For the first time in 12 years, Columbia has a new man at the helm. Walking into our beautiful City Hall, second only to the State House as the oldest government building in the city, I was excited to learn more about Daniel Rickenmann’s vision for Columbia and what he hopes to accomplish as mayor.
What are your top three priorities as mayor?
The top priorities for me are making sure that we have a safe community, that we have opportunities for our residents and our businesses to grow, and that we create more opportunities for home ownership. We are in a community of 46,000 homes in the city, and more than 50 percent are renters.
What did you learn about Columbia during the campaign that you did not know before?
I’d never really seen the groundswell of neighborhoods, businesses, and folks who want to be engaged and who are not happy about where we are as a city. They want us to be the number one city, they want us to have a thriving economy, they would like their kids and their grandkids to have opportunities that allow them to stay here. The question is, how do we make Columbia better so we are not number three in the state but number one?
Tell me about how you first landed in Columbia.
I grew up as a first generation American in a single-family household. My parents immigrated here from Switzerland in the late ’60s to work for Roger Milliken of Milliken & Company and just loved the United States. They were naturalized in the early ’70s, but my father unfortunately died when I was young. For them, the spirit of this country was something special, and that spirit is a big part of this city.
I came to Columbia as a USC student, largely because it was one of the few state schools that offered a dyslexia program, which is something I really struggled with. When I graduated, I actually hadn’t planned on staying in Columbia. I literally was headed overseas, but I pushed the date back six months to squeeze in another football season! My friends were getting jobs here and starting businesses, and there were just so many opportunities. So, that ended up keeping me here.
Greenville, Charlotte, and Charleston tend to get many young professionals to move to their cities. How do we make Columbia an attractive place to work and live for the thousands of colleges students who do leave after graduation?
Part of it is engagement. We engaged 1,700 college kids during this election. Other communities have town-and-gown relationships in which students, neighborhoods, businesses, and government work together to keep relationships good, to grow, and to exchange ideas. I reached out to Alex Harrell, who’s the current student body president at USC. We’re going to start having student representatives come to the meetings and create a town-and-gown where they are helping us make decisions.
We do not have a freshman program where we integrate them into the community, like floating down the river, going to Soda City, participating in one-day volunteer work in various neighborhoods. They need to go to the Congaree Swamp and the Columbia Museum of Art. If students are engaged, they are more likely to stay here.
I also think that the things we’re doing from a regulatory standpoint, like making it easier to open small businesses and recruiting new businesses, is going to help. I think that if we can provide opportunities, we can capture these kids, but if they just stay in the six-block area where they go to school, we will never keep them. Benedict College and Allen University are the same way as are Columbia College and Columbia International University. We don’t need to focus only on our flagship but all of the colleges. People forget that we stretch from one end of the city to the other. We’ve got to create these opportunities to engage all our college students.
Collectively, we have so much talent here, so many good ideas. I’m also pushing to create a collaborative hall where startups and students can meet and collaborate, and they can also have access to mentors, capital, angel investors, and micro loans to spur their ideas, bringing everybody together.
What is Columbia’s most underutilized resource?
The river. We have not used our rivers to sell Columbia. We have to move away from the expression: “We are two hours from the mountains and two hours from the beach.” Yes, that is a great asset, but it’s not what we should lead with in selling our city. We have the only river in the Southeast with class 2 rapids and Spanish moss. That is a huge deal to people who are into kayaking and other river activities. We have a stretch of the Broad River that is a perfect opportunity for rowing competitions and training centers, but we have limited access to it. We call ourselves “The Three River City,” but we have not used them as a recruiting tool or as a tourism mechanism. Think about if you came in on I-26 and could look over and actually see the river — how inviting would that be for our community? We need to expose it so that people can actually see it.
What are the biggest impediments to business formation and the ability to attract new business, and what will you do to correct them?
Well, I think we actually have to sell ourselves. We don’t tell our story. We aren’t Greenville, we aren’t Charleston, we aren’t Charlotte. We are Columbia, so let’s tell our story, and let’s get over the hump that we are not business friendly. Permitting in Columbia is a real problem. When Il Bucato opened up, it took them two months to get their building permit. Had they received their permit in a month, they would have a month’s worth of free rent, and they would have been paying taxes, water bills, everything. In West Columbia, you could have done that exact same project and gotten a permit in two weeks. As a city, we have to be more competitive and address these issues and ask ourselves: how do we streamline our systems? I think it’s technology, training, and autonomy. We have to let our city employees do their job. We have to give them the ability to do their job because every case is not the same.
Tax reform was something you talked about a lot during the campaign. What is a realistic time frame for that to happen?
I think we are talking about 18 to 24 months. Here’s the great thing — we’ve already had a study done, so we know what the data is and what the options are. I think we have a better shot than ever to make a change because of all the federal dollars that are coming down. That doesn’t even count all the application grants we can go after.
Are you proposing a change to the structure of property tax that requires legislative approval, or are you proposing to lower the millage rate and therefore property taxes across the board for residential and commercial properties in Columbia?
So residential won’t change. What we want to focus on is the non-owner occupied, which is commercial, second homes, residential air properties. That’s where our biggest struggle is.
The state has the same code all the way across. Some people would love to change the whole state code, but I think the residents would get penalized. That’s not going to happen. I don’t think people realize that boats and cars would also be affected — this hits everyone across the board. When we talk about affordable housing, the majority of the folks renting homes are paying an average of three months of their rent to property tax. So, think about if that was reduced by 25 percent, and those landlords could put more money into the properties. A lot of renters don’t realize that partly because that information is not disclosed. It’s not like commercial real estate.
Are there other City of Columbia taxes and fees besides property tax that you believe should be eliminated, increased, or decreased?
I think one of the things we need to examine is our franchise fee as well as the water expansion fee, which is required on change of use spaces. This really inhibits growth for small businesses. So, if you wanted to change a 2,000 square-foot retail space into a restaurant, you would have to pay this water expansion fee of about $35,000. And then you would have to add the required grease trap, so you could be talking about $55,000 before you have done the first thing. That’s inhibiting growth, so we’ve got to peel that back.
Utility rates are high in Columbia. We have the maximum 5 percent franchise fee, and that went up in 2014 from 3 percent to 5 percent. That 2 percent is directly paid by all of us. That is significant today. I don’t know of anyone that has a low power bill.
When can we realistically get our roads repaved?
The challenge is that we have about 490 miles worth of roads in the city, and 71 percent are DOT roads, like Gervais and Millwood and even the majority of certain neighborhood roads like Heathwood. My thought is, let’s try something different. I’m going to sit down with the leadership at the S.C. House and then go over to DOT and say, “Y’all appropriate X amount of money every year for repaving, maintenance, and everything else. Let us control that money so that we can leverage it with money we have.”
Columbia has more women-owned construction companies than any other city in South Carolina and is number four in the country for women-owned businesses. I want to create an opportunity for us to build up our small businesses here. What are the things people are always complaining about in Columbia? Water leaks, potholes, and sidewalks. If we can control all that money, how amazing would it be to address those issues while supporting small businesses?
A technology incubator in Charlotte created an attachment that goes on a vehicle and gives real-time data about roads. Talking to the developer, I asked, “Can you make it so that it tells us if there’s a water leak or manhole cover?” He said, “Absolutely.” I said, “I want to put that on every garbage truck. It’s the only vehicle that goes in every neighborhood.” With that, we’ll have real-time data. As that data comes in, a work order could go out to a rotating group of small businesses so that in 24 or 48 hours, one of them can make sure the patch gets paved. If we can get DOT to work with us and let us access that funding, we can leverage it much better because then we can coordinate projects as well. We are trying to solve a problem but also grow local businesses at the same time.
Any plans for beautification of the city?
Landscaping, painting, striping, lawn care — it’s pretty embarrassing when we have tomato plants growing out of sewer drains on Gervais Street. We’ve got grass in the medians. Once again, it’s always been jurisdictional, but what a great opportunity that we have — we have a couple of hundred landscape companies in this town, and we could hire people to handle stretches of road. Just the striping of the medians with that fresh yellow paint would make things look better.
We’ve got to work on litter. We have a bad litter problem, and I don’t know when we lost our sense of pride. But I brought in two groups of investors to come look at Columbia, and they drove in on Rte. 378. They asked, “What happened to your community?” I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “Have you driven down 378?” They showed me pictures they had taken, and it was just litter from one end to the other. It’s a challenge. We’ve got to get back to that sense that everybody should take care of their block. I know when I worked in Five Points as a student, when we got off work — and it didn’t matter if it was 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. — we were in charge of making sure our entire block was clean.
During the campaign, you mentioned that Columbia has an issue with unfinished projects. Which unfinished projects should the city look to finishing first?
Obviously, Finlay Park is at the center of our community, and it is especially important that we complete it now with the growth that we have on Main Street and more people living downtown.
The greenway is another big one, and that is actually the number one factor for companies with younger folks to locate to a community. If we take all sections of the greenway and connect it, you literally can get to every part of Columbia through the river and to West Columbia, all the way up past I-20, and never get in your car. You could live on the Broad River Road and walk all the way to the Vista.
Connectivity is a big piece. That also speaks about road diets — the connectivity does not stop with the greenways. North Main does not need to be four lanes; it needs to be two lanes. We have two historic neighborhoods on either side, but they are not connected because it’s too wide. It’s like a highway; it’s a dividing line. Assembly Street had a market in the middle of it historically, but do we really need six lanes of traffic downtown? It’s a big barrier between Main Street and the Vista.
How will you make city council more transparent in its operations?
Getting information out has always been a struggle. We’ll have this whole chamber filled with people on a zoning issue, but when we sit up here and talk about spending $300 million, there’s hardly a soul. Our website is hard to navigate, and in today’s times we need to make it really easy for people to find information. We created so many steps that people give up and get frustrated, and it shouldn’t be that way. So, I think we are going to have to figure out better ways to communicate what’s going on. We have to up our technology with the website, and we are either going to have a press conference or a press release every week to keep people updated.
How are you going to work with the Columbia Police Department to keep our citizens safe?
Public safety is the number one issue, and that’s not just the police department — it’s everything from sidewalks, to forestry, to lighting. We have to look at that holistically, but with the police department we must make sure they have the ability to train their officers and the opportunity to get the best equipment that’s out there. But we also need to be helping them with their health and wellness issues. Being an officer today has a mental stress to it that we have never seen before.
I rode with the officers one night. I left my home at 6:30 p.m., and I got back home around 7 a.m. I felt like I went through 10 episodes of Live PD in that one night, and this is a typical Friday night. I went to two stabbings, a bomb threat, a high-speed chase with shooting, a stolen car, and three ShotSpotter alerts. What I saw that night was the compassion of the officers and the pressure they felt and the positive results of their constant training. As elected officials, we need to be there and show our support to them every step of the way. I think that is a huge thing they need to know. I think it’s very hard to be an officer today.
What do you hope to be known for as mayor?
To be honest, I hope I’m not known for anything. I really hope it’s all about Columbia.
I’m not big on being in the newspaper. For me, I’m doing this because I care about Columbia. I made it my home. Selfishly, I have a daughter working in New York, and I hope one day she will come home to where her family is. I don’t want her to sacrifice her career or what she’s worked so hard to have because there’s not an option here for that.
Are there any final thoughts that you would like to share with our readers?
Just that we’re open for business and we’re excited for people to be engaged and to get involved. I hope they’ll reach out and give their suggestions. I hope people will take the time to get to know their neighbors. We have something really special in Columbia, and for all that we discussed that people see as negatives, I see them as hurdles and as things we can get over that really lead to opportunities.