Bolton: $1 billion public investment could transform Richland County

Associate EditorFebruary 10, 2013 

— What kind of change could a $1 billion shot in the arm over a couple decades bring to a community? Richland County is on the verge of finding out.

If you believe that a rising tide indeed lifts all boats, then the infusion of cash expected from the transportation sales tax that voters approved Nov. 6 should bring with it a sense of hope and prosperity like we’ve never had in this community before. We could — and, I dare say, should — see change that penetrates every aspect of our community.

First, the obvious:

Residents and community and government leaders are looking forward to an expanded and vibrant public bus system as well as improved roads, sidewalks, bike paths and other projects that will be funded via the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax.

Such a modern transportation network will make Richland County more attractive to industries that not only value roads and transit systems to move goods and workers about, but also prize communities that offer a good quality of life. It will allow officials to create a more livable community and address land-use and development issues, including sprawl. It will help protect the environment, reduce smog-producing pollutants, lessen damage caused by run-off and preserve green spaces.

And while it’s impossible to accurately quantify the economic impact of the massive infrastructure and transportation program, it should be substantial.

Local economist Harry Miley, who conducted a study on the impact of the tax on behalf of the pro-penny group Citizens for the Greater Midlands, projects that the penny would generate more than $1.2 billion in economic activity and create more than 16,500 jobs in construction and new industry. He also predicts that new businesses will pay more than $28 million annually in new property taxes within the first decade.

Let’s be real. If the only things we got out of the new tax were those mentioned above, we’d be pretty giddy.

But with a tide buoyed by a billion dollars in public spending rolling through here — along with another half billion dollars in water and sewer improvements planned by the city of Columbia — we should expect a more profound effect on citizens than simply improving the roads on which they drive or providing them with a more comfortable trip on a modern bus that comes by more frequently. We should expect that the job they’re traveling to pays a little better than it used to. We should expect some who are now working for others to start their own businesses.

But for this community to get the most out of the billion-dollar investment, local elected leaders — and particularly Richland County Council, which will oversee this massive campaign — must keep as much of the cash as possible in this community. That will require not only giving preference to local businesses but also ensuring that all of this community’s people have an equal opportunity to participate in the government’s procurement process.

Historically, women and minorities, African-Americans in particular, have gotten only limited public business in this community. Columbia, to its credit, has been working for more than two decades to maintain race- and gender-neutral rules that provide smaller businesses access to the mounds of public projects it oversees.

It would be unfair — and quite honestly, tragic — if the hundreds of millions of dollars that voters have agreed to invest in Richland County’s future are trapped by just a few big players in this community along with even larger ones from the outside. Obviously, there will be certain jobs that require an expertise that might not exist in this community or times when we have exhausted local capacity. And local folks must offer high quality, efficiency and competitive pricing.

But the goal must be to favor businesses in our community. And if that happens, it will bolster employment and stimulate commerce. Not only would existing businesses make money, but some would reinvest it and hire more workers. And who knows what sorts of new businesses could pop up to fill a need or niche created by all the activity?

With so much opportunity in the air, some among the rich will get richer, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But imagine this: A few new local millionaires might materialize as well. (Someone you know might be among them. It might even be you.)

And if those folks are community-minded, they won’t sit on their wealth. They will share it through philanthropic pursuits, whether helping poor kids overcome difficult circumstances or bolstering schools or helping single mothers become stable or aiding homeless citizens trying to get back on their feet. Can you imagine how nonprofits and schools and churches might benefit? And how that could translate into building a healthier, stronger, more prosperous community?

What kind of change could a $1 billion shot in the arm bring to a community? We’ll soon see.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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