Richland Co. funds largest tourist spots

dhinshaw@thestate.com June 12, 2013 

— Richland County’s largest tourist destinations were fully funded Wednesday by a council that agreed to develop a plan by fall for new venues outside Columbia.

During a spirited, four-hour meeting, members aired grievances over what some see as a decade of decisions to spend millions in restaurant-tax proceeds on Columbia-based agencies, with little to show in outlying areas.

“When will this council have six votes to say, ‘Let’s do something in the unincorporated area?’” said Councilman Norman Jackson, who kept sounding a note for “fairness” in funding across the county.

Jackson said Columbia City Council has its own restaurant-tax revenues to spend, and that the county shouldn’t devote so much of its $5.4 million to city institutions.

“City slickers, people in the city, you’ve got all sorts of resources,” agreed Councilman Kelvin Washington, who said he wants to guide more money to events at the Congaree National Park as well as churches and historical sites in Lower Richland.

In the end, the council:

•  Continued to provide the largest amounts to heavy-hitters the Columbia Museum of Art, at $702,372; Historic Columbia Foundation, which runs two county-owned house museums, at $270,143; and EdVenture Children’s Museum, $108,057. For each, that’s a 2 percent increase over last year.

EdVenture had requested another $620,000 to install two new exhibits but was rebuffed.

•  Agreed to consider the Renaissance Foundation, which is creating an African-American history and cultural museum downtown, and the county-owned Township Auditorium as organizations guaranteed annual funding in the future. The two received $100,000 and $300,000, respectively, for next year.

•  Decided to set up a five-person committee to recommend new destination projects that would attract tourists – which is the purpose of the 2 percent local tax on restaurant meals – to suburban areas. The committee is to report back by Oct. 1.

Councilman Jim Manning served as mediator, persuading the 11-member council to establish the committee to work through its differences. Later, he expressed a concern that, as the night wore on, the council piled too many issues onto the committee for resolution.

It was Washington’s proposal to devote $44 million to unspecified projects in six council districts that made the hospitality tax the hot-button issue of the coming year’s budget. He quietly gathered a six-member majority to push the plan, which also included cuts to the county’s largest tourist attractions, sometimes called “the big three.”

But the plan began to disintegrate once it became public – and once those council members not part of the group labeled it as a divisive, city versus rural approach.

“I got 392 emails that I’m against the city, and 82 phone calls,” Jackson said.

Councilman Paul Livingston admonished his colleagues for trying to punish proven community groups with budget cuts when, he said, they add to the county’s quality of life.

“The tone of this discussion is rather unfortunate,” Livingston said. “When we talk about the projects we don’t have, it’s nobody’s fault but ours.

“We have the money to do it. We have the resources to do it. So let’s just step up and take responsibility.”

In fact, the council fiddled around for six years with plans for a sports tournament park in Northeast Richland, cutting the budget in half before killing the project last summer. Plans for a new state farmers market in Richland County failed, too.

Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson alluded to those failures, saying,. “I heard one of my constituents say we just dropped the ball in the Northeast area ... because it took too long to get it done.”

The decision to kill that project freed up $5 million, creating an opportunity to develop new plans.

Councilman Greg Pearce left the meeting saying the council remains at an impasse.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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