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Columbus updating its All-America City résumé


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Columbus is a finalist for a prestigious national honor that could raise the city’s profile and provide a long-term boost to the economy.

The National Civic League’s All-America City awards are presented annually to 10 communities for outstanding civic accomplishments.

Columbus is one of 25 cities nationwide to be named a 2014 finalist and the only one in Indiana.

Other cities that made the short list include Montgomery, Alabama, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

“This reaffirms our community’s shared vision, shared plan and shared process to advance Columbus by solving our toughest challenges, leveraging our great strengths and capitalizing on our many opportunities,” Mayor Kristen Brown said.

The National Civic League is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes civic engagement and inclusive forms of community building and problem solving.

Brown said the designation as an All-America City, which the city received in 1994, is a stamp of accomplishment that can be a great tool to market Columbus.

“Just being a finalist is a great validation of how the community has come together in a shared vision and a shared plan,” Brown said. “It is a really terrific marketing tool to advertise Columbus as a great place to live for people looking to relocate and for businesses that are looking for expansion locations. It has an economic development component as well as a great opportunity to market the city for tourism.”

The prestige of recognition is enhanced because the competition is not limited to cities of a certain size. Columbus is in competition with everything from neighborhoods and small towns to counties and metropolitan regions.

The city will send a delegation to Denver in June to make a presentation at the organization’s All-America City Awards event. The delegation will be led by Brown and include other to-be-determined community stakeholders.

All-America city finalists are on the forefront of a national movement to find inventive, community-based solutions to issues, said National Civic League Board Chairman and Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock.

Columbus’ application focused on community collaboration through the city’s Advance Columbus strategic plan.

Chris Schilling, communications and program coordinator for the City’s Community Development Department, said the plan demonstrates that the city has a strategy to address its toughest challenges.

He said the Advance Columbus plan “gives us a clear vision, clear goals and clear values for what we are trying to accomplish.”

The city’s application identified three successful efforts within the Advance Columbus plan that demonstrate the effectiveness of local public-private partnerships, one of which could give the city an advantage over some other finalists.

Focus on wellness

The National Civic League has indicated there will be an increased focus this year on successful efforts by cities to address the underlying conditions that affect the health of communities. The award will spotlight programs that address issues such as obesity, walkable cities, biking, fitness and healthy eating.

The City’s Healthy Communities obesity prevention effort, which was included in the application, has focused on making policy, systems and environmental changes that encourage healthy choices.

The Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. has worked to eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages in vending machines, to increase healthy food options in the cafeteria and on other issues to promote better student health.

Beth Morris, director of community health partnerships at Columbus Regional Hospital, helped draft the Healthy Communities portion of the All-America City application.

“In the Columbus community, we have a (long) history of working collaboratively on a number of community partnerships to improve the quality of life,” Morris said. “We know the hospital alone is not going to bring about these changes, so we work with schools, business and the parks and recreation department, among others, to help play a role.”

Columbus was also the first Indiana municipality to approve a thoroughfare policy that meets “complete streets” criteria. The policy requires consideration be given to features that will increase access and safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as that of cars, when work is performed on city streets.

More than 100 workplace wellness programs in the community have been initiated or strengthened, according to the city’s application.

Promoting arts

The city’s other initiatives in the award application are the workforce development system and Columbus Arts District achievements.

Utilizing the community’s arts and cultural strengths throughout the downtown is part of the arts districts objectives, said Karen Shrode, executive director of the Columbus Area Arts Council.

“Our objective with the arts district was to build upon the reputation Columbus already has and expand on that,” Shrode said. “Our goal is to be the cultural and creative capital of the Midwest.”

The workforce development effort has been led by the Community Education Coalition with the Ec015: initiative designed to provide targeted economic opportunities through education by the year 2015 and beyond.

Kathy Oren, executive director of the Community Education Coalition, said the effort focuses on opportunities in manufacturing, health care and hospitality/tourism fields in rural southeast Indiana.

“It came as a result of the work that has been done since 1997 in Columbus and Bartholomew County through the Community Education Coalition,” Oren said. “The whole idea of this work is to lift up the population in terms of their employability and move people up the economic ladder through education.”

When Columbus received the All-America City designation in 1994, it was presented to local leaders in the Rose Garden of the White House by then-President Bill Clinton.

Reminder of vision

Julie Deckard, then Julie Schoelkopf, helped draft the city’s successful application that year as a 24-year-old member of Leadership Bartholomew County.

“We were asked to create a yearlong project to help understand what made this community so special and what Columbus meant, in terms of leadership and collaboration,” Deckard said. “We applied for the designation, and we focused on issues that were being addressed in the community in an innovative and collaborative way.”

The application focused on a project that provided assistance to those seeking to break away from public assistance, an effort to increase diversity awareness and an initiative to address the region’s substance abuse problems.

While many communities use the award as a marketing tool, Deckard, who now works for Columbus Regional Health, said she thinks there is another advantage to winning — recognizing the benefits of community collaboration.

“That to me is the greatest takeaway,” Deckard said. “It’s a reminder of how visionary our community was, and is, in identifying the key players in the public and private sector can make a difference when they work together.”

The city applied for the award on at least three other occasions and was named a finalist and received honorable mention recognition in 1963. This is the first time the city has sought the recognition since it received the award 20 years ago.

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