COLUMBIA, SC — Business leaders told City Council to seize a golden opportunity, critics pressed again for a go-slower approach and City Hall released an updated development deal – all as a final decision that could change the face of downtown Columbia loomed Tuesday.
The leader of the local Chamber of Commerce said he believes that Greenville developer Bob Hughes might walk away from a multibillion-dollar construction project if council postpones a final vote on a disputed development agreement for the 181-acre Bull Street property. A bank president said critics will never be satisfied with the deal.
At midafternoon, the city released about a dozen changes in the deal since last week when council gave the agreement a lukewarm first endorsement with a 4-3 vote.
The changes are aimed largely at issues raised by critics at a packed July 1 public hearing. The new language includes, but is not limited to:
• Requiring Hughes to construct taxable property to meet a 120,000-square-foot benchmark, which would trigger the first city-built parking garage.
• Giving Richland 1 a first right of refusal on running any primary school opened on the property.
• Requiring Hughes to contribute up to $25,000 toward the excavation of a historic Civil War prisoner of war site.
• Opening the sale of property to real estate agents other than those selected by Hughes Development Corp.
Two of the three council members who voted “no” on the initial draft of the agreement said Monday they are unlikely to change their positions. Efforts to reach the third, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, were unsuccessful.
Councilman Moe Baddourah said the updates won’t win a “yes” vote from him.
The mayoral challenger remains dissatisfied with what he called “soft language” that limits protecting no more than five historic structures on the property. He also wants the source of at least $31.25 million in public money to be itemized in the agreement.
Councilwoman Leona Plaugh said she would not change her vote unless the new document spells out what Hughes plans to build during the 20-year project and how the city is going to pay for the water and sewer systems, along with streetscaping and other basic utilities on the property. Two garages and a minor league baseball stadium, estimated to cost about $40 million, are proposed without disclosure of financing sources.
Plaugh released a letter to city manager Teresa Wilson asking for an accounting of operating and maintenance expenses for the city’s commitment to the project.
Dueling interests again staked their positions throughout the day as the pressure rose for a delay.
The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce called together a group of business leaders to persuade council not to tarry.
“I think it would be the greatest missed opportunity in the history of Columbia” chamber director Ike McLeese said at a news conference. He also said Hughes has grown tired of back-and-forth negotiations that date back 21/2 years.
“His level of tolerance for this process is close to an end,” the chamber director said. But McLeese would not say directly whether Hughes said that to him.
Hughes has declined to be interviewed until after council’s final vote.
McLeese and BB&T president Mike Brenan dismissed critics who want more time to examine the detailed proposal.
“Those who are dissatisfied now are not going to be satisfied a week from now, a month from now, a year from now,” Brenan said. “The time for talk is over. It’s time to get started on a billion-dollar-a-year shot in the arm.”
The Bull Street neighborhood calls for a massive housing, retail and professional buildings that a chamber analysis estimated would create 1,200 jobs annually and spin off $1.2 billion per year into the local economy once the project is completed.
Asked if he would approve a $31.25 million loan to a customer who had not provided details of how he would repay the loan, Brennan said, “We’d probably would have to have a serious talk.”
Brennan and McLeese repeated assertions that city staff took too long in responding to Hughes’ proposals for the property.
Yet, according to a timeline provided by city officials, Hughes did not respond for six months to Columbia’s first counterproposal for the development agreement, which the city submitted to the developer in October 2012. Hughes’ response arrived in April of this year.
The city took an average of two months in responding to Hughes’ versions of the agreement, which he submitted first in August 2012 and again in April.
Mayor Steve Benjamin, who led the push last week for a first vote, said as recently as Friday that he intends to call for a second and final vote Tuesday as planned. Efforts to reach him Monday were unsuccessful.
But the war of words continued.
Columbia attorney Toby Ward asked council for an explanation of how the city will pay for its commitments, which might rise to $70 million with proposed amenities. “I believe council should tell us the funding plan before we become mired in debt,” Ward wrote in an email.
Elizabeth Marks, president of the Robert Mills Historic District neighborhood that abuts parts of the property, has described the fast-paced decision as “unconscionable.”
Robin Waites, director of Historic Columbia Foundation, said council and the public cannot digest the changes in a day.
“Receiving the amendments on Monday and expecting those with serious concerns to process it in advance of the (public hearing) on Tuesday is unreasonable to say the least,” Waites has said.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.