Bolton: Was Columbia City Council’s rush to approve the Bull Street agreement worth it?

Associate EditorJuly 12, 2013 

Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

SHORTLY INTO Monday’s public hearing on the agreement to guide the development of the old State Hospital site along Columbia’s Bull Street, Pansy Buzhardt instructed City Council on the art of listening: “There’s a difference between merely listening with one’s ears and listening with one’s heart.”

I don’t know how well council members listened with their ears or with their hearts. The majority already had made up their minds long before 300 people piled into the Earlewood Park Community Center, where three dozen or so spoke. Prior to the meeting, a council member told me that during an executive session earlier that day, no one had said anything that was going to change council members’ minds.

In other words, the sensible request that a final vote on the agreement be postponed so there could be more time for public input, vetting and possible changes wouldn’t be granted. Sure enough, the majority killed a proposal to wait just two weeks.

So, did the 300 who journeyed out in what turned out to be stormy weather do so in vain? There’s no doubt that no matter what was said, City Council was going to vote to approve the agreement. And that would understandably lead some people to say it was a waste of citizens’ precious time, a sham even. Why give a false impression that the council was listening when it wasn’t going to heed what was said?

But while the council’s hasty handling of this matter was a poor example of representative democracy, it was good for City Council members to see the outpouring and to hear one after another citizen call them on the shabby process.

Several made it clear that they weren’t buying the claims by Mayor Steve Benjamin and others, including Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce President Ike McLeese, that this was a do-or-die proposition.

On Monday, Mr. McLeese insisted the council had to move forward with haste, saying that Greenville developer Bob Hughes’ “tolerance for this process is probably close to an end.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Mayor Benjamin said the city was positioned to take advantage of a unique opportunity and that if the vote was delayed, “this deal will die today.”

But Lonnie Randolph, president of the Columbia and state chapters of the NAACP, noted that many proposals have died in the city’s history. “This city can’t be killed by a (failed) proposal,” he said.

Another speaker added, “If Mr. Hughes has one day and he’s going to walk off, something’s not right there.”

Ms. Buzhardt also pondered the question, “Why?”

“If this deal is so fragile that it dies today, maybe it needs to die today,” she said. “We know that’s not going to happen.”

But there were those who saw things differently. Take, for example, Columbia Urban League President J.T. McLawhorn, who said that if Charlotte leaders had waited and not gone forward when they were told to slow down, the Queen City might not be what it is today. “If a city cannot fuel its economy, it will die. Mr. Mayor, stay the course.”

Duncan McIntosh said that no one was going to get exactly what they wanted and that the deal should move forward. “These deals have momentum,” he said, adding that the longer the city waited, the more likely it was that Mr. Hughes would walk away.

But it’s hard for me to imagine that Mr. Hughes would have walked away, no matter what.

The Greenville developer didn’t just get a good deal. He got a great deal.

How many developers anywhere are fortunate enough to have a government promise $31.25 million in infrastructure — all water and sewer and roads plus some — as well as two parking garages and possibly a minor league baseball stadium? The total is projected at somewhere around $70 million, but the way costs change over time, if Columbia does everything it suggests it might, I wouldn’t be surprised if the final public investment isn’t in the $80 million to $100 million territory.

By the way, Mr. Hughes will pay $15 million for the property — over a period of years.

In addition to the significant financial boost, Mr. Hughes understandably will have wide latitude on how the project will develop; it won’t be clear until we’re farther down the road just how much say the city has retained.

So, Mr. Hughes came out pretty good in the midst of the rush to get this deal done. He knows exactly what he’s getting.

But what about the public? How did it fare? Citizens left with many questions still, the chief one being, “Was the rush worth it?”

For sure, if the development is successful — and I certainly pray that it will be — the public will benefit greatly from the economic boost, increased local property taxes and new jobs.

But that’s down the road. What about today? Was the rush worth it? Preservationists would say “no.” They lament the fact that so many older and historic buildings essentially have been given a death sentence.

Historic Columbia Foundation director Robin Waites complained that they didn’t get a chance to work out better protections for buildings while other groups, such as real estate agents, got changes in the agreement to address their grievances. She also said that some of the money the city offers for infrastructure can be used to demolish some of the buildings.

And what of the public at large? It was still up in the air after the public hearing — and now — as to how the city’s commitments will be funded, leaving water and sewer customers, taxpayers and others wondering how their pocketbooks might be affected.

Many people believe that more time would have helped flesh out important details such as the financing and possibly improve other provisions in the agreement.

But, more time, some city leaders kept saying, would kill this deal.

They were so adamant that folks started wondering what was the real rush.

Richard Burts, a local developer and preservationist, was among them.

“I wish I knew what y’all guys know,” he told the council “I’m looking for that big wow factor to come out.”

As in: Wow; that was worth it.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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