A low unemployment rate, strong workforce and higher education institutions are contributing to Columbus’ success.

Those points were made by panelists last week in the second of a three-part lecture series at the Columbus Learning Center. The Jan. 25 installment of the series — which discusses Columbus’ past, present and future — focused on current-day Columbus.

Bartholomew County’s unemployment rate, which stood at 2.3 percent in December, was tied for fifth lowest in the state.

“Our unemployment rate is extremely low, which is a great thing,” said panelist Kathy Oren, executive director of the Community Education Coalition.

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Training opportunities are available close to home for Columbus residents through IUPUC, Ivy Tech Community College, Purdue Polytechnic Columbus, Harrison College and Trine University on the Columbus AirPark campus, offering various degree programs, Oren said.

More than two-third of Bartholomew County high school seniors go on to college within one year of graduation, she said.

Bartholomew County’s percentage of 68.7 exceeds the statewide average of 64.8 percent of high school students who enroll in college within a year of graduation, according to 2015 statistics, Oren said.

The Columbus Municipal Airport also plays an important role in the region, airport director Brian Payne said.

The state’s Airport of the Year in 2016 continues to see demand from pilots seeking hangar space.

“When I came here five years ago, we had six empty T-hangars,” Payne said. “Now we have 18 on the waiting list.”

Construction is underway on a 24,180-square-foot building at the northeast corner of Arnold Street and Ray Boll Boulevard that will provide more hangar space, he said.

Projects on the AirPark campus include a planned construction of a regional training facility for the Columbus Fire Department, while Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. has proposed building an outdoor soccer complex for Columbus North and Columbus East high school teams.

One business expansion on the Columbus AirPark campus is well underway. It’s a two-story office addition to Elwood Staffing’s corporate headquarters at 4111 Central Ave., Payne said.

“We have very stable employers and a very strong economy,” Mayor Jim Lienhoop said.

He also told the more than 40 people at the forum that the city’s low crime rate places it one-fourth lower than the national average.

“Columbus is a very safe place,” Lienhoop said.

However, he said the city continues to face a shortage of housing and high housing costs that need to be addressed.

“We’ve got a lot of apartment complexes who have come on board, but not enough to meet our needs,” Lienhoop said. “We’ve got to make things a little bit more affordable for people to live.”

Lienhoop said the opioid epidemic has become a pressing issue, with as many as 30 fatal overdoses last year linked to opioids. The possibility of opening an unused portion of the Bartholomew County Jail to help inmates seeking treatment is being explored, he said.

“We are very blessed as a community, but they are within our challenges to solve,” he said.

Meanwhile, Columbus continues its efforts to be a more welcoming community.

Among many groups working on diversity initiatives is Black Lives Matter of Columbus, represented on the panel by board members LaTosha Lafferty and Rick Scalf.

The organization works to inform the public about black history, hardships and issues, Lafferty said.

It is also advocating for reform on the police force, she said.

Black Lives Matter, formed in the summer of 2016, favors passage of a hate crime bill passed in Indiana, one of five states without one, Scalf said.

Audience member Stephanie Michael, a lifelong resident of the city, said Columbus at one time mostly consisted of farmland and small businesses. She thinks the city is on the right track as it continues moving forward.

“I think we’ve got a lot of good people in the right spots to make that happen,” Michael said.

Key points from discussion

Unemployment rate: Among the lowest in the state at 2.3 percent in December.

Higher education institutions on the Columbus AirPark campus: IUPUC, Ivy Tech Community College, Purdue Polytechnic Columbus, Harrison College, Trine University

Columbus AirPark development: Expansion of Elwood Staffing, proposed soccer complex for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com