City hopes economic ‘seeds’ bear fruit July 3, 2008 

In the long run, North Columbia’s future depends on private investment, boosters say.

The city has invested millions of dollars into public projects in North Columbia. Now, it’s time for private investment to kick in, city officials and neighborhood leaders say.

“It’s about planting seeds and jump-starting projects,” said Sam Davis, who represents most of North Columbia on Columbia City Council. “We’ve planted the seeds. And now we’re waiting on the private sector.”

Those seeds have come at a high price.

Among the projects:

• The remodeling of the Eau Claire town hall and printing plant — $3 million

• The creation of North Main Plaza — $5 million

• Improvements to Hyatt Park, including a gymnasium

And currently under way are:

• A $13 million streetscaping project on North Main Street, from roughly Elmwood Avenue to the trestle that once was the southern boundary of the town of Eau Claire

• A $4.5 million project by Columbia College and the Eau Claire Development Corp. to build the “Columbia College Catalyst” — a mixed-use development of storefronts and apartments across from the school

A new master plan for the area, developed by neighbors, the city planning department and the development corporation, provides a road map for new investment.

And a recent retail study identified the North Main corridor as one of the most promising in the city.

But the study by Washington, D.C.,-based Economics Research Associates, notes investment could be slow in coming because of a variety of factors, not the least being high crime rates and poor schools.

Success will take patience, said Economics Researchprincipal Midge McCauley.

“You’ll have to take it one block at a time, just like you did in the Vista,” he said.

When that investment comes, city officials hope to channel some of the new tax money from that growth back into public projects.

City Council is working on a special taxing district for North Columbia and East Central — a city Tax Increment Financing District like the one that helped pay for projects in the Vista.

But rather than include Richland County and Richland District 1, this tax district would just use tax money that would have gone to the city to pay for projects That would spare the political infighting that marked the Vista tax district.

Council member Tameika Isaac Devine said the new tax district would provide money for more beautification efforts, pay for code enforcement and continue to prime the pump for future economic development.

Last month, council members discussed in closed session boundaries for the district and potential projects.

Devine said the recent spotlight on the area and efforts to control crime, improve streets and spur investment are long overdue.

“Some of these things that we are doing should have been done a long time ago,” she said.

But Walter Gause, who has lived in North Columbia since 1971, said public projects, master plans and city money alone won’t get North Columbia to the next level.

While the area is improving slowly because of projects like North Main Plaza and the cleanup of Gable Oaks apartments, there has to be a change in residents’ attitudes as well.

“New buildings will not make a difference until people change,” Gause said. “You can put up new buildings (like North Main Plaza) and still have the same thing. I don’t know how to get the people to change.”

Staff writer Marjorie Riddle contributed to this report

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