COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — One local outreach program hosted a meet & greet for Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson early Saturday morning at Overflo Beauty & Barber Shop to discuss crime and development in Columbus.

The Meet & Greet comes just a few weeks ahead of May primaries, at the event citizens expressed their concerns to the mayor and were able to ask questions about his plans for Columbus regarding crime prevention, rejuvenation of south Columbus, affordable housing, and programs for the youth of Columbus. 

Mayor Henderson says two of the main challenges the city is experiencing right now is a nationwide labor shortage and an uptick in violent crime. He shares with News 3 concerns brought to him by attendees of the event.

“We’ve been talking to a lot of people, and a lot of folks are still concerned about crime. And of course, we’ve been putting together some actionable, strategic plans that we’ve got in place and it’s starting to make a difference. And we’ve shared some of that, so we’ve been able to address some of those issues. And the rest is just people talking about the community, just about in their neighborhoods, where there needs to be some improvement,” he states.

One woman in attendance asked what the plans were for redevelopment in south Columbus over the next ten years.

“I’ll start with the last one,” Mayor Henderson says. “The affordable housing. Every community is struggling to try to make sure that there is quality housing available at affordable prices. We’re thrilled right now, the council is considering, as a matter of fact this next council meeting, they’ll likely approve, I think it’s close to 500 units off Victory Drive. Brand new, quality development called Elliott’s Walk… We’ve invested in the south Side the way the government can, and that’s by creating infrastructure.”

Some infrastructure the mayor mentioned included new trails, an interchange he believes will open up Cedar Road and the surrounding area to attract more businesses to south Columbus, and safety plans to be put in place on Steam Mill Road.

“We have invested over the last probably eight or ten years, by the time we finish with the Spider Web and some of these other plans, the diverging diamond on Buena Vista Road, we will have invested probably a quarter of billion dollars in south Columbus in infrastructure. About $234 million I think is what is going into the south side of town,” he says.

In addition to this, he shared plans to build additional splash pads in neighborhood areas across south Columbus to build a sense of community by giving the youth of Columbus a place to go and hang out.

“So what that’s going to tell the organizations that we’re trying to attract down there, is that we’re committed to making sure that that area is vital and that it continues to renew. In continuing to try to energize that area of town, we have to make it safe. And that’s what we’re working on right now,” Mayor Henderson explains.

To make the area safe, he explains a new cadet program that aims to help recruit more officers.

“We’re working with two schools now. Next year we’ve got plans to work, I think we’re going to have four more. We’re going to hire kids right out of high school into a cadet program if they’re the right quality of kids. Because one thing we won’t do with our recruiting is lower our standards. We want quality police officers, that’ll treat people with respect, and they’re going to do their job according to policies and procedures. But we’re going to bring in these cadets. We’ll start them at about $30,000 a year right out of high school,” he says. “If we bring them in, and let them develop that love for public service, they’ll want to stay.”

Mayor Henderson says by bringing in high schoolers and allowing them to develop their passion for public service will allow them to want to continue with that opportunity.

Another woman in attendance brought up 2021’s total homicide count: 70. She says it isn’t just Columbus that has seen the uptick in crime, but she asks how he plans on responding to these crimes.

“Last year we had a 50% increase in murder. We had we had 70 homicides,” Mayor Henderson says. “That includes accidental deaths and includes, you know, suicides. We had 63 murder cases opened last year in 2021, 63. For 20 of those were domestic. They were either family violence or domestic violence. The others, the highest number was like ten and that that was drug [related], and then it went to about eight, and those were gang-related.”

He explains law enforcement operations that are in place to investigate these crimes, the Gang Intelligence Unit, a Crime Suppression Unit, and the corroboration between the local law enforcement however he says enforcement doesn’t stop crime, it just punishes those who commit a crime.

Instead, Mayor Henderson says creating opportunities is crucial in preventing crime.

“The reality is enforcement doesn’t stop a lot, what law enforcement does is it allows us to punish the people that do this. Now, that is part of slowing down some of the violent activity. What you get from is what is going to prevent, and that is creating opportunities for young people to do something… We have hundreds of organizations in Columbus involved that are there with a specific goal of trying to provide opportunities,” he says.

Owner of Overflo Barber & Beauty Shop, Gerald Riley, shares more on the Overflo Outreach program and how the non-profit works with the Columbus Community.

At the Overflo Salon & beauty shop, we run an outreach program. And so after school, a lot of the kids come here and they get on the computer, we pay them to sweep up, run errands. We do business plans; we help with the homework. So, whatever the kids need, we’re willing to dothe community determines what we do. So, if of the community need to help pay a bill. Then we’re going to contribute to pay a bill. If the community need us to pick a child up from school. Then we’re going to pick a child up. So whatever needs to be done in our great city of Columbus, we’re willing to do,” Riley explains.

Mayor Skip Henderson believes working with organizations like Overflo Outreach is a vital step in preventing crime.

“The only way we’re going to accomplish some of these really, really tough issues is to get with the neighborhoods, with the public safety division, with the organizations that are providing options for some of these young people to get involved in more positive things,” he says.

Another resource the mayor spoke on is a new, mobile recreational vehicle that will be taken into the neighborhoods of Columbus starting sometime this summer.

“The truth of the matter right now, I mentioned the labor shortage. We’re 176 short in Parks and Recreation. We’ve got 176 open jobs. So we’re launching it this summer. It’s a mobile program, we’ve ordered it and it hasn’t arrived yet, but we’ve got a mobile Parks and Recreation program vehicle that we’re going to put basketball goals, soccer goals, any type of athletic equipment we can. And we’re going to take the program in to some of these neighborhoods that have transportation issues, that that just don’t take the time to go to a rec center, or even have one close enough to go to and it helps us eliminate the challenge of not having a rec center in every neighborhood, now we can go to everyone,” he says.

In addition to the entertainment aspect of the mobile unit, there will also be a health screening service from a partnership with the Department of Public Health and Piedmont. Also, to be travelling with the unit, a mobile farmer’s market made possible with the partnership of You Grow and the Food Mill.

Mayor Henderson says he cares about the citizen’s questions, and thanks everyone for attending.

For anyone who missed the Meet & Greet who may have questions, they can call the Mayor’s Office or submit questions for WRBL’s 2022 Mayoral Debate. More on that debate and how to submit questions can be found here.

“My motto on questions is if you have one, you deserve an answer. You may not like the answer, but you’ll get an answer,” Mayor Henderson says.