December 4, 2011 2:35:00 PM
As Mayor Robert Smith was easing into his talk to the Columbus Rotary on Tuesday, he made it clear in a joking way that he would prefer one, maybe two, questions at the end of his talk. The Rotarians, usually a well-behaved bunch, did not comply.
The exchanges were genial, though. Someone pitched the mayor a slow one right down the middle asking about street paving on Seventh Avenue North, the area where Councilman Kabir Karriem -- Smith's political rival, if he has one -- wants to spend his street money mimicking Beale Street. Karriem's mother runs a popular restaurant nearby and a street festival he champions is centered there.
The mayor didn't name names -- he didn't have to -- though he implied that the other five councilmen were taking a more responsible approach, spreading their street money ($333,333 each) throughout their wards. Then, as if that weren't enough, someone added fuel to Smith's fire by asking about a hole in First Street near a scrap of land deemed by the late Jack Miller as Presidents' Park. That needy street also happens to be in Karriem's ward.
It was a friendly crowd, and with each question, Smith seemed more relaxed.
Then Roger Truesdale, as he is wont to do, went off script.
"Mr. Mayor," Truesdale asked, "if you were king for a day and could do anything, what would it be?"
Money is no object? the mayor asked, stalling for time and shaking his head.
"Right," Roger answered.
"Infrastructure," he replied without much hesitation and even less doubt. "I would fix the streets, sidewalks, drainage." But the mayor has to have the votes and the money to do anything, Smith added.
Bill Threadgill asked about widening Bluecutt Road. Smith answered that he had visited half a dozen times with Frank Leigh -- owner of the land in question -- to discuss the matter. "I sat in the living room and even held that little dog," Smith said, causing an eruption of laughter from the group.
Leigh is a famously difficult negotiator, a fact Smith didn't have to waste his breath telling the Rotarians.
Clearly Smith cares, and clearly he's working hard to solve the city's problems.
On the way back to the office, I pondered Roger's question.
What's the one thing I would do if I were king for a day?
Smith's wish to put the house in order is reasonable. Hard to argue with that: Fix the roof, shore up the foundation, make sure the plumbing works. His wishes are grounded in reality.
But Roger's question dared one to dream.
Twice in the past two weeks I have had conversations with relative newcomers about their Starkville-or-Columbus decision in choosing a place to live.
A woman whose husband was hired by a long-established company here said her partner wanted Starkville; she liked Columbus. She won out, and both are happy she did.
"It's so much bigger and there's so much more to do," she said.
The other, also a woman, settled in Starkville because she and her mate had jobs at the university. She has since taken a job in Columbus and wishes she lived here.
"Had we known about the people here, we would have bought here," she said. "The people we've met here seem to be more open-minded."
This is not to beat up on Starkville. We've transferred reporters from Columbus to work in our Starkville bureau and once settled there, we couldn't have pulled them back here with a team of mules. They loved the night life and the energy of a college town.
Over and over I hear it. People love this place; they love the warmth of our people. We too often are our own worst critics.
A community with a unified vision. That's what I would decree if I were king. A town proud of its past, present and future. A community that not only supports its public schools with its tax dollars, but with its children. Agencies and boards that work together, not in competition with one another.
Asked Roger's question, a friend at lunch Friday said he would annex green spaces where housing developments could be created.
"Columbus better have somewhere to grow," he said.
If you were king for a day, what would you decree? I'd like to know.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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