, we'll also install an extension of our people trail. And so the the current people trail ends over on Lafayette Street will pick it up over there and extend out west down towards the pump house. And so So yeah, we're kind of excited to see that go forward. But, you know, we've been bedeviled by some supply chain issues. So we've got the pipe that we need, but they tell me that we're lacking the connectors. And so it's a little bit like a car, you can't build it until you got all the parts, you know, so we can't complete this until we get all the parts but it'll be neat when it's done. You know, but we're gonna have some construction, oh concerns if anxiety if you will, for the next several months, just not just here, but on Second Street, Fourth Street over by mill, race park and a few other places in town as we bring all this stuff online. But as the old saying goes, it'll be nice when it's done.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you so much for your time and we'll see you in may take care. Thank you.
Spring has sprung in Columbus

Spring has sprung in downtown Columbus. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

It's our first visit to Columbus since the pandemic took hold two years ago. Lienhoop says he's seeing an increase in foot traffic downtown, takes your questions on climate change, and previews the groundbreaking for a housing and grocer development.

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: Nice to be back in Columbus, even though it's a rainy day - is it business as usual? COVID cases are the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic.

Lienhoop: I don't know if it's as usual, but it's certainly getting back there. I've noticed just on the drive to work in the morning, and again at lunchtime today, we see people downtown, walk in the sidewalks. And that's kind of heartening, just to see folks returning to maybe a little bit more normal routine, or maybe a new normal routine. So yeah, it's kind of good to see.

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop
Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop Tuesday afternoon. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: Are you hearing anything about the fall-out of the pandemic? Are there still things struggling to come back?

Lienhoop: Business travel is pretty important to us. We may talk a little bit later about the hotel project that we've planned for downtown, that's primarily affected by business travel. We're also a little concerned about the unemployment rate, and just getting people back to work and return into a little bit of a sense of normality with respect to just the number of folks who work and the size of the workforce and how easily people can find a job when they need one.

We're hopeful that maybe as future variants show up that the vaccines and policies that we put in place to try to help people understand the effect of being in crowds, that mitigates the effect of any variance.

Court services building almost ready to open.
The court services building is nearing completion behind city hall on 1st Street. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: Michael emails in and wants to know what actions the City of Columbus has taken concerning climate change since you've been mayor? And any additional efforts you'll be making?

Lienhoop: Well, since I've been mayor, that's six years worth of activity, it's a little hard to summarize all that just in the time that we're sitting here. But we have pursued the purchase of vehicles that are hybrid style. We're interested in cost because we're spending taxpayer dollars. So we have to be a little cautious about that.

We've also pursued the installation of some water fountains, we've done studies on the electric usage in our buildings. This room that we're sitting in here, we have the low, LEED certified lights. We have investigated from time to time the installation of solar panels on various city owned properties, it's difficult for us to get enough mass to really be effective and in terms of the installation, but we continue to try to find ideas that will will make us a greener place.

We've got some ground out at the sewage treatment plant, we've got some ground here beside behind city hall. But again, it's difficult for us to get the correct amount of acreage, if you will, to really make a meaningful impact and, come up with a project that's enticing to some of the contractors, but we'll continue to work on that.

Mixed use development under construction in Columbus.
The groundbreaking for the housing and urban grocer development is April 21. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: The official groundbreaking on the housing and urban grocer development is April 21 at 3 p.m. That's at the southeast corner of 2nd and Lafayette Avenue. 200 apartments and a $40 million investment.

Lienhoop: Part of what we wanted to do here in downtown Columbus is really two things. One was to provide a walkable residential option. A place where you can walk to work, walk to your recreation, and walk to a grocery store. And so the addition of the grocery store as part of this project is really important to us. Because we wanted to have a place downtown where people could walk down and buy milk, get an aspirin, basic stuff. It'll be a welcome addition downtown.

The second thing we're after is trying to just create a little bit more foot traffic in the downtown area, we've got several restaurants downtown, now we'd like to have a few more, we want the ones that are here to be a little bit more successful. And part of the way we do that is to bring people downtown who hopefully will have some disposable income and patronize those places.

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

If it's 200 apartments, make that 300 people. And not far away up on Seventh Street, we've got about 75 units that are really close to completion. It's hard to say, but that's more than 100 people, so they're all within walking distance of downtown.

Hren: Bloomingfoods was thought to be in consideration for that urban grocer. Do you know anything more on that?

Lienhoop: No, I don't, we've left that choice tenant up to the developer, and they've guaranteed us that there will be a grocery store, they haven't been able to tell us who it's going to be yet.

Hren: The developer is also paying as we talked about in the past, 70% of that cost, and the city is helping out with the rest?

Lienhoop: The way that it is, you got to be a little cautious. What we're going to do is sell some bonds that would obligate the property taxes from the project, it won't really get into the city's general revenues, but the bonds themselves will be paid back by property taxes that the project will generate. So there's no real out of pocket costs from that activity related to the city.

Now we've given them the land for the project. And I think we did put about $2 million of cash into it, but the bulk of the so called City contribution is a bond that will be repaid by the property taxes generated by the project and that bond does not require the city to be a guarantor.

fair-oaks-mall-parking.jpg
The empty Fair Oaks Mall will be turned into NexusPark. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: Let's get an update on NexusPark. Last time we talked the city was looking at a request for qualifications?

Lienhoop: Correct. We now sent out an RFP, request for proposals. And I want to say we did that about a week ago, maybe two, and anticipate having responses here within the next week. So once we get those, we'll sit down, evaluate who best meets our criteria and then we'll make a choice as to who builds.

This will be for the Fieldhouse, there'll be a separate construction contract for activities within NexusPark, that would comprise the parks department offices, and meeting spaces and so forth. We anticipate being able to demolish the old Goodie site if you're familiar with the configuration of the old Mall. We expect to do that in quarter three, and then break ground quarter four.

Construction continues on the 1821 trail in Columbus along 1st Street.
Lienhoop says the city is rebuilding part of First Street to include the 1821 Trail. The project is delayed due to supply chain issues. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

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