COLUMBIA CITY — The state of Columbia City is "bright" as stated by Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel. The mayor gave his state of the city address Friday, May 6 to business, county and city leaders at Autumn Trace.
The event was put on by the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center.
"We are radiating out as an attractive place to live, work and play. Our parks, places of worship and even our downtown continue to shine in beauty. The First Friday and other community events are certainly lively. And our citizens and business owners are the cheerful welcoming committee to so many residents," said the mayor. "The state of our city is bright and will continue to be bright into the future."
There was a lot to celebrate about how far Columbia City has developed, the first of which the mayor highlighted was the population growth.
“If people want to join our city, bringing their family and putting down their roots, we obviously must be doing something right,” said the mayor. “I’m happy to report that over 1,100 more people call Columbia City their home since 2010.”
Mayor Daniel cited data reports that he said highlighted Columbia City as the third fastest growing city in Northeast Indiana based on population growth and second fastest growing city in Northeast Indiana in percentage.
“The more people that are choosing to call Columbia City their home, the more dollars are then invested in local shops, businesses and restaurants; invested in non-profits and community activities; and invested in our schools and beautification of our community,” Daniel said. “We have consistently chosen to invest in ourselves because our city’s future truly depends not on what we do tomorrow but rather on what we do today.”
Mayor Daniel spent some time discussing the many projects of focus for the city, and the ones that are in the works.
One of those highlighted was the Long Term Control Plan, a project to bring in new underground retention basins and laying larger pipes to handle heavy stormwater drainage.
“The final phase of this project came in $2 million under its original projected budget,” Daniel said.
Another project the city has undertaken is to construct a phosphorous treatment facility. Soon the city will complete an engineering study with the plan to reroute a portion of sewer force main. This particular main runs underneath the playground at Mary Raber.
“This project is funded through the American Rescue Plan dollars and engineering should be completed by the end of the year,” said the mayor. “We are also working on our five-year Indiana Department of Environmental Management permit, and overhauling the Columbia Shore lift station this year.”
The majority of the mayor’s address highlighted each of the city utility departments, and the many projects each has completed and is working on for the betterment of the community.
As part of the electric department, one of the most notable changes in the last year was the completion of a solar park, which sits on Opportunity Drive.
“Indiana Municipal Power Agency is the owner, but all power generated from this solar park stays in our community and at full capacity can power over half of our power load with this green energy” the mayor noted. “We are currently assisting IMPA in looking for additional solar sites to power the future of our city.”
Energy and efficiency is a priority for the department, which is readying to install new street lighting on North Main Street, with the purpose of improving these priorities for the city. This fall, the city is also set to fully implement a new automatic metering system. This new system will shorten the number of future outages, while also improving the department’s ability to respond.
The mayor made note that in order to improve these efforts, taking into account other factors as well, rate increases have had to be implemented.
“As you can guess the prices of everything we do and provide had gone up significantly over the decade and it was putting our utility into a deficit scenario,” he said. “After much discussion among the Utility Rate Advisory Board (a citizen board made up of four city utility residents and a non-city utility customer) and the City Council, the group decided to enact this adjustment as a two-phase increase to allow customers to better manage the price increase.”
Mayor Daniel added, “our electric department has been working closely with AEP, the provider of the transmission lines into our city, who is working on an upgrade of their lines to effectively double the amount of power that can flow into our city. This project requires the upgrade of multiple city electric substations and infrastructure, at our costs, to accommodate these changes. This is a multi-year project throughout the city.”
The water department too has multiple projects it is working on. Among those is installing new automatic water meters, rebuilding a city well, replacing a section of water line on Jefferson Street that has had breaks in the past and it also continues to inspect and install new stormwater infrastructure.
In upcoming projects, the city is looking to partner with Whitley County Consolidated Schools. The purpose is to “study the potential for a water main to provide water to Northern Heights Elementary School.”
Mayor Daniel said it’s projected work on this could begin in 2024.
“Overall, our utilities are in good shape,” said the mayor. “We continue to be proactive in improvements, while also being mindful of our customers and the costs to run this infrastructure. Over the last decade, I’ve heard from many people about the large amounts of rate increases we do at one time. Whether it be 25 percent or $20, it’s clear to me that customers aren’t big fans of big bulky increases. We’ve explored this issue in depth over the past year and, in response to these concerns, will begin annually looking at all our utilities to determine if minor adjustments need to be made.”
He added, “It is my goal to stop this cycle of waiting until the last possible amount to do a rate adjustment and then slamming our customers with a massive increase, only to do it again in five to seven years. Instead, we are going to take a more responsible and responsive approach, looking towards the future and making yearly determinations on what is best for the customers and our utilities.”
Infrastructure to city subdivisions is also a major project the city had undergone.
“Specifically, we pinpointed that the WoodDale and Westgate subdivisions needed infrastructure overhauls to bring them up to city standards,” said Daniel. “So in 2018 we completed an overhaul of the infrastructure in the WoodDale subdivision. With this major project under our belt, we then turned our sights to the Westgate subdivision. Because Westgate is three times the size of WoodDale, we have split up this project into three phases. By doing one phase at a time, we can complete the project without any tax or rate increases, and without putting additional costs on the property owners.”
He added, “Phase 1 will begin in the next month and will include new streets, sidewalks, stormwater drainage and underground electric service. Subsequent phases are planned to occur in 2025 and 2026. We are also studying the drainage throughout this area and hope to have some solutions to the plethora of water that tends to drain to and through this area of our community.”
Over the last year, the street department has completed multiple paving projects, made improvements to the Greenhill Cemetery drive, cleaned more than 20,000 feet of sewer main and swept more than 268,000 pounds of debris.
“One major project the department tackled was the brick crosswalks throughout downtown Columbia City,” said Daniel. “A product of the 1990s downtown renovation, the brick crosswalk had seen better days. Even after multiple attempts to repair and replace the bricks, the wear and tear of the 20-plus years of vehicles, snow plows and weather had brought us to a crossroads. We decided the best and safest way to improve these crosswalks was the remove the bricks, the pave and stripe the crossings with a piano-keys look. The project was completed and they will be re-striped soon as we get to warmer weather.”
The street department is also ready to undergo a project this year to pour new sidewalks and install an ice melt system around City Hall.
“As you may remember, in 2020, we undertook the first phase of this project, taking care of the ‘X’ shape of sidewalk in the middle of city Hall’s front yard,” said the mayor. “Now we have started the second part of the project, which we’ve split into two phases that will include the main curb-face sidewalks that surround City Hall. By installing the ice melt system, which the county government already has, we can cut down dramatically on our snow plowing and salting costs for decades to come while providing safer walkways for citizens in the wintertime.”
In news from the police department and dispatch, the mayor reported that services have been provided to more than 17,000 calls in the last year. A big change for the department was the addition of a drone, whose purpose among other items is to find missing persons and fleeing suspects. The department also has continued its community outreach programs with events like Patrolling for Presents, which assisted 100 children in the community.
“They also improved efficiency by installing wireless units in all city police cars, as well as judicial file sharing for the court system. These systems allow data to be transmitted between officers and dispatchers, or the prosecutor, at the touch of a button,” shared Mayor Daniel. “In 2022, we have already replaced a few aging vehicle, participated in a joint-training exercise with the Local Emergency Planning Committee, and continued to train our staff in a variety of tactics and expertise.”
Another project the department is planning to roll out is a Citizens Academy, which Mayor Daniel said will “provide residents the chance to get an up-close look at public safety and to engage at a deeper level in our city.”
In dispatch, the department continues to expand its training and use of the Spillman dispatch system.
“When we renovated City Hall to accommodate a new dispatch center, we made a conscious choice to invest in that stable and calming voice on the other end of an emergency call,” said Daniel. “We made a choice to be advanced in technology, provide ease to access to vital information, and build for the future, allowing for expansion and integration of staff. We did all these things knowing that people will continue to choose Columbia City as their home if we provide a safe and welcoming environment. We also did it with the idea that our taxpayers deserve the best care in their worst moments. I’m proud of the impact that these front line workers have on not only our residents, but also on the police officer and firefighters who are our boots on the ground.”
The Columbia City Fire Department responded to more than 800 runs in the last year the mayor said, 62 percent of which were reported as medical and four percent fire-related.
“The department acts as a first resource for residents who have a medical issue. This continues to be a trend for the CCFD,” said the mayor. “Many times our firemen are the first ones on the scene, comforting patients and providing basic life-support functions until the EMS arrives.”
The mayor expressed gratitude at the dedication and cooperation of all emergency services, including those of the county services in moments of need, but said he knew that volunteers are always needed, particularly for the fire departments.
“As you may know, our department is a combination department, which means we have a combination of full-time and volunteer firefighters. Yet, due to a increase in service hours required by the state and decrease in the amount of interest in the fire service, our department alone is short 16 or more volunteers,” shared the mayor. “We have attempted to combat this deficit through WCCS’ fire academy at Columbia City High School with minor success. At the end of the day, there is a national volunteer crisis that must be addressed either with new volunteers stepping up, or with more full timers being hired – meaning more tax dollars being needed from citizens to provide fire protections.”
Mayor Daniel added, “this isn’t merely a Columbia City issue so we need to work collaboratively together in Whitley County to address this glaring issue. In the near future, you will be seeing a few short videos on social media that we will use as a recruiting tool, showing residents the impact of volunteerism and how they can get involved in protecting their home community.”
In the last year, the fire department has purchased new air packs to upgrade safety, and also cut the ribbon on the Walt Crowder Fire Training Facility, where firefighters can practice different scenarios.
The parks department had a number of projects completed in 2021 with the opening of the new Morsches Park bathrooms, a concession stand and a maintenance facility. The department also took over maintenance of Eagle Park, the site of the former Columbia City High School.
“As you may know, we have applied for an Indiana Department of Natural Resources Land and Water Conservation grant to start what I call ‘Phase 1A’ of the park master plan,” said the mayor. “This project would include a new skate park on the north side of the property, a refurbished parking lot on the south side, the installation of sidewalks on the west end, a large trellis with swings and new pickleball courts. We are waiting with bated breath on the announcement of the award winners, but feel strongly that this is the first of many projects that will dramatically impact our recreation for residents and attractiveness to visitors. We are hopeful that construction on this project could start this year.”
The mayor shared that other projects the parks department is tackling include “the building of new dugouts on baseball fields 3 and 4, managing a youth travel soccer team and installing a veterans memorial at Patriotic Park on Redick Avenue.”
In the IT department, the city has changed its servers, improved fiber network connectivity and added security cameras at different locations in the city. All Board of Public Works and Common Council meetings can now be viewed live on Facebook, and can also be found on the City of Columbia City, Indiana Youtube page.
In Community Development, the city has welcomed many new businesses, while also seeing current businesses expand.
“In 2021 we saw over $25 million in construction taking place, an increase of $4 million from 2020,” said the mayor. “We also saw almost 300 permits issued throughout the city, also an increase from 2020.”
Housing is something the city continues to work on.
“Land values and a lack of interest in selling land appears to be the major sticking point for many home builders,” said Mayor Daniel. “We continue looking for options on ways to increase home building in and around the city.”
Another major project that is being undergone in the city is fiber optic internet.
“After literally a decade of working towards fiber to the home, we found a partner to provide this service without the need for taxpayer subsidies,” said Daniel. “While the project is behind schedule, mainly due to factors outside of our (or Surf Broadband’s) control, we are very excited to see fiberoptic cable going into the ground. We anticipate this project will be completed in 2023.”
The city is also getting ready to complete trail work to connect the city to the Columbia City High School property thanks to a Next Level Trail grant.
“This planning effort will focus on the future of our downtown, its attractiveness and will provide a creative strategy to improve the area for all ages,” said Daniel.
Something this city is looking forward to implement is a Columbia City Arts Commission.
“Our city is looking to create a more enhanced arts culture,” Mayor Daniel said. “The goal of the Arts Commission will be to encourage recognition, expression and presence of public art in the city of Columbia City. With the rise of murals, musicals and other forms of art in our community, there is no better time to institute a specific local commission that is tasked with partnering together for the collective good. I will be asking the Common Council to institute an Arts Commission in our code of ordinances to begin the formation of this group.”
When taking into account all of the changes in the last year and the many projects yet to come, Mayor Daniel said one of the key factors he keeps in mind is investment for the future.
“It is crystal clear that if we want to keep tax and utility rates reasonable, if we want to attract your kids and grandkids back to Whitley County, if we want to expand the dollars invested and active participants in non-profits we absolutely, positively, whole-heartedly and unequivocally must invest in our future. Failing to do so is to give up on ourselves, our past and our future,” said Mayor Daniel.
The mayor closed with this thought, “if we keep investing in ourselves, the future is awfully bright. And at this moment in time, so is the state of our city. We are in an upward trajectory – together, as a team, working for the betterment of our neighbor, investing in ourselves and preparing the way for those who come after us.”