COLUMBIA, SC — A narrow Columbia City Council majority on Monday endorsed a multimillion-dollar commitment of public money to the Bull Street neighborhood, but left a bad taste in some taxpayers’ mouths.
Mayor Steve Benjamin pushed through a vote even though three council members wanted to continue talks with Greenville developer Bob Hughes, who is buying the 181-acre site and plans to build a sprawling neighborhood that offers homes, stores, greenspaces and perhaps a baseball park.
“It’s been our habit as a city to continue talking and talking and not doing,” Benjamin said to requests for delays from councilwomen Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh and councilman Moe Baddourah. “If we sleep and we miss this opportunity, we will regret it for decades to come.”
Monday’s 4-3 outcome on the first of two required votes, and the refusal to allow more time to strengthen the city’s hand in a development agreement with Hughes Development Corp., left some residents feeling city leaders don’t want to barter harder for their interests.
Benjamin and councilmen Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan voted to adopt the deal hammered out since last summer and finalized last week.
Columbia attorney Toby Ward said after a 41/2-hour, standing-room-only public hearing at the Eau Claire print building that council blinked before getting the best deal for taxpayers.
“The city failed to send a clear message to the developer that it is serious about negotiating a sound, fiscally responsible contract,” said Ward, who was among more than three dozen people who mostly raised concerns about the 131-page document that would commit the city to at least $31.25 million to install roads and utilities.
Elizabeth Marks, president of the Robert Mills Historic District neighborhood that abuts the property, said council’s decision was dismissive.
“I do believe that it’s a possibility that everything said today will not be included in the agreement,” Marks said.
No one who spoke said they oppose Hughes or development of the property.
Most said they want council to proceed more slowly and to push Hughes further to preserve more buildings and trees, to get a master plan for the site, to tighten procurement standards and for council to publicly state the funding sources – all before the deal becomes final. That is scheduled to happen July 9.
Jeannie Eidson said she had read the thick documents, been to every public meeting on the adoption of the development agreement and the unique-to-Columbia zoning plan for the property, “and I still have no more tangible vision that I did when I attended the first meeting. We need to know the details of the plan. I think it’s time for Mr. Hughes to share his vision.”
About a half dozen speakers pushed for proceeding quickly.
Mental health advocate Dave Almeda warned council not to be the “hijacked” by preservationists who he said place the well-being of buildings above the well-being of people. “I call upon you to simply place people before buildings,” he said.
Accountant Terry Williams said the new neighborhood would reverse the deterioration of adjoining properties.
“You’re either going to bring economic development or do you want to be the homeless center of the Southeast?” Williams said.
Councilwoman Devine said she heard enough concerns that council should return to the negotiating table. She called the version tentatively adopted Monday “a good first draft.”
Devine preferred to wait even though “I do believe time kills deals.”
She and Plaugh suggested delaying a vote Monday and holding a third public hearing later this month or early in August before a final decision.
That effort lost by the same 4-3 vote.
Devine said sticking to a schedule of a final vote next week “sends a message that we’re not serious” about making the changes suggested by the public.
Benjamin insisted he and city staffers can digest the suggestions heard Monday and try to negotiate further with Hughes by next week’s final public hearing and vote.
The differences of opinion weren’t limited to the audience. Council’s conversations grew strained.
At one point, Benjamin challenged Baddourah’s remarks last week to The State newspaper, in which Baddourah said he had been kept from attending the final negotiating session June 19 with Hughes’ team.
“Who told you that?” the mayor asked the first-term councilman, who is seeking to unseat Benjamin in the fall election.
“You did,” Baddourah said.
“Mr. Baddourah, that is a lie. How dare you,” Benjamin said. “It couldn’t be more false.”
Benjamin quickly apologized for calling Baddourah a liar.
One of the issues raised by the public Monday was that the controversial agreement does not address the cost of two parking garages and a minor league baseball stadium, which likely would raise the public investment $70 million or more.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.