By John McCurry
A few dozen mayors of large and medium cities across the U.S., including many prominent names, will learn a lot about Columbia in late September. The mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Houston, and others—more than 60 in all—are expected to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ leadership meeting. For the city, it’s one of the early benefits of having its mayor, Steve Benjamin, serving as USCM president.
“We are excited about the chance to show off Columbia and South Carolina,” Benjamin says. “It’s a chance for a lot of folks to be introduced to the strengths of our great state, and we are not going to waste this opportunity.”
There have been no early surprises during his tenure as USCM president, which began in May. As he explains it, the ramp to conference leadership is long. Benjamin has been a member of the conference for about six years and has been intimately involved in a number of its efforts. His year as vice president kept him in the public eye with lots of speaking engagements. He has led efforts to protect municipal financing to build infrastructure.
Requests for speaking engagements have risen sharply since Benjamin’s inauguration. His family, staff, and colleagues have given him the thumbs up to be on the road frequently, which provides the benefit of raising Columbia’s profile. The first weeks have included frequent travel to Washington, D.C. for USCM responsibilities.
Benjamin touts USCM as an example of how bipartisanship can work. A Democrat, he plans to work with Bryan Barnett, USCM vice president and Republican mayor of Rochester Hills, Mich., on a strategy to show that Democrats and Republicans can work together in the interest of all cities. Referring to USCM, Benjamin says, “On our worst day we are bipartisan, but most of the time we are nonpartisan.”
During its annual meeting in Boston in early June, USCM announced the establishment of the Mayors and Business Leaders Center for Inclusive and Compassionate Cities. It will focus on creating a partnership between mayors and business leaders to advance equality, diversity, and inclusion.
“We want to build an environment where we can dialog over common interests. Our nation spends a great deal of time telling each other how we are different and not enough time talking about common values. We need to speak to our better angels and foster an era of civility that respects our differences.”
But can the rest of America learn from USCM’s bipartisan/nonpartisan path and move toward more civil discourse? Benjamin believes so.
“We’re going to wind up as mayors leading the discussion because it’s very difficult for Washington to do so. A lot of people like to lay that at the feet of the president. I have significant issues with a number of the president’s positions, but we had issues with partisanship and civility long before Donald Trump arrived. It is refreshing to see hundred of mayors from completely different backgrounds discussing solutions to issues. Our commitment is to always remain thoughtful. I believe that will allow us to drive the message.”
Benjamin announced during his inaugural address that USCM will focus on infrastructure, innovation, and inclusion during his one-year term. He believes Columbia can offer strong examples of all three.
“Our job is to continue to raise the flag for infrastructure. We not only need a strong infrastructure package from the federal government, we also need to look at public-private partnerships to allow cities to unlock the country’s estimated $5.2 trillion infrastructure deficit.”
The country must embrace innovation and prepare for its arrival. Benjamin cites the year 2020 when most wireless providers plant to rollout 5G wireless service. Fiber infrastructure has to be in place.
“There are trillions of capital flowing into that space, and we need to make sure we are about to build out infrastructure in a way that respects the public right-of-way. That’s something we need to get our arms around. It’s about how we use technology to figure out what the future looks like.”
Locally, Benjamin cites the ongoing upgrade of Columbia’s water and sewer system. The city is about 60 percent of the way through a $800 million project to meet current and future needs.
Benjamin believes his city has done an incredible job in creating an atmosphere of inclusion.
“We have baked into our DNA a spirit of inclusion,” Benjamin says. “Our community has gone through tough times, but you can come to Columbia any weekend and see a Greek festival, a Latin festival…there is an incredible commitment to preserving Jewish history and recognizing the role African-Americans have played in building the city.”
Columbia’s economic strategy will be to continue to find ways to facilitate vertical urban growth. As an example, Benjamin cites commercializing the growth of the University of South Carolina through private sector student housing, which has added a quarter billion dollars to the city’s tax rolls, which will provide $100 million for schools over the next 20 years.
“I love telling the Columbia story, the South Carolina story, and the story of America’s mayors,” Benjamin says. “It gives people hope in this era in which we are always fighting to keep our eyes on the prize.”
There are some real challenges ahead. Benjamin notes that while the U.S. economy is expanding, it’s not expanding equally for all citizens, with many not seeing their income rise.
“Most of the benefits of the improving economy are going to those who have capital, not necessarily to those who work hard. This requires more attention. We have some real issues to work on, and it will take all hands on deck to find solutions rather than fighting with each other.”
Developing affordable housing is one of those challenges facing Columbia and most other cities. More tools are needed to encourage the private sector to invest in affordable housing and workforce housing.
“We have to be a city for all people,” Benjamin says. “I have a particular focus of making sure people who work in the city can live in the city. Creating more incentives for private sector developers is the same approach we took to student housing. That’s the only way we can really tackle it.”