Editorial: Columbia City Council must now sell public on Bull Street

July 11, 2013 

The Babcock Building on the S.C. Department of Mental Health campus along Bull Street is on the National Register of Historic Places.

ERIK CAMPOS — The State

— WHILE WE still don’t comprehend the hurried, caution-to-the-wind manner in which Columbia City Council approved an agreement that will guide the redevelopment of the old State Hospital site on Bull Street, there was never any doubt that this is a must-do project.

Columbia can’t pass up a development opportunity that could produce such a positive ripple effect across the Midlands. A local economist projects that it would have an economic impact of $1.2 billion annually, in addition to generating thousands of local jobs and tens of millions in local tax dollars. We don’t know if it will reach those levels, but if the development is successful, its impact will be significant.

We are rooting for Greenville developer Bob Hughes and those who will partner with him; Columbia needs him to succeed.

That’s been our point all along: This deal is so important that City Council needed to take the time to make sure that it was done right and that citizens were clued in and on board. That means taking the time to have thoughtful public input sessions as well as open council debate to ensure that all bases are covered, the level of city investment is appropriate and the long-term commitment being made on behalf of citizens is justified.

But the majority on the council rejected the notion of slowing down even for a week or two, bullying its way to a 4-2 vote approving the agreement. But those council members’ “victory” came at a price. Their rush approval — the entire process took barely two weeks — led to division, hurt feelings and an increased level of distrust in the governmental process.

We commend the council for making sensible changes prompted by the general public and various groups in the short period of time provided between votes. But many basic, legitimate questions went unanswered, even ignored, because of the council’s haste.

Even in hoping for the success of this development, we continue to have questions. First and foremost, how will the city pay for the infrastructure it has promised? It hasn’t said, conjuring up the tired city mantra “we’ll find the money.” Responsible people don’t run their household or business finances that way, and frankly, we thought Columbia had ceased doing so after having spent two embarrassing years in the red.

There’s also the possibility of a minor league baseball stadium that could be publicly funded. That never should have made it into the agreement. All too often, governments are sucked into funding professional stadiums at great effort and cost with minimal return, at best.

It is going to be incumbent upon City Council and staff to properly monitor this agreement and the progress of this development to protect the city’s interests and to make sure Columbia doesn’t get too deeply invested in unfruitful pursuits.

More than that, the council should learn from the mistake of rushing this agreement through and, in the future, do a far better job of keeping the public informed and providing ample time and consideration so that matters of such import undergo a process that reflects well on our wonderful system of representative democracy.

Whether the council realizes it or not, it has damaged its own image and weakened the level of trust it enjoys from the public. Its actions have tainted the image of the Bull Street development as well.

This isn’t the public’s problem; City Council chose this route when it decided to run this matter through hurriedly with little real justification, at least publicly, about why it was necessary. And it’s the job of the council, chiefly Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan, to rebuild the bond of trust and bolster public support and enthusiasm for this project. Mr. Hughes, silent during this process, must also formally introduce himself to Columbia and sell the public on his project.

This is a wonderful opportunity for Columbia, one that should create excitement and be embraced by people across our capital city. City Council, whose poor handling of this matter blunted the enthusiasm of many, must lead the way.

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