The Boone County Courthouse in downtown Columbia
Columbia was founded as Smithton in 1819 on a site about a half-mile west of the present Boone County Courthouse on Walnut St. This site proved too far from needed water supplies, so in 1821 the town moved east, across Flat Branch Creek. Renamed Columbia, it became the Boone County seat on April 7, 1821. The city was incorporated in November 1826. Today, the city covers about 59 square miles (and appears to be expanding all the time) and in 2003 had a population of nearly 90,000. (Boone County’s population is around 142,000.) Many of the city’s early citizens’ names will be familiar to you from street and landmark monikers (“Blind” Boone, Odon Guitar, etc.).
As anyone who has ever gone for a jog in Columbia will tell you, the place is hilly. From its cradle between Flat Branch and Hinkson Creeks, the city undulates west through what seem like acres of housing and commercial developments. Due to its location just north of the Ozark Plateau and on the eastern and southern edge of the great prairies of the American West, Columbia’s geography varies from the cave-pocked terrain of Rock Bridge State Park south of town to flat fields to the north. Tributaries of the two major creeks wind their way through town. The Missouri River is just 12 miles west, forming the western and part of the southern borders of Boone County.
The University of Missouri is Columbia’s largest employer. Nearly 12,000 people work for MU and another 4,500 for University Hospitals and Clinics. “Collegetown USA” is one of Columbia’s more persistent nicknames; not only MU but also Stephens College (once a nationally-famous women’s college now known for its fine arts programs) and Columbia College, a community college, are found here. But the city’s economic and commercial life is not limited to its campuses. The manufacturing, insurance and medical sectors are also important. Other big employers are Columbia Public Schools, Boone Hospital Center, Shelter Insurance Companies, State Farm Insurance Companies and others. Also, small single-owner boutiques and restaurants thrive in a downtown that, unlike those of less vibrant cities, is very much alive. The median household income in Columbia is $33,729; Boone County’s is $37,485 (perhaps because wealthier residents tend to work in Columbia but live in the county).
|Population (Boone County)||
|Median Age (Columbia)||
|Median Age (Boone County)||
|Median Household Income (Columbia)||
|Median Household Income (Boone County)||
|Average Precipitation (Annual)||
|Source: Columbia REDI (www.columbiaredi.com)|
This list shows what several Columbians (some of your editors included) consider the top five issues in the city today.
- Growth and Development
On July 5, 2005, the City Council approved the largest voluntary annexation of land in city history: an 805-acre swath east of Highway 63 owned by developer Billy Sapp. But even before that, growth south and north of town has long been visible in the form of new housing developments, strip malls and big box stores. Some have speculated that someday Columbia’s borders may extend all the way to the Missouri River. Many of the other issues the city faces can be traced back to rampant growth. The question of growth polarizes community residents and raises all kinds of philosophical questions: should (and can) growth continue in Columbia or should it be contained (and how)? What’s driving it? Who should pay for it and how, and is it changing the city’s character for the worse?
- Government and Leadership
Much about the political scene in Columbia is in flux. Several long-time city officials¿including the city manager¿had retired or announced retirement in mid-2005. Who will replace them and what does it mean for the city? The issue of government is crucial as well because of the growth issue; many feel the county and city governments aren’t working closely or well enough on that issue or any others.
With growth comes crime. The story of convicted murderer Stephen Rios was just the most high-profile example of a phenomenon that authorities feel is on the rise. Editors note that stories about shots fired, especially in Columbia’s First Ward, are becoming more prevalent. Methamphetamine labs are sprouting here as elsewhere in the state. Who and/or what is behind the rise in crime? And what can be done about it? The question of crime is also related to continuing efforts by a number of groups in the city to reach out to teenagers and children, especially among the underprivileged.
With Interstate 70 and Highway 63 running through it, Columbia has long been a transportation crossroads for the state. But the issue of its tiny airport (too expensive for many to use) has cropped up as the city has grown, as have issues of traffic jams and public transportation. The city’s bus system has improved, but is it enough given all the growth in areas such as the south part of town, where almost everyone relies on cars to get to work? Related to transportation issues and growth are environmental questions. How are the city’s air and streams affected by it all?
- University issues
The city’s largest employer, the University of Missouri, continues to wrestle with budget cuts and questions surrounding its mission as a land-grant institution, as a research institution and as an arts and sciences college. Controversies surrounding athletics simmer and occasionally boil over. As with city government, leadership seems constantly in flux. What will the MU of the future look like? And what does that mean for Columbia?
Copyright 2005 by Terzah Becker
Photographs and logo © The Columbia Missourian. Used with permission.
Updated Summer 2012