When he began his first term as Columbus’ chief executive in January, Republican Mayor Jim Lienhoop outlined several priorities for the start of his administration, including a focus on economic development and a commitment to studying traffic issues created by trains running through Columbus.
Lienhoop sat down last week with The Republic to discuss the efforts his administration has made toward those priorities, as well as other initiatives he has undertaken during his first five months in office.
Work on the railroad
At Lienhoop’s direction, the Columbus redevelopment office and commission began work in March on a project that seeks to circumvent possible traffic hindrances that could be caused by the Louisville & Indiana Railroad’s plan to increase the number of trains it runs through Columbus each day.American Structure- point, an Indianapolis-based engineering firm, was hired to study the city’s current traffic patterns and develop options that could help local commuters in coming years avoid traffic backups because of the increase in the number of trains.
Story continues below gallery
At the May 31 meeting of the Railroad Project Community Committee, Dave Hayward, executive director of public works/city engineer, told committee members that Structurepoint already has completed traffic counts at six major rail crossings in the city — 11th, Eighth and Fifth streets, State Road 46, Spear Street and County Road 200 South.
Those traffic counts are currently under review in Structurepoint’s office and will be used to determine the best traffic alternatives for the city, Hayward said.
Lienhoop said the city likely will receive five or six possible alternatives and will work with Structurepoint to determine which options make the most sense for the city’s traffic flow, a process that will take two to three months.
Hayward also mentioned at the May 31 meeting that he is exploring the options of quiet zones, a system that is being adopted in Johnson County that would allow trains to roll through as frequently as needed, regardless of the effect on local traffic, but also would waive some of the federal requirements for blowing their whistles.
Hayward told committee members he is exploring the option of quiet zones in parallel with the options that would alter the city’s flow of traffic, but Lienhoop said he is most interested in an alternative that will allow vehicular traffic to flow as freely as possible through the city.
The month of May took Lienhoop overseas to Germany, where he and Jason Hester, executive director of the Columbus Economic Development Board, visited the Hannover Messe Industrial Trade Show.The first trip abroad served four purposes, the mayor said:
Meeting with international businesses considering a move to the United States
Continuing a partnership with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation
Visiting Claas and Lindal, two German businesses with Columbus locations
Visiting Loehne, a Columbus sister city
Lienhoop said he hopes his meetings with international business owners will help spread the message that Columbus — and southeastern Indiana, as a whole — is open to businesses looking for a new location and to businesses looking to expand their operations.
Lindal, in particular, is already considering an expansion of its operations, and the mayor said he hopes his visit to the company’s German headquarters will spark an interest in expanding the Columbus plant on Progress Drive.
Similarly, the mayor said he wanted his trip abroad to signal to the IEDC that Columbus would welcome any businesses referred to the city by the economic development corporation.
Columbus had previously participated in IEDC-sponsored events, but stopped that practice in recent years, Lienhoop said. Through his participation in the trip to Germany, the mayor said he wanted to show the IEDC that Columbus is interested in once again becoming involved in economic development initiatives that will benefit both the state and local economy.
In early March, the mayor upped the city’s ante in economic development by agreeing to pay an extra $136,000 in annual dues to the Columbus Economic Development Board for the next three years for stronger economic development work. The extra dollars will come from the city’s economic development income tax (EDIT) fund.
The economic development board had been receiving $14,000 annually in city support, so the additional dues bring total city support up to $150,000. The money will go toward marketing efforts meant to attract more businesses and workers to Columbus, Hester said.
The city still is waiting to learn if the federal government will remove a floodplain designation on the former Walesboro airport property, which has been identified as one of the last available areas for large-scale industrial development in Columbus.Lienhoop said he has not yet received a report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicating whether a proposed plan to redirect the flow of water from the Walesboro Drain — which FEMA believes could flood the property — will be accepted. The proposed plan to remove the floodplain designation will have to receive approval from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, as well as final approval from FEMA.
Although FEMA has not given any indication if it will approve the proposal in part or in whole, Lienhoop said he thinks there will likely be some sort of change to the city’s flood maps.
He said the city’s Walesboro consultant sees the best-case scenario as one that only leaves about 30 acres on the far western edge of the property in a designated floodplain. However, Lienhoop stressed that he does not know for sure if that will be the final outcome of the FEMA report.
If the floodplain designation is not removed, city officials have said businesses will be leery when considering development on the former airport property.
The city’s process for dealing with and demolishing unsafe homes and properties soon will be updated.Fred Barnett, the city’s code enforcement officer, said he has been working in recent months to establish a set of operational procedures the city must follow when determining how to resolve an unsafe housing situation.
Columbus municipal code currently details what steps Barnett must take when he is addressing an unsafe property, but the code falls short of providing operating procedures for actually following through on those steps. Until now, Barnett said he had to refer back to the Indiana Code for guidance, but is currently working to establish the city’s own set of operating procedures.
Although the procedures still are being finalized, Lienhoop said an independent third party who does not work for the city government will be asked to review the policies when they are complete, and also ensure the city follows the procedures correctly each time it deals with an unsafe property.
Additionally, the city’s operational procedures will put more emphasis on what Lienhoop referred to as common courtesies.
For example, the city’s goal is to keep as many properties in the local housing market as possible, Lienhoop said. So if a buyer is willing to purchase an unsafe property in a sheriff’s sale and renovate it for a new purpose, then the city would allow the buyer to have that property, rather than demolishing it and reducing the city’s housing stock.
The mayor also said the new procedures would put a greater emphasis on communicating with property owners before a home is demolished.
Once the operational procedures are established, Lienhoop said they will become a fluid document that can be changed and adjusted as needed.
Work on the railroad
American Structurepoint is expected to present its initial findings from traffic counts and other studies to the Railroad Project Community Committee at 4 p.m. June 20, and then to the full Columbus Redevelopment Commission at 6 p.m. that night. Meetings of the railroad committee will continue to be public and posted on the city’s online calendar for residents who are interested in the committee’s progress.
Mayor Jim Lienhoop said there are talks of a trip to Asia this fall, similar to economic development trips he has taken in the past. If the Asia trip were to occur, the mayor said it would be around Labor Day. He does not know yet if he will make trips to Germany a regular part of his administration, but said he supports the ongoing exchange of students between Columbus and Loehne, Germany, a sister city.
At the March meeting of the Columbus Redevelopment Commission, city-county planner Jeff Bergman said it could take six months to a year for the city to receive approval from the Department of Natural Resources and Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove the floodplain designation on the former Walesboro airport property.
Lienhoop and Fred Barnett, city code enforcement officer, are currently working on finalizing the operational procedures for dealing with code violations and unsafe properties. Those procedures will be released in the coming weeks.