COLUMBIA’S struggles to keep successful businesses at a plaza built with public money on North Main Street could work against city officials’ attempt to establish special tax districts to help pump new life into that corridor as well as USC’s research campus.
While City Council is poised to approve two questionable special tax districts to pay for public projects in those areas, their fate ultimately depends on Richland District 1 and Richland County Council. The city alone can’t generate the kind of money it’s asking for — up to $110 million — under the proposed plans.
Some County Council members I talked with recently said they haven’t made a final decision but they’re especially concerned about investing in the North Columbia district, where the city has struggled to keep tenants in the publicly developed North Main Plaza, which opened in 2003. North Main Deli, Houston’s Low Country Grill and CiCi’s Pizza have been among businesses that failed.
The North Main Plaza, which still has some tenants, was built by the city’s Eau Claire Development Corp. The corporation borrowed $1.1 million to build the plaza, but the shopping center struggled to keep tenants, and the corporation defaulted on the loan, costing taxpayers $700,000 two years ago. The corporation was on the brink of being shut down, but City Council spared it.
There is no doubt that North Columbia has been neglected and needs help. But it would be legitimate to ask whether pumping more public money into the area will produce better results than what we’ve seen at North Main Plaza.
And County Councilman Norman Jackson is asking. He said he’s not as convinced about the proposed tax increment financing district for north Columbia as he is about the one for USC’s Innovista, which itself isn’t guaranteed.
“I agree with Innovista,” Mr. Jackson said. “But to put money on North Main … .”
He noted the recent loss of Houston’s and the plaza’s inability to keep other tenants over the years.
“So the city is going to have a building empty sitting there, and they are going to redevelop the area? With what?” he said. “Nothing is going there.”
He said city officials will have to convince him they intend to make meaningful investments that will lure private money and development before he can support that TIF. He won’t simply support spending money for streetscaping and beautification. “That’s not going to work. That’s throwing away money,” he said.
Mr. Jackson also said he isn’t interested in helping Greenville developer Bob Hughes’ effort to develop the old State Hospital property on Bull Street, which is a part of the TIF that would aid north Columbia.
Mr. Hughes has asked for, and Columbia officials have indicated they will help provide, infrastructure for the 183-acre site. Frankly, I think it’s appropriate for the city to help — and only help, not pay the whole freight — provide water, sewer and roads for the development that would transform government property into a private, taxpaying concern and an economic generator.
But Mr. Jackson makes an interesting point: He said Mr. Hughes should have considered the need for infrastructure as he was purchasing the property and sought an adjustment in the price. It “doesn’t make sense” to buy property from the state that needs vast improvements and seek no relief, only to approach local governments saying, “give me money for infrastructure,” he said.
“I didn’t see a bunch of people fighting to bid on that property,” he said. (Mr. Hughes was the only bidder.)
“I support Innovista because the university is involved,” Mr. Jackson said, adding the research campus would serve as a business engine and incubator, luring companies and workers to the community. “We can see a return on that.
“North Main corridor, I can’t see a return.”
Greg Pearce, vice chair of the Richland Council, has expressed some concerns in the past about the TIFs but said that he has a better understanding of them now after having toured the proposed districts.
“The Innovista part of it I really don’t have a problem with,” Mr. Pearce said. He said that the north Columbia TIF is large and harder to grasp. He said the Bull Street project included in the north Columbia TIF is “a mega-project within itself.”
He said he now understands what the city wants to do in parts of the north Columbia district and likes the idea of redeveloping areas along Forrest Drive and priming the pump for commercial development. “That makes a certain amount of sense,” he said.
Still, he’s apprehensive about trying to roll out two sizeable TIFs at once. “The two of them together back to back is a real mouthful,” he said.
County Council Chairman Kelvin Washington was noncommittal about the TIFs, saying the council would have to review the city’s proposals and determine what direction to take. He said he has a number of questions that need to be answered, including how the arrangements would affect Richland District 1.
“No one has yet to paint a picture for me how it’s going to impact the (school) district,” Mr. Washington, who represents Lower Richland, said. He said that Lower Richland High School has built positive momentum and that he doesn’t want to jeopardize that progress.
Mr. Washington’s concern about schools is well-taken. While I question whether the city and county should participate in the TIFs, my concern is based on whether it’s good policy, not whether they should be providing water, sewer roads and such to help spur development. But that’s not the school district’s job. The school district’s job is to provide the best environment in which to educate children; schools need every one of the limited dollars they get to carry out that mission.
If City Council gives its final OK to the TIFs, we’ll find out pretty soon what the school board and the whole of County Council think. And considering that the TIFs are essentially dead without their approval, folks across the city — from North Main to Innovista — will be tuned in.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.