Comments made in the lead-up to the April 6 municipal election have some Columbia city officials and employees on the defensive.
Campaign remarks by candidates for Columbia offices suggested that the city had failed to act on behalf of the business community – particularly small businesses – during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions.
In response to these comments, Columbia City Administrator Doug Brimm and Columbia Director of Community Development Scott Dunakey compiled a list of some actions taken by the city to alleviate hardships to businesses during the pandemic.
Among examples listed were the creation of a “push” telephone notification system alerting all businesses of pertinent COVID-related updates and a business portal on the city website “to provide up-to-date information on state directives.”
The Columbia City Council passed a resolution June 1 allowing outdoor dining at restaurants in the city that were not previously allowed to do so as well as coordinated temporary street closures during peak dining hours to allow for more outdoor dining space.
Brimm pointed out that this action was approved “within 24 hours of indoor dining being suspended,” and “approved within 72 hours” by the city council.
Columbia Ward II Alderman Kevin Martens spoke with the Republic-Times to express his displeasure.
“To say that the city hasn’t done anything for businesses is not right. It’s not a true statement,” Martens said, also alluding to the timely provisions made specifically for restaurants.
Martens also noted that city employees were “upset” by the campaign remarks.
“It’s not political,” he continued. “I want to see (city) employees get the credit they deserve. No one has been working harder” during the time of COVID restrictions.
“It’s frustrating. That’s not a statement to make,” Martens concluded.
Brimm noted that Dunakey and city employees reviewed the Downstate Small Business Stabilization Grant program “directly with 14 Columbia businesses.”
He added that the city coordinated information about several grant opportunities with the Monroe County Economic Development Corporation and Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
The city also kept the “Pop-Up Shop,” a showcase for small businesses in the area inside the former Shoemaker Schoolhouse at Route 3 and Gall Road, open throughout the pandemic. This resulted in two new businesses permanently setting up shop in Columbia.
The City of Columbia was also involved in establishing a “tip jar” through the Virtual Music at Metter program and T-shirt sales through the Historic Main Street Columbia Association, with proceeds from both going to support small businesses in the city.
To promote small business and encourage residents to shop local, the city featured local businesses on its electronic message board visible from Admiral Parkway near the 11 South complex and created a restaurant guide and provided other local business information through the city website.
Brimm noted that Columbia adjusted its practices to meet the entire community’s needs.
“During the pandemic, City Hall remained open for employees, and we maintained full services,” Brimm said, pointing out that the building was closed for two weeks “out of an abundance of caution” when a person at the location tested positive for COVID.
“(City) inspectors remained busy, facilitating occupancy inspections for all residents and businesses as needed,” he continued, also mentioning that city meetings were immediately made available virtually once the initial “stay-at-home order” was issued to ensure city governance was “conducted in an open and transparent manner.”