Karen Papouchado was elected to Aiken City Council in 1991 to serve a 4-year term. In 1993 her fellow council members elected her mayor pro tem, a position to which they re-elected her in 1995 after her unopposed return to council for another 4 years.
Karen joined council at a critical time in the community's development. Aiken's major employer, a nuclear weapons plant, was undergoing serious downsizing and mission change. Social indicators put Aiken at the top of the state in infant mortality, child abuse and neglect, inadequate medical care, poor education, and disenfranchisement of the minority community.
The city began a serious Strategic Planning process with Karen as a Steering committee member and co-chair of the education subcommittee, as well as implementation chair of the Health Care committee. Once the plan was complete, she served on the development committee of Aiken 20/20, where she helped raise over $3.65 million to implement the strategic plan.
Under her personal leadership, the city developed a healthy communities model which won the Healthcare Forum's 1995 International Healthier Communities Award
and the American Hospital Association's 1996 NOVA award for community collaboration.
Karen authored a new chapter in Best Practices in Healthy Community Development for the Healthcare Forum.
She devised the Stone Soup project in 1995 with the Aiken Junior Women's Club and Sand River Women's Club to revitalize four neighborhoods through asset-mapping. The public housing project neighborhood, Hahn Village, won the South Carolina Neighborhood of the Year Award.
Realizing the potential of community-oriented policing, Karen convinced the public safety department to train their officers in the basics of prenatal care and to help women access this critical service through the MOMS and COPS program, the only one of its kind in the country.
From there she instituted cross-training with public safety, the Dept. of Social Services, Dept. of Juvenile Justice and other agencies . She created a program using community resources, public safety and the school system to work with at-risk middle school students, and modeled the program personally by shepherding 11 at-risk girls through a year of activities with her friend Peggy All..
This combination of programs won for Aiken their 7th SC Municipal Cup award for 1996.
Seeing the economic, community, and educational advantages of the internet, Karen championed the building of Aiken's home page in 1994 and the establishment of a community intranet, only the fourth of its kind in the nation, in 1996. The web site has already proved its worth in visits by foreign manufacturing concerns and the sale of real estate.
Karen has taken an active role in the rejuvenation of Aiken's downtown. She assisted in the selection of the streetlights and other design elements and has worked with the merchants to develop coordinated plans for promoting the downtown.
When a city delegation was summarily dismissed from the state transportation board meeting where repairs to downtown Aiken bridges were at stake, Karen wrote to the board members, asserting that their treatment of her was not consistent with the behavior of fine southern gentlemen politicians. She gained another hearing and recovered $2 million for the bridges.
Some Reflections on the State of the City
We are moving ahead in a time of economic uncertainty. Aiken has lost more jobs in the past 2 years than any other city in the southeast. That is a cause for great concern. Fortunately we began a strong strategic planning process in 1992 that involved hundreds of volunteers and formed a vision and a path forward for our community.
Now that we are well into the implementation stage, we are facing the inevitable obstacle - what I call the BANANA
- Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. People are not comfortable with change, especially when it impacts them directly. Retrofitting areas of Aiken to meet the needs of the future does impact residents, and it is at this point that council members have to work diligently to help residents share their vision. Pathways, business parks, parkway renovations, and annexations are some of the subjects that spark resistance to change in many people.
We have an active and civic-minded populace that supports us in our progressive changes. We have a vocal few who oppose almost any change. It requires clear thinking and communication for us to weigh the support of the silent majority against the opposition of a few. We always learn something from the opposition, and generally our decisions reflect the best interests of the citizens who placed us in this position of responsibility.