Christopher Columbus statue still in hiding as City Council pauses return to public view

Bill Bush
The Columbus Dispatch
The Christopher Columbus statue shown being removed from Columbus City Hall in July 2020 remains part of the city’s public art collection and is in storage under the oversight of a conservation professional.

The long-debated fate of the controversial statue of city namesake Christopher Columbus briefly rekindled Monday evening before going dark again.

Also, as promised last week, the Columbus City Council delivered a series of ordinances bolstering protections and access to abortion.

And the city began the messy process of extricating itself from the multiparty agreement related to the city's plan to build a community sports park adjacent to the former Mapfre stadium, now that the city appears to be moving on from what was once a major community-benefit promise in return for taxpayer support to build the Crew SC a new Downtown soccer stadium.

Christopher Columbus statue moved amid Downtown protests

The Columbus statue was ordered removed from its perch of more than six decades in front of City Hall by Mayor Andrew J. Ginther in June 2020 amid protests following George Floyd's murder by since-convicted Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin.

The Council indefinitely tabled a request for a $253,000 contract between the city and Designing Local Ltd, which specializes in creating policies and plans for placing public art and cultural facilities. The work would be for "facilitating community education and engagement and developing contextual materials that would accompany" the "potential reinstallation of the statue in a new public location," the ordinance said.

"I am appreciative that folks took the time out of their busy day to communicate with us," said Council member Nick Bankston, who chairs the Economic Development Committee. "Given the response we received from the community both for and against, I would like to table this ordinance indefinitely," he said, to give more time for a "thoughtful discussion" of a sensitive topic.

Bankston also said that the new public location isn't on property owned by the city, but officials didn't reveal potential sites.

Columbus Economic Development Director Michael Stevens said the administration has been engaged "thoughtfully and thoroughly" for two years on the fate of the statue, and that he looked forward to working with Council on the topic.

"Potential sites have not yet been identified," Jennifer Fening, a Development Department spokeswoman, said in an email Monday evening following Council's action. The City Hall campus has been eliminated as a future site, she said.

An advisory committee has been debating the future of the statue, which was gift from the city of Genoa, Italy.

"The (advisory) committee sees an opportunity to re-cast the statue, not as a symbol of community beliefs, but as an artifact of our city’s history," Fening said. "They see an opportunity to return the statue to the community in a new site, surrounded by new contextual information that can create a place of reflection, education and community healing."

"This is all quickly turning," said Landa Masdea Brunetto, a member of the statue committee representing the Italian-American community who said the measure was pulled from the agenda less than two hours after a local TV station interviewed her in front of City Hall. She was told by city officials before the meeting that it was being tabled, she said.

"I heard that because there was so much publicity, and so much speculation, that they pulled everything from the docket last night, and it will be — what I understood it to say — is it would be put on at a later date. ... I heard that because of publicity and what was going on within the media, that there was too much. They just wanted it to be quiet."

An Ohio Public Records request for comments submitted by the public on the statue's potential return show the Council members received about a dozen emails in the last few days opposing it."Don’t waste our money on the Christopher Columbus statue," said said. "Support local artist and spend it on Columbus citizens to represent the city."

Statues of Columbus and other historical figures became lightning rods for controversy and the targets of vandals during social-justice riots and protests in the summer of 2020.

Members of the city's Italian community, which secured the donation of the statue in 1955, want the city to either reinstall the statue or give it to community groups instrumental in bringing it here.

The Christopher Columbus statue is shown in Italy being readied for a trip aboard the Italian liner Cristoforo Colombo for shipment to the United States in 1955.

But the Italian explorer, while often celebrated as the "first person" to discover the Western Hemisphere despite its inhabitants of the time, is better remembered by native people for brutal genocide and exploitation.

In January, The Dispatch reported that the city had begun requesting bid proposals to develop contextual material that could mean the "conditional" return of the statue to a new venue at the request of the 14-member statue committee created by the city and the Columbus Art Commission.

Abortion ruling prompts local action

In other action Monday night, the City Council approved a three-piece package of legislation proposed but its new women's caucus aimed at mitigating the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade and state law enacted by Ohio's Republican-majority legislators.

"We know that a majority of people who need an abortion will no longer be able to do so legally within the state," said Council President Pro Tem Elizabeth Brown. "The law provides no exception for rape or incest, and woefully inadequate protections for the life and health of the pregnant person."

One ordinance creates a city "policy" that officials won't, unless required by state or federal law, "store or catalog any report of an abortion," share information with other governmental entities "about any abortion, miscarriage, or other reproductive healthcare act" except to defend the patient's right to abortion care, or "conduct surveillance" related to a criminal investigation for determining whether an abortion has occurred.

The mandate also requires that the investigation or prosecution of an alleged abortion be given the lowest priority for enforcement and use of resources.

Because the new mandates were not inserted into city code, but rather declared a policy, it was unclear what repercussions, if any, would happen to those who decline to follow the guidelines. 

"It is a statement of policy that will serve to guide the funding priorities of council," Brown said in an email following passage. "It does not per se regulate the police but states how council will prioritize funding initiatives."

Council also approved a total $1 million in grants to Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio and Ohio Women’s Alliance, or providing “access to reproductive healthcare” including patient-support expenses such as "transportation, lodging, childcare, and lost wages; information hotlines, peer support" and other areas. The money will not go toward subsidizing actual abortion procedures and other associated medical services. 

Under the agreement, Ohio Women's Alliance will enter into a sub-agreement with Pro-Choice Ohio on a $26,500 study to combat false information regarding reproductive healthcare, such as anti-abortion operations that present themselves as abortion-counseling clinics or crisis pregnancy centers.

Soccer park location moving

In other business, the City Council:

• Through a series of ordinances, began to remove commitments for a sports park at the former Mapre stadium site. Billed as a premiere community benefit, Ginther and city leaders announced the park before pumping nine figures of city subsidies into the new-stadium project.

One ordinance amends the contract between the Crew, Franklin County and the city "expanding the location of the (community sports park) to include other potential sites, including, the city-owned Kilbourne Run Sports Park."

That site, near Westerville, is several miles from the original inner-city site, and is already a city-maintained sports park.

The site-swap passed Council without debate, with no member Monday commenting on what was a major alteration to the original stadium plan that had been sold to the public as providing green space playing fields to several struggling low-income neighborhoods.

Charter changes headed to voters

• Advanced the recommendations of a citizen Charter Review Commission to the November ballot, including provisions that would make it harder on self-dealing groups to take city tax dollars for special startup programs. 

wbush@gannett.com

@ReporterBush