Get to Know Mayoral Candidate Earl W. Smith – Pt 3
Earl W. Smith has big plans for 2011. It was announced in January that he would be the Franklin County Republican Party candidate that would face long-time incumbent, Mayor Michael B. Coleman. Smith may not have a lot of name recognition just yet, but will be spending all year campaigning for the title of Mayor of the 16th largest city in America.
To find out more about Smith’s background, his political platform and his ideas for the future of the city of Columbus, we crowdsourced a few questions from the community here on CU, and sat down with Smith for a lengthy interview. Read onward to find the answers to your questions in the final part of our 3 part interview.
WE: Much discussion lately has focused upon the “brand” of Columbus. How important is the national image of our city when it comes to economic development, driving visitors and conventions, or attracting new residents?
EWS: You know, we do have the huge advantage of being about 500 miles within about 80% of the US population. That’s significant. We also, unfortunately, have no mountains and no navigable sport rivers. Downtown is a beautiful place for that, but unfortunately from a practical standpoint not terribly usable. Part of our draw has been that we’re not the fanciest city, but we are stable, we are reliable, and we are good people. Most people in Columbus are polite. “Welcome to Columbus, we’re polite!” [Laughs] That may not be a good slogan.
WE: What do you think it would take to make Downtown a more vibrant area, and what would you do differently to encourage business growth Downtown?
EWS: My approach in my career has always been to spot other successes. And again, I’ll go back to my very beginning in crime prevention. One of our mottos was, ‘Don’t reinvent.’ We would always look to what other cities have put in place. What’s working, and what don’t they like? You talk to the people that implement ideas, you talk to the people that are performing, and you talk to the people who are the targets of the service. And then you pick and choose what can we use, and what can we adapt here in Columbus.
The luxury is to come into this whole process bringing no preconceived political notions to the table. I have a lot of things I’ve observed in my career, as a police officer working in the community. I’ve traveled to other cities, I’ve seen things that are good and things that are maybe not so effective. I’ve been to many conferences where I’ve heard people share their successes and their failures. Reach out and seek the best practices. What are other people doing? What are the things that people like best about Columbus? Let’s ask someone else not from Columbus what they see when they think about Columbus. What do you do hear when someone says, ‘I’m from Columbus, Ohio’? The mere fact that we have to always say, ‘Columbus, Ohio’… typically nobody says ‘Cincinnati, Ohio’. They say Cincinnati or Cleveland or Toledo. And ironically, we’re far better off than those cities due to the challenges they are facing. Columbus has a lot more to offer in my opinion. I’m a parks guy. I love parks. When I travel I try to go someplace where I can get out and take a walk. I have worked with our own Parks and Recreation System on park designs. But the Columbus Commons area Downtown is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in our city and what that project acknowledges to me is we can’t market it as such. We can’t make this productive. I just don’t believe that. I love the designs of some of these new Downtown condos, but they’re empty. I hate seeing that. Because ironically, when I speak in other cities, these are the kind of things that I talk about. Downtown Columbus had more things going on when I was a kid, with some exceptions like the Arena District. Our parents would take us Downtown routinely. It needs an infusion. It needs a blood transfusion.
WE: What do you think is the missing component then? What’s holding Downtown from reaching that potential once again?
EWS: This is not a criticism of the Arena District… it’s vibrant and exciting. Clearly the continuance of the Blue Jackets is critical to that area and the multi-use capabilities of the Arena is really important to the city. But one of the things I observed when the Arena District was created… well, I remember when the Brewery District was still kickin’. And now it’s as if we have such limited availability of people that there was only room for one or the other. That just can’t be true. We can create the same degree of livability and viability and energy back into the Brewery District that currently drives the Arena District. Maybe we could justify having something that connects the two. Little by little in between, other facilities that can live off of that traffic, maybe that can actually occur. But too often we rob Peter to pay Paul.
The same is true for all of the malls in Columbus. When I was growing up here we had Southland, Eastland, Westland and Northland. Now they’re all dead. Including City Center. I had talked to a city council person at the time when they were starting to plan Tuttle Mall, which isn’t far from my home, and both Easton and Polaris. And I said, ‘You realize that this is going to put a bullet in City Center because there’s no hassle to go to Tuttle’. There’s plenty of parking, they’re not locked in by space… and I worked in City Center when it first opened. I worked a job at one of the high end retailers there providing security. Did you ever get a chance to go in there when it was functional?
WE: Oh yes, I was in City Center quite a bit.
EWS: It was crazy… tour buses coming in… I have pictures from back when it was hot. The energy was incredible. I was there to do security and I was walking around smiling all of the time. We have a good sized population… but we probably do not have the population to support everything.
WE: But isn’t this type of retail over-development driven by private developers?
EWS: Absolutely. Excellent question. I teach on a concept called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. It goes to a much bigger picture about the defense of a space, and I have included the malls as part of my lecture series. People who own big nightclubs will tell you that there’s a life expectancy. In five years they have to be rebuilt or they are dead. Maybe we have to acknowledge that there may be a parallel with malls. Maybe a mall has a shelf-life.
WE: I’ve talked with retail consultant Chris Boring on this issue and that shelf-life seems to be around 20-25 years in recent history.
EWS: Maybe we accept that and then we start planning from the get-go. When that 25-year mark comes, and this thing is going toes up, what are we going to put here so this space doesn’t go vacant, as unfortunately happened with City Center. I’m sure there were some efforts… but the problem is typically, government is reactive. You can’t do something that massive at the time of death. That has to be occurring a decade or more in advance. We have to take those same tenants of proactive crime prevention and apply it to maintaining development in the city. Space goes out, and then there’s debate about what to do with it in the city. That should have been occurring when it was still open. There’s too much of a curve and then when you have an economy that’s depressed, it draws it out that much longer and it gets to the point where it’s physically impossible to bring it back to life. I don’t think we have the luxury of letting things get to that point. Too often we are waiting – it’s a government thing – we don’t want to commit funds proactively. It’s ineffective and inefficient. We have to look at this whole thing differently as our responsibility in government. I think we have to have a proactive model in place. We have to sit down with the developers that are there, and we have to start seeking out developers who are willing to come in to figure out what we’re going to do with it.
WE: On a different scale, a lot of progress has been made Downtown in recent years by small business owners. The rebirth of Gay Street is probably the best example of that. How would you help support our small business community who are more willing to take those risks?
EWS: Let me say first that code enforcement in the neighborhoods – an area that’s been cut – is one of the greatest resources in regard to neighborhood deterioration issues. Incredibly important. But what we don’t want to do is inadvertently let standards and codes – which are sometimes addressed in backrooms – discourage people. Businesses get a pay raise just by going to the suburbs and not paying Columbus income tax. I’m not saying the tax is absolutely wrong. I am saying that what was promised has not in fact transpired. What it is going to be doing and what’s it’s going to be used for… that tax money can’t be used for pet projects. If it’s going to be used like that, then use it to promote and assist these folks that are willing to take the risk of coming to downtown, where parking’s a pain and the crowds leave at night. If they’re willing to take that risk, and it’s appropriate and not a safety issue, let’s bend the rules a little bit. Okay, so their sign is a foot larger than it should be, or maybe it’s a little more creative than we would typically like to see. Why is that a bad thing? I have a friend that has one of the restaurants in the area that you are talking about who is an incredibly creative guy. He has had well deserved success despite all of the challenges. We should be partnering with those type of people. My personal belief is that unless you can demonstrate a good solid argument for a ‘no’ than it should be ‘yes.’ If you come to me and say, ‘I want to do this.’ Is it indictable? Is it appropriate? Is it going to be a safety issue? Nope? Then by god, do it.
WE: Speaking of creativity, how would you use your mayoral position to foster the arts community in Columbus?
EWS: I was very fortunate growing up having a mother and a father who loved the arts. I remember being dragged through the Columbus Museum of Art at an age when I wasn’t all that appreciative. [Laughs] The arts community is very important. As someone who is considered a reasonably competent photographer, I like to think that I have some creativity. And I think there are some parallels here too. If someone wants to take a building and convert it to an artistic use, again, as long as there is no safety issue, no legal issue, we should be encouraging that. Creative people create a vibrancy and energy that others can feed off of. I will admit that I don’t totally understand some of the projects I see from CCAD students, but the passion is always apparent. I can draw energy from that. Just look at the growth at CCAD. I remember when it was a little tiny hole in the wall. Now, it’s amazing and I think one of the reasons the arts community thrives. I think that’s difficult to create. Most of the artists that I know, they pick their own spot. It’s kind of like water… it finds its own point. I don’t know that building something for the arts community and saying, ‘This is where you should be going’ works. The flipside of that is asking first ‘Where do you want to go?’ And you know, frankly, when we look at the location of CCAD, it’s kind of by default become an arts community. Maybe because of the students there, and that is an area that has a lot of challenges around there.
WE: The area surrounding CCAD has a different set of challenges in that it’s not really a neighborhood right now. That area doesn’t have much in the way of a crime or safety problem, but more of a lack of amenities and housing.
EWS: There’s the thing… how about we ask people like yourself what would turn this into an inhabitable area. Because the good thing is, a lot of that property is depressed. If you’re going to invest 10, 20, 30 million dollars into an arts community, maybe that’s the place to do it. There’s already creative people there. And you’re right, what’s unusual with CCAD and Franklin is there’s no off campus housing. Most universities have adjacent available housing. Maybe that’s part of our obligation. How do we support them? CCAD, Franklin and Columbus State grew pretty much on their own capabilities. They have demonstrated that they are viable entities, and students come for very different reasons. Maybe we need to support that. They’ve already done the hardest work… they’ve created an environment where people want to be. Well let’s now support it and take it to the next step.
WE: On the opposite side of Downtown, there’s been some debate in Franklinton on the Cooper Park Racetrack Complex. What is your stance on that proposed project, and if you’re opposed to it, what alternative use do you see for that site?
EWS: I have not spoken to the players involved in that project directly. Carol Stewart from Franklinton is an old friend and she has spoken out in concern about the noise. Conversely, some of the other neighborhood groups are supportive of it because it is an area that is depressed economically. If Earl Smith were in charge right now, I’d sit down with Carol and ask exactly what is going on and find out what exactly her concerns are. And then you sit down with the other group and find out what are the strengths in this project. And then, sit down with the developer. Carol’s one of those people for decades who has fought this type of battle on a very personal level. How do we protect the well-being of the residents? Because the truth is, if the noise is going to be a huge issue, I wouldn’t want it next to me either. Interestingly, the neighborhood was very supportive of the Harley Davidson shop on West Broad Street who did studies to put in a motorcycle-oriented racetrack and research facility. For whatever reason, that project was lost. And now we have Arshott who certainly has the financial wherewith-all and the commitment to create a viable entity there. How do we protect the quality of life when the noise is a quality of life issue? They seem to be willing to have the discussion. And again, I hate to sound corny, but my table is open. Let’s sit down and have a conversation. Let’s create a win-win. You know, I have been in the middle of so many discussions and so many arguments and so many debates in thirty to forty years… but honestly and truly, most times, when you have people full of good intent, you can come up with a compromise. Everybody in most cases has to give a little… that’s the reality. But I absolutely believe that there’s a reasonable solution there.
WE: Do you have an official stance on the Columbus Hollywood Casino project, or any thoughts on what sort of impact you think it will have on the West Side, both in terms of potential adjacent development as well as crime?
EWS: I will tell you that I am not terribly casino-knowledgeable. I’ve been to Vegas one time and I went wild on the nickel slots. That’s me. [Laughs] But here’s the deal… they’re part of our fabric now. They are going to be here. I do not want a nickel of the potential tax income going, with all due respect, to a suburban area. I want that money in Columbus. It’s significant. I want to have a working relationship with those people because as you noted, there is potential to redevelop that area. I worked that specific area and it had some horrible problems. When I deal with communities who talk about community redevelopment, people will show me a neighborhood and say, ‘look what we’ve done’ and what I typically see is a couple of government buildings… which means nothing to me because that’s just the luxury of being in charge and you can spend taxpayer dollars there. That’s not redevelopment… that’s crap. Redevelopment is when I see Giant Eagle, or a Champp’s, or a Starbucks… I see retailers that have an option, and when they invest I know a neighborhood is becoming healthy. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but when I see pawn shops and check cashing places, that’s the sign of a neighborhood in decline. They generally reflect people having a difficult time.
So that neighborhood desperately needs an infusion. There are hugely challenged populations in that Westland area. I went to the mall when it was a vibrant mall, and now it’s largely empty. It’s irrelevant whether I like the casino or dislike it… it doesn’t matter. It’s part of our fabric and our landscape. I want it to be a partner with Columbus. I want to sit down and ask what it’s going to take to get this project maximized, and enough with the sewer-battle being used to bully. You know… they have more money than we do. They can take the money out of our pocket. Hell no. I want the money in Columbus. I want the development working with the township and any other adjacent community that’s going to be impacted. Let’s sit down and let’s partner to make this a glowing star here. Because you’ve got to have something to control development. My god, there’s such a huge opportunity in development that will spring off of this casino. Hotels and all kinds of things. I will be there with my shovel to help them dig the damn hole. There’s good people in that area that are desperate for an opportunity. We lost the Delphi plant and this casino has the potential to be a huge partner for the community, and most importantly, for the city of Columbus also.
I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. I have said before, I will climb in the truck with the snowplow driver to try to find out how the hell we do it better. I don’t have any grandiose plans. I’m a city employee. I have spent my life in service. I understand what commitment is. I’ve buried my friends. And I will tell you, the payoff is that there’s nothing that’s nicer than when somebody comes up to you and says ‘Thank you’.
WE: It sounds like you’re already starting to answer my final question to wrap things up… Why do you want to be Mayor?
EWS: I’ve invested my life in this community. My wife is buried here. She grew up here under very poor circumstances and through incredible courage and hard work became a respected medical professional. My life’s invested here. We built a house that, when everyone came and went to move out of Columbus, we were maybe one of two people who occupied original homes in that neighborhood. It’s very personal for me. You know, sometimes in our life we’re lucky enough to have an opportunity to have an impact greater than ourselves. This is my one time. I either do it now, or it’s probably never gonna happen. And that’s okay. I have people in my life that love me and care about me and I will survive. But if you don’t make an effort, shame on you. This is my one time.