First-year Mayor Jim Lienhoop knew Columbus and Bartholomew County had drug and substance abuse problems, but the extent of it has been a surprise to him.
“As mayor, you get a little bit closer look at it,” he said.
“You also get a chance to share and discuss with other mayors and folks from around the state and realize that this problem is a whole lot bigger than just Columbus and Bartholomew County, and that the solutions will come from elsewhere as well. We’re not going to be able to solve this problem on our own.”
Lienhoop, who spent five years as a city councilman before winning the 2015 Republican primary against incumbent Mayor Kristen Brown, spent an hour with The Republic last week to review his first year as mayor and look ahead to 2017.
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Lienhoop said his administration will be working toward completing what began this year — the State Street renovation, the riverfront project, developing shovel-ready land for economic development and working with local, state and federal law enforcement to combat increasingly serious drug problems.
The mayor labeled the local drug problem a top priority.
Next year will bring more collaboration among law enforcement working to address the supply side of the drug problem, Lienhoop said.
The city this year agreed to hire two civilian administrative employees to take over duties once held by uniformed officers, which had been recommended by Police Chief Jon Rohde.
Now those officers will return to the street as patrol officers, Lienhoop said.
“We’ve beefed up what law enforcement does to address the supply side. With respect to the demand side, we knew it was a much tougher assignment,” Lienhoop said.
As a start, the mayor convened a Nov. 17 roundtable discussion with about 15 area mayors to talk about drug abuse and treatment in southern Indiana.
In addition to Rohde speaking about the law enforcement efforts, Lienhoop asked former Columbus Regional Hospital president John McGinty to talk to the mayors’ group about possible solutions to a lack of local treatment options. McGinty is working on the topic with a group from St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and with Healthy Communities.
With no inpatient drug-treatment program offered in Bartholomew County, local people seeking treatment must travel to Indianapolis or elsewhere for residential services.
“It’s hard to say what we’re going to do because we’re just not that far along yet,” Lienhoop said. “Hopefully this would be the start of a much broader discussion.”
Progress was made on another of Liehoop’s top issues this year, economic development.In March, Lienhoop successfully made his case before the Columbus City Council to increase funding to the Columbus Area Economic Development Corp., raising the city’s annual dues from $14,000 to $150,000 this year, to be repeated the next two years.
“It’s a long cycle. It’s not just spend some money today, get something tomorrow. Your return may be a year or two or further out.”
The first year’s investment has allowed Columbus representatives to attend pharmaceutical trade shows, something Lienhoop advocated during his campaign. The then-candidate told residents that while Columbus’ heavily auto-based economy could withstand a great deal, the auto industry is cyclical, and diversity in development would benefit the city’s future.
Lienhoop and Jason Hester, president of the local economic development organization, traveled to Germany in April, meeting with representatives from Lindal North America.
The company has its only U.S. presence in Columbus and hinted in 2015 that it was considering taking its manufacturing facility and office building at 4775 and 4615 Progress Drive and a Hope warehouse, and putting it all under one roof.
The company received a 10-year tax abatement Dec. 6 for its plans to break ground in January on one of two lots in Woodside Northwest Industrial park to build a $5.7 million facility and add an additional $11.7 million in new equipment. The company previously received a 10-year tax abatement on May 19, 2015 to purchase $3.25 million in new manufacturing equipment to launch several new actuator products.
Lindal plans to retain 65 jobs with its latest expansion plan and add 30 new jobs over the next three years. The plant could be completed by Dec. 31, 2019.
Lienhoop said while the project is getting close to the finish line, early in the negotiations there were no promises that the expansion would happen in Columbus.
“It was made clear to us that Columbus was among the places they might consider. They were taking a look at other locations in Indiana. And while they had a predisposition to stay in Columbus, the decision hadn’t been made,” the mayor said.
The timing of the trip to Germany to meet with Lindal officials was beneficial, the mayor said.
“It’s a well-run company, well-capitalized,” Lienhoop said.
The company wants to increase its market share in the United States, and Columbus wants them to do it here, he said.
“These companies, once they’re here, they don’t leave,” he said.
And although some U.S.-based plants have gone by the wayside over the years, Lienhoop said expansions such as Lindal North America prove the city needs to keep its foot on the gas when it comes to economic development.
Lienhoop also went on economic development trips to China and Japan in late summer.
The opportunities typically don’t present themselves until local representatives are on the turfs of parent companies, he said.
“Developments like Lindal support the effort of making these trip, and that’s part of what the economic development money has gone for,” he said.
Looming train issues
If economic development has its foot on the gas, the looming plans of more and longer trains crossing through Columbus will have the city’s motorists putting on their collective brakes.During 2016, the city hired a consultant to gather data about how the city’s traffic patterns will be affected by more than double the trains traveling through Columbus daily beginning in 2018. The consultant provided three alternatives, two of which include moving the railroad line further west, away from the State Road 46 and State Road 11 intersection on the edge of downtown.
Lienhoop said the city’s first objective for the new year will be to get the railroad project on the Indiana Department of Transportation’s to-do list.
But INDOT will be choosing from an entire state of projects to consider, something Lienhoop says will be a challenge.
“We want to get up on the list, and we’ve got to be able to document why we should be with some data. So we felt like it was necessary to commission the engineering firm to do the studies and prepare that data for us. We’re going to be able to present Columbus well in terms of need,” he said.
There will be a timing issue for local motorists, however. The longer trains will be coming through Columbus long before the city can build an overpass or move the tracks, or both.
“We know that train traffic will increase in 2018. But the earliest we would have some type of construction start would be 2022. There will be some years of delays,” he said.
Aside from the train issue, there would still be a problem with the State Road 46 and 11 intersection beyond the train delays, the mayor said. Even without the trains, the intersection is outdated and not designed to handle its current traffic load.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources will be involved due to flooding concerns, and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management will weigh in on several old landfills that are nearby, Lienhoop predicted.
And the city will need some federal support to pay for the project, and more regulation will come with that, he said. Adding federal regulations and oversight could add as many as five years to any railroad project.
In addition to the collaboration required for the railroad project among local, state and federal levels, Lienhoop said he is establishing relationships that could help the city when the project is pitched to INDOT.
“We know that train traffic will increase in 2018. But the earliest we would have some type of construction start would be 2022. There will be some years of delays.”
— Mayor Jim Lienhoop on solutions for increase train traffic.