Editorial: Columbia council shouldn’t rush to approve Bull Street development agreement

June 30, 2013 

The iconic cupola of the Babcock building marks the Department of Mental Health's Bull Street campus.

C MICHAEL BERGEN — mbergen@thestate.com Buy Photo

— COLUMBIA CITY Council must not hastily approve an agreement that would guide the development of a transformational mixed-use project at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street.

We get it. The proposal by Greenville developer Bob Hughes is a big deal, one that could transform the economic landscape in our capital city. A local economist projects that it ultimately would have an economic impact of $1.2 billion a year, pour $20 million a year in taxes into local government and Richland District 1 coffers and produce thousands of new jobs. It’s a game-changer.

But that’s all the more reason for City Council to slow down rather than rush to give this matter initial approval on Monday, and final approval a week later. The fact that it demands tens of millions of dollars in public investment and long-term, unparalleled commitment from local officials should compel the council to ensure this agreement is properly vetted, not just in the halls of government, but in the public square. Rushing this pivotal, first-of-its-kind agreement through without sufficient review could lead to mistakes or sow unnecessary seeds of discord between citizens and their government.

City officials, particularly those who quietly helped forge this pact outside of public view, may be comfortable with its contents and the burdens it places on the public. But citizens deserve ample time — more than two weeks — to digest and respond to an agreement that requires substantial public sacrifice to produce the projected benefits. The public deserves to be walked through key elements of this agreement, from the level of investment required and the fate of historic buildings on the site to the process by which the city will maintain control — zoning and otherwise — over the project’s development.

City officials haven’t even revealed where the money will come from to pay for promised infrastructure, which begins with a commitment of at least $31.25 million if developers meet certain benchmarks. Two parking garages and a baseball stadium are among the possible amenities that could drive that figure up to as much as $70 million. The notion of a baseball stadium should be dead on arrival if it will require public funding. Local governments should not be major backers of professional sports stadiums.

That said, Columbia stands to benefit greatly from this development and should help provide infrastructure — water, sewer and roads. But it shouldn’t foot the entire bill, as the agreement seems to suggest. This is a business venture for Mr. Hughes, who also stands to gain, and he must assume the level of risk that goes along with that.

As it stands, City Council could give final approval to this document during the next two weeks. While Mayor Steve Benjamin hails the fact that the council will hold two public hearings, one more than required, he also declares that very little is likely to change. So what’s the purpose of the public hearings? To have citizens assemble and watch the council ram this agreement through, like it or not? Council members should take it slow lest they do more harm than good.

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