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Fluvanna Sheriff Ryant Washington looks out over Columbia. Photo by Tricia Johnson(Part 1 in an occasional series on Columbia.)
An armed robbery in Columbia last month shined a spotlight on this tiny river town’s struggle to re-invent itself.
Two men armed with guns robbed the Columbia Corner Market on Oct. 9, bringing the often forgotten town of Columbia to the attention of Fluvanna residents. Authorities have made no arrests in the case and no suspects have been identified.
Fluvanna County Sheriff Ryant Washington reported, “There is nothing new at this point. The investigators are working very hard with other law enforcement agencies with similar robberies to determine if there is a connection.”
Mintesinot Birbo, who owns the market and was working the cash register when the robbery occurred, has had his confidence in this community shaken. “Still I am scared. People are still shopping here, but I do not have confidence,” he said. “I was ready to start a fast food business, to expand this one more, to buy more freezers.” He is hesitant now to invest money to grow his business.
Columbia, referred to by Washington as the “Gateway to Fluvanna,” is no longer the bustling, economically healthy town it once was. The slow descent into Columbia’s current state started with two devastating floods caused by Hurricanes Camille and Agnes in 1969 and 1972. The problem was compounded when businesses and homes in the flood plain were purchased and turned into multi-family housing, often with a month-to-month lease arrangement. The streetscape is bleak and uninviting.
And this, according to Pat Groot with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, is part of Columbia’s problem. “The dilemma for Columbia,” Groot said, “is that until the blight is abated, business development will not occur, so creation of jobs and public transportation – all things associated with the community thriving – cannot move forward.”
A walk along Rt. 6 through Columbia with Columbia District Supervisor Shaun Kenney showed the blight that Groot referred to. Broken windows backed by plywood mark one such dwelling; a disused sofa is propped up against the side of another. A woman struggled to carry a large bucket filled with water that leaked overnight into her den out to the yard to dump it. Inside these tenements, ceilings are collapsed in some rooms, holes gape in walls, a second-story bathroom floor has rotted away leaving a hole through the floor into the den below, electric light fixtures dangle from bare cords in the ceilings, and many buildings have no heat. There are several vacant buildings on the verge of collapse.
Blight is now considered by many to be a contributor to both property crimes and violent crimes. The “Broken Windows Theory,” introduced in the early 1980s, is an inspiration for crime prevention programs across the country. As if to illustrate this connection, crowds tend to gather in Columbia at night in front of the rental properties, and the sheriff’s office replies to street fights and complaints of people drinking alcohol in public or blocking the flow of traffic on Rt. 6 on a frequent basis.
John Hammond, Columbia’s mayor, confirmed that drug- and alcohol-related crimes are the most prevalent. “From people hanging out in the streets or trespassing in front of vacant buildings to calls to fire and rescue for alcohol-related fights and drug overdoses; the root cause always seems to be drugs and alcohol,” Hammond said.
A resident of one of the tenements who asked not to be named said, “If I could find a better place to live in I would, because there’s too much drama across the way – a lot of police here and a lot of fighting.” He added that “the landlord treats me well, but he doesn’t treat this building well. He doesn’t fix the building like he should.”
Washington supports the idea of blight abatement in Columbia. When asked if he believes there is more crime per capita in Columbia than in other parts of the county, Washington said his office receives “more calls probably than we should, but we are not getting calls every single day.” The sheriff recommends “housing initiatives and education – all of those pieces have got to come together to change the outcome.”