Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel highlighted business investment and new housing developments in the annual “State of the City” address March 2 at the Peabody Public Library.
“I could think of no other word to describe what is happening in our community: The state of our city is expanding,” he told those gathered at the luncheon event hosted by the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce.
Several housing projects are underway to accommodate the growing workforce, he said. Local officials recently learned of two housing developments that are slated to begin this year that will bring 47 new single-family units to the city.
The Van Buren Flats apartment complex will be built on the corner of West Van Buren and North Line streets on the old Eagles Lodge property and will add 25 single-family units downtown. The project is a collaboration between the Redevelopment Commission, Biggs Development and SCAN Inc., and was awarded tax credits from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority.
In addition to the apartment complex, Biggs Development will also be involved in a “workforce housing” project. The project will bring 22 single-family units to the Ravenwood subdivision off of Hanna Street.
To continue the trend of expansion, Daniel outlined areas that will continue to be a focal point for investment or what he called the city’s five “Big Goals.” They include population growth; maintaining public safety; enhancing quality of life; attracting and retaining talent; and improving public services and infrastructure.
The city’s first big goal – reaching a population of 10,000 residents by 2020 – is the most challenging of them all, Daniel said. The current population is about 9,000 residents.
The city received a boost toward its goal when the community welcomed 45 families from Puerto Rico earlier this year. The workers transferred from Zimmer Biomet’s facility in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, that was damaged by Hurricane Maria, to a facility in Warsaw. Due to a housing shortage in Warsaw, the families located in Whitley County.
The city is among communities across the Midwest fighting population decline and stagnation, Daniel said.
“We have to overcome our dreary winters, humid summers and perceived lack of ‘coolness’ among younger populations,” he said.
Nurturing an attractive business environment is key to population growth, Daniel said, and Columbia City is headed in the right direction. The city saw more than $16 million in construction value in 2017, not including the new high school or aquatics center, he said. In addition, building permits were up from 87 in 2016 to 180 in 2017.
Investing in quality of life initiatives will also help attract and retain talent, Daniel said. Projects that are in the works like the new Columbia City High School, the only new high school under construction in the state of Indiana, and the Russel and Evelyn Fahl Aquatics Center will give the community a competitive advantage, he said.
Daniel also noted the success of First Fridays, which started in 2017. The monthly event brings people downtown for music, entertainment, food, shopping and other festivities.
In 2018, the city will conduct a downtown revitalization study that will review the current infrastructure downtown and consider projects to enhance the look, feel and shopping experience downtown.
Improving the community’s walkability will also be a focus of study in 2018. A route study will explore the best way to bridge the trail system to the new high school.
Daniel outlined several plans to improve public services and infrastructure in 2018 and the costs associated with the improvements.
He said the water department is at a point where a rate increase may be needed to improve and maintain the city’s drinking water system. If that were to occur, the city would still have one of the lowest drinking water rates in the region, he added.
“We will continue to evaluate this predicament, but after six years of no increases to the water utility, a very modest cost of service increase will need to be looked at in the year to come,” he said.
The Water Pollution Control Facility and the Wastewater Department will also have “a full plate of projects” ready to roll out this year, Daniel said. Soon, the final engineering of the city’s long-term control plan – a state and federally mandated list of projects – will be complete and ready for bidding.
The $8.5-million-project will create additional in-pipe and underground storage facilities for the city’s combined sewer system for heavy rain events. This will help control the amount of combined sewer overflow that the city experiences each year, which dumps untreated wastewater and storm water into streams and rivers.