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Interview: Newest City Councilman Shannon Hardin

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Interview: Newest City Councilman Shannon Hardin
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Last week, Columbus City Council appointed Shannon Granville Hardin to fill the seat left by outgoing council member A. Troy Miller. Before his appointment to Council, Hardin served as a member of Mayor Michael Coleman’s administration for a number of years and was selected as a council member from a pool of 27 candidates.

Councilman Hardin was kind enough to call in for a lengthy conversation on what he hopes to accomplish during his time in office and his vision for the city’s immediate future.

Jesse Bethea: First off, how does it feel to be appointed as the newest Columbus City council member

Shannon Hardin: It’s really exciting, it’s a really exciting time for me and for my family. It’s extremely humbling to have been selected by President [Andrew] Ginther and Council, and I guess I’m still in the wake of what this selection means and what my appointment means, for me but for the City of Columbus really.

JB: You’ve worked in government and public service for a while now, but this is your first elected office, right?

SH: Yes.

JB: What do you expect the learning curve to be like?

SH: Well I’m already experiencing it. I was appointed to chair the public service committee as well as the minority and small business committees yesterday and last night I had my first community meeting and I realized that even though I’ve worked in administration and dabbled a little bit in different policy, there’s still a lot that I have to learn and I’m looking forward to that. I’m working with Director [Tracie] Davies in Public Service, I’ve worked with her in the past and so I have full confidence that I will be able to learn quickly and serve well, but there is going to be a learning curve.

JB: Do you think you’ll take your time to learn from the other council members or will you jump right into it?

SH: Most definitely, they’ve all been here, I think now everybody’s been here more than four years, and, you know, I would be unwise not to look to them for leadership. Certainly Council President Ginther, and Councilmember Michelle Mills has been probably one of my closest mentors over the years on Council at least, so I will definitely go to them for advice and they’ve been very helpful in the last week. There’s a lot of information coming my way right now and just knowing how to go through that, understand what I need to know and what I need to do, going to them is very important.

JB: In the mayor’s office, you worked as a liaison to different community groups, in particularly the LGBT community.

SH: Yes.

JB: What are some points where you think the city does a good job of showing respect and cooperation with communities, particularly minority communities, and what are some things the city needs to improve about its relationship with those communities?

SH: I was really proud of the work that the city has done over the last several years on domestic partner benefits for the LGBT community. Last year we received a score of 100 on the [Municipal Equality Index] and we were one of only a few cities to reach that 100 point benchmark, and before I actually left the Mayor’s office this year, we were working to get that 100 score again. So I think that we have shown consistently that we are an open community, a smart and open community, that looks to include and uplift and engage every community.

One of my roles has been working with the faith community, who I have a really good relationship with, and I think that engaging them and just bringing them in and talking to them, I think that’s the biggest thing with any constituency group is that they know that they have a voice, that folks Downtown are listening to them and that their values and their concerns are being met and heard, and so I think that’s the basis of all community outreach and… being a good liaison to constituency groups is really having that two-way dialogue and letting them know that they have someone Downtown that they can call at any time and be heard.

JB: You wrote in your application essay about not being able to “police our way out of all community issues” and that the city needs to invest in programs that deter violence. Can you go into some more detail about what more the city needs to do to reduce crime and violence in troubled neighborhoods?

SH: One of the programs that I’m most proud of that I had the opportunity to work on when I was in the Mayor’s office was the APPS program. I started in the Mayor’s office in 2010, early spring of 2010, and that summer was the summer that was coined by the media as the “Summer of Violence” where we had close to 25 days where we had 22 I think young people under the age of 24 or so killed by another person under the age of 24. It was an extremely stressful time and what was understood was that using policing alone, even as good as it is, was not going to alone take care of the issue. So we created the APPS program which was modeled after a program in Los Angeles, called the GRYD program – Gang Reduction and Youth Development program – with the basic premise that you need intervention work and you need prevention work. There are a lot of young folks on the edge of violence who are touched by some of the bad actors in the community, who themselves are not bad but could be easily influenced just because of the environment that they’re in. So the prevention part of it is opening the doors at our rec centers, certain rec centers in high-crime areas, in the evenings and giving a safe spot for those youths to come and engage and feel comfortable, and we did midnight basketball and GED classes and filmography classes, just giving them an option to have a place to go that’s safer.

Then on the intervention side, which is just as important or more important, are those folks who may have already crossed that line, they are the leaders of some of this negativity, maybe not violence, but that’s where our strong safety forces really are imperative. Those folks we can still work with, intervening them with what I call our street-level social workers – our community intervention workers — who are able to go out and to be street-level social workers and say “Where are the barriers to you being exceptional members of our community?” That program when we started was $450,000 in 2010, and it has grown this year to nearly a $5 million program. So when I think of ways of investing outside of traditional policing I think of continuing to put funds behind the APPS program. I think it’s working, I think it’s something that we should continue to gather data on and be able to show that it’s having effects on the community that we’re working in.

Another great opportunity I think to support what police are doing is the Coalition for a Nonviolent Columbus, which gives neighborhood leaders small seed money to lead neighborhood safety initiatives, and all of these things are going straight to the residents and equipping them with the resources that they need to help police. Again it’s really all about responsibility to make sure our neighborhoods are safe and we as a city are going to do all that we can, but I think that there’s a role for the faith community to step up and to make sure their blocks are safe and work with their block watches and their neighborhood associations, and there’s so many people out there who are doing good work…

JB: One of the other things you wrote is that you will strive to keep Columbus’s momentum growing. What sort of momentum are you referring to, is that economic, or social, or political? And how should the city keep that growing?

SH: One of the things I’m really excited about and I think there’s some sense by a lot of people is that we are on the verge of greatness here in Columbus, and not just perceived greatness but real and perception is a lot of it and how folks not just inside of Columbus but outside of Columbus view us as a city that is growing, as a city that is relevant to the national conversation, a city that is vibrant. So when I think about the momentum that we have, the fact that the DNC is considering Columbus as a host site for the Democratic National Convention is something that would have been unheard of 10 years ago. We have the NCAA women’s basketball coming to Columbus and the Crew and all the energy that’s bringing, there’s something that you can sense about this city right now that is new, that is exciting, that is proud, and that’s the energy that I’m thinking of when I say that we have momentum and I think the way that we keep that is by engaging our young professional community who I think are one of the best ambassadors that we have for our city.

We have some amazing young folks who are transplants, who come to Columbus because they went to Ohio State or went to other state schools here in our region and found out “Well hell, I can get a pretty good job, I can live in a pretty sweet neighborhood, I can have a good quality of life and I can have basically everything I can have in other cities like Chicago or D.C. and I’m an hour and a half flight away from it.” They have networks that they are telling to come visit them and it’s really building up more what we can have here. So that’s the momentum that I was talking about and I think that we need to engage the young professional community and give them the tools to be successful, to feel like this is a city that is open to their ideas and then let them go out and be the ambassadors for us.

JB: There’s a lot of people in Columbus who want to start small businesses but have trouble staying in business for a variety of reasons. How can the city help to ease the way for small business owners and startups?

SH: Well I’ve been really excited about the recent addition to our city of the small business concierge, I think that is a good way… We don’t want bureaucracy to get in the way of our development and our growth and so any time that we can make it easier for small businesses to get started and just for them to have as many resources in one place as they can, I think it would be helpful. We know that small businesses are the engine to our economy and for us to continue to grow we have to make it as easy as possible for them to prosper here in Columbus. I think that we have to think innovatively though about how the city can partner with the private sector and either create new programs or fix what we already have to create new small businesses but really to create new industries here in Columbus.

That’s why I’m really, really excited about young professionals in Columbus. The Create Columbus Commission is a group of 35 or so young professionals who represent a variety of different sectors of employment and these guys have great ideas, and because we’re at the beginning of our careers, they’re not necessarily at the core tables of the companies that they work for, but they have ideas that folks that have been in the workforce a little longer, that have moved up the chain, are going to pay a lot of money for. So if we can tap into those ideas and give a safe space, I think it is a partnership between the city and private sector that could be a little more flexible with maybe resources, to get behind new things… I think that that is a real opportunity for us to tap into growth and innovative growth. How do we grow new sectors? We have a strong health care system here, we have strong insurance, we have a strong government base, but I sense that we have enough innovative spirit here that there’s something else out there that just needs the resources and the space to be able to make those mistakes or to take a little risk. I mean Jeni’s Ice Cream – I think there are more Jeni’s out there, and how can the public and private sector get together to support them, to find them and support them?

JB: In terms of bigger business or industries, is there any particular sector that you believe Columbus should be focusing on or that the city should be investing in that it’s not?

SH: You know, I think that’s a conversation that we would need to have with our private sector to see where we are going as a goal in the next few years. I think that one of the great things about Columbus is that we have a good relationship with the private sector and just about everyone here knows that partnership is the key word to getting anything done. So I think that’s a conversation that the city and the private sector would need to have and it would inform us as a city how we move forward and how we support that new industry. I think that we have a strong travel and tourism base… as more folks learn about Columbus and learn that it’s a cool weekend spot to come to, I would be interested to see if that’s an area that would need more focus. We have all these conferences coming into town, each one of those are opportunities for more tourism dollars coming in. That’s just one that comes to mind where I think it would be worth a conversation.

JB: How can Columbus do a better job of presenting itself nationally and attracting businesses and employees and the young professionals that you were talking about?

SH: Well I think that the key, and this is something that I give my old boss lots of credit on, is, you know, nobody wants to come to a place where the folks there aren’t proud of, and so us being the best ambassadors we can, that means the folks here in Columbus having real pride and having a sense of “us” and understanding what “us” is, you know, the pride of Columbus and being able to articulate that to our friends and to our networks outside of the city is the best way to gain that. We are a growing city, I think one of the only growing cities in the state, of the large cities, 830,000 folks who have vast networks and travel a lot. Are we telling our story? And I know we are because the proof is in the numbers, that people are coming here. I think that’s a key part of it, but also working harder and supporting folks like Experience Columbus as they are going out and pitching conventions. Every time you have a convention come into town and you have a thousand folks who would not come to Columbus or who would not have thought to come to Columbus before come here and say “Wow, I did not know that they had such a cool Short North area,” that’s another opportunity for growth, so I think supporting conventions coming in gives opportunities for folks outside of our area to see Columbus for the first time and then to spread the word.

JB: Is there anything you’d like to add that maybe I didn’t ask about?

SH: I’m really excited about this opportunity as a young person, but also as someone who was born and raised in Columbus. I’m really excited at the opportunity to serve the entire city. It’s been something that I’ve always wanted to do, to go into public service, and having this opportunity now is really amazing to me and I don’t take it lightly at all and I look forward to serving and I look forward to working and going out into the community over the next year to introduce myself and show my dedication to this city.

JB: One thing I forgot to ask, and I hope this isn’t too personal of a question, but how old are you exactly? I know you’re very young, but I forgot to ask that.

SH: I’m 27.

JB: You’re only a few years older than I am.

SH: Yeah, I feel older now after all of this, but no, I know that I’m young. I don’t think I’m the youngest council member though, I think there was a guy who was like, 22 at one point. But I’m very proud of that, I think that it shows that the Council understands that this is a growing city, a city that is young, that is mobile. And you know, one of my biggest things as a young professional that I think about are my college loans. I went to a very expensive college and at this point in my life, if I wouldn’t have taken out loans I might be looking to buy a house or something, but I have a mortgage-worth of student loans that are pretty tough on me, and I don’t think that I’m alone on that. So I think that’s one of the things that the diversity of age on the Council gives more perspective into the residents of our city as we prove to the world that we are smart and open, all the things that we say that we are. I think that my appointment kind of speaks to the fact that we’re not just talking the talk but we’re walking the walk as well.

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