Gahanna Mayor Tom Kneeland announced a new resource web page that will let residents know about available jobs, the planned April launch of online water bill payment and a new brand identity for Gahanna to be unveiled this summer, during this year's State of the City Address.

Kneeland's third State of the City, entitled "Strengthening Our Community," was held March 22 at Columbus Academy, 4300 Cherry Bottom Road, in an interview format with former Ohio State University football player Obie Stillwell as host.

"I'm really proud to announce that today we're launching a new workforce resource page on our website that will allow us to connect businesses and people, so we can get both of those together and people can find jobs and businesses can see that there are people seeing their jobs," Kneeland said.

Those interested in accessing the feature can go to Gahanna.gov and click on "find a job."

"There are companies here in Gahanna that have 100 or more jobs every month that go unfilled," Kneeland said. "These aren't starting wage jobs but top wages -- we're talking $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 and $100,000 a year. The workforce is really an issue."

Kneeland said he has challenged his team to find ways to overcome the issue.

"We're working with the schools closely to find ways to connect kids with people that can help them decide what's a good path for them."

Kneeland said some students attend college four years or don't finish and come out with a huge debt and no career path.

"What we're trying to do is establish a relationship and partnership with our business community, so we can help do some of those pairings and get our school system involved with that," he said.

In partnership with Ohio Means Jobs, Kneeland said, the plan is to provide links for jobs in Gahanna and the region.

"We've done something really unique, where we've worked with Ohio Means Jobs so we can actually have Gahanna jobs pop up first," he said.

In a casual dialogue with Stillwell, a Gahanna business owner, resident and community celebrity, Kneeland addressed topics ranging from the relationship between local law enforcement and citizens, to safety in schools and the opiate crisis.

Stillwell said customer service is important to him and asked Kneeland what things he has done to make Gahanna's government services more customer-friendly.

Kneeland said online bill payment has been a hot topic for a number of years.

"Next month, we will launch an online bill pay for water bills," he said, adding the online payment option undoubtedly would help improve customer service.

He said Gahanna also is focusing on marketing and communication efforts, developing a new brand identity for the city to meet goals in the GoForward Gahanna plan.

To come up with the brand, the city is working with a local firm, Align2Market, and community partners including the Gahanna Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Gahanna Area Chamber of Commerce, the Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools and Gahanna business leaders.

"I anticipate launching the new brand later this summer," Kneeland said.

Law enforcement

Perceived or real, Stillwell said, a divide exists across the nation between law enforcement and citizens.

He asked what Gahanna is doing to address issues.

"I'm committed to maintaining a great relationship between our community and Gahanna police department," Kneeland said. "So, we'll be strengthening our community policing efforts. We've also increased patrols in neighborhoods, which a lot of people will have seen or noticed."

Gahanna also has adopted standards from the Ohio Collaborative for Law Enforcement Agency Certification.

"Our safety director Mark Thomas and interim (police) Chief Jeff Spence were also successful in restoring Gahanna's National Night Out," Kneeland said. "It increases awareness about our police initiatives."

He said it also facilitates dialogue with police and increases trust within the community.

Gahanna also launched the "Coffee with a Cop" series, a national initiative to improve dialogue between citizens and police.

"We've also partnered with New Albany PD to launch the first joint Citizen Police Academy, which is a great venue to get out and understand how police operate," Kneeland said.

Opiate epidemic

As he talks to his neighbors in the community, Stillwell said, he finds a growing concern about the opiate epidemic in neighborhoods across the nation and in Gahanna.

Stillwell asked what the city is doing to bring awareness to the crisis.

"In 2017, we reviewed data related to the opiate epidemic," Kneeland said. "The impact on the community and the nation is massive. It's a horrible, horrible addiction and affects the community in a lot of ways."

Kneeland said the schools and Mifflin Township Fire Department hosted a community meeting at Clark Hall with a panel of experts in 2017.

"And our plan is to have more community meetings in 2018, focusing on mental health, suicide prevention and treatment options, all in the interest of improving public awareness and safety," he said. "We really need to address it head-on."

Other topics

With recent shootings in school districts across the country, Stillwell said, safety is a big concern.

"It used to be ... you were worried about making sure they have their lunch and milk money, and now you have to be concerned about their safety," he said.

School safety is a concern and rightfully so, Kneeland said.

"A few weeks ago, the city and the schools participated in a community meeting at Middle School West to discuss safety," he said. "The partnership between Gahanna schools, fire departments, Gahanna police and the Franklin County Sheriff is really strong and we'll leverage everything we can to help increase safety with the resources we have available."

Knowing one of Kneeland's top priorities has been community engagement, Stillwell asked how the bond between residents, businesses and community organizations is being strengthened.

"My 10-Point Plan, which are my guiding principles I brought when I came to office in 2016, included a group of what we call area commissions I wanted to see established," he said.

"Right now, there are five commissions that were formed. Four of those represent the four wards in the city of Gahanna and the fifth represents the Old Gahanna-Creekside district," he said.

The commissions were created to encourage residents to review new development proposals earlier in the process, Kneeland said.

"My intent is to get people more engaged and more informed, so we can get information in people's hands earlier. "Because the more feedback we can get from the community, we can get that to our people and the administration for the administrative process, but more importantly, get it in the hands of the developers who are making the proposal. It helps them to understand what the community desires and what it's all about."

Currently, a total of 47 commission members volunteer their time.

Kneeland said they have reviewed projects including three new construction projects, two annexations, two rezoning proposals and one final development plan.

As he has traveled around town, Stillwell said, he has heard about a few new programs that have been started in Gahanna.

Kneeland said Gahanna Neighborhood Bridges, an organization started in Westerville by Rick Bannister, has started in the city with local business owner Ron Smith as the area director.

"The purpose is to provide basic needs of children, families and the elderly directly through an advocate," Kneeland said. "They use a simple approach to bridging needs in our community with donors directly through this advocate (in a lot of cases, teachers)."

At last count, he said, 150 families have been helped since September 2017.

In early 2016, Kneeland said, he asked a number of community members and parties interested in art to meet and discuss an official art group.

"Organizations like the Greater Columbus Art Council, Dublin, New Albany and Worthington were also asked for guidance," he said. "So, thanks to a group of local artistic people, the Gahanna Area Arts Council was launched on March 3."

A new group with a mission of beautification and community, Make Gahanna Yours, also brought some new efforts to brighten and clean the downtown area in early 2016.

"That summer, new planters were added on Mill and Granville streets, and in 2017 more were placed at the U.S. 62-Agler and Stygler road intersections," Kneeland said.

"Through new and existing groups, their efforts reflect how stepping up and volunteering help improve the city," Kneeland said. "It really takes engaged people to make a community."

Following up on questions residents submitted for Kneeland, Stillwell asked about the plan for swimming pools.

"I've tasked Jeff Barr, our parks and rec director, with developing a strategic plan for the city's aquatic facilities," Kneeland said.

Stillwell also asked about the future of Creekside.

"There are over 40 companies and more than 100 residents in the complex, so it has been a success," Kneeland said. "There's a new property management firm working with the city to identify and deal with areas requiring maintenance.

"I'm confident that with this latest ownership transfer will be a positive move, and we'll see movement and more development in the area in the future."

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla