Bolton: Columbia could be in for an ‘exciting’ 20 years

Associate EditorAugust 2, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— WHAT HAPPENS when a one-of-a-kind, potentially game-changing project planned for the largest piece of undeveloped property in a city core on the East Coast intersects with an unprecedented effort to transform the public bus system as well as the overall transportation network — from roads to sidewalks to bike paths?

It’s a question this community has the good fortune to ponder as the development of a mixed-use project planned for the State Hospital property on Bull Street and a billion-dollar infusion into the local transit and transportation network simultaneously move forward in Richland County over the next two decades.

But it’s a question no one really has an answer to, not even local economist Harry Miley, who conducted economic impact studies on both the Bull Street project and the transportation penny plan approved last year by Richland voters.

When I called Dr. Miley earlier this week and asked what we should expect when these two potential economic engines happily collide in our midst, he hesitated for a moment and then said that it’s a good and appropriate question to be asking.

He noted that while he had taken in-depth looks at each separately, he hadn’t done any analysis that considered how they would affect one another.

Dr. Miley’s study on the impact of the Richland County transportation penny was used to help bolster the case for approval of the increased sales tax leading up to the November election. He projects the penny will generate more than $1.2 billion in economic activity and create more than 16,500 jobs in construction and new industry. He also predicts that new businesses will pay more than $28 million annually in new property taxes within the first decade.

Two-thirds of the $1 billion to be raised via the transportation sales tax will be used to build roads, sidewalks and other projects; the remainder will be dedicated to the bus system. When voters approved the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase in November, they also gave the county permission to borrow $450 million, to be repaid via the tax, so officials can get started on roads and other projects as soon as possible; the county is preparing to do just that. In addition, the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority is working toward improving the bus system.

The Bull Street development analysis was just released a few weeks ago as efforts were being made to sell citizens on a development agreement between Columbia and Greenville developer Bob Hughes. The economist projected that the Bull Street redevelopment would produce an annual economic impact of $1.2 billion as well as 11,020 jobs; it also would generate $19.9 million in property taxes annually by the 20th year for the city of Columbia, Richland County and the Richland District 1.

City Council approved a development agreement that promises tens of millions of dollars in publicly funded infrastructure for Mr. Hughes, who recently said that work could begin sometime in the fall.

Mr. Hughes has said he’s not aiming for a run-of-the-mill development but intends to create a transformational mixed-use neighborhood that helps change the face of the city and region and draws businesses and people from far and wide. Roughly, he plans to build 3 million square feet of rented housing, 550,000 square feet of owner-occupied homes and 580,000 square feet of retail.

The Bull Street project is expected to take 20 years, while the transportation penny will be collected for up to 22.

No one — at least not yet — has asked Dr. Miley to analyze the two endeavors in one study, he said.

But he said he’s inclined to agree with so many others who have referred to these efforts as game-changers. “You’re looking at billions of dollars of economic impact,” he said.

The proposed improvements to the bus system as well as roads and other facets of the transportation network will complement the Bull Street development well, Dr. Miley said. He said the bus system in particular will “become more and more important” as it connects Bull Street to the rest of the city. “I think it’s huge,” he said.

While he is predicting a big boom, Dr. Miley does issue one word of caution. “Obviously, the economy worldwide helps or hurts,” he said. It is pivotal for the economy to continue to improve to give the area the best chance to optimize the tremendous opportunities it has before it.

“Once these two get going in earnest, I think you’re going to just see a tremendous amount of activity,” he said, adding that we will see sectors such as construction “shifting into high gear.”

Business interests and others considering Bull Street — or moving to our area in general, I might add — will be impressed that the community is investing in its infrastructure, and might be more apt to locate here, he said.

Change is coming, he said. “In terms of level of energy and economic activity, I think it’s going to get ramped up.”

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, we don’t want Columbia to change,’ ” he said. But the key, he said, is in being able to expand and become a more vibrant community while holding on to those things that bolster quality of life and make the city appealing.

“I think it’s going to be exciting.”

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

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