Palmetto Compress deal OK’d

cleblanc@thestate.comOctober 15, 2013 

The iconic Palmetto Compress Warehouse, on the corner of Blossom and Pulaski Streets.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — The State Buy Photo

  • Other action Columbia City Council tackled other issues Tuesday.

    •  Members are frustrated with how long it’s taking to get the results of corruption investigations of police department leaders. City staff told council the SLED probe has been in the 5th Circuit solicitor’s office about three weeks.

    Solicitor Dan Johnson reportedly said the file is sealed and he’s awaiting more information.

    •  Police want council to find incentives to keep veteran officers from leaving and pay raises so they don’t have to rely on public assistance. No decisions were made.

Columbia’s future skyline and mayor’s office changed Tuesday.

City Council endorsed an offer from a local development company to convert the Palmetto Compress warehouse into a hotel, condos and retail center. The city would make $100,000 on the deal if a contract is finalized as planned by April.

Council also endorsed a big pay raise for its mayor: $75,000 if a strong-mayor referendum fails Dec. 3; $160,000 if voters approve a change in Columbia’s form of government. The mayor makes $17,500, an amount that hasn’t changed in 20 years.

But the final vote on the salary was approved with a provision the city attorney warned council is legally flawed. That provision, sponsored by Councilman Cameron Runyan, would bar a strong mayor from having a second source of income.

Attorney Ken Gaines repeatedly has told council that state law allows a strong mayor to have as many other jobs as he or she wants. A city law cannot contradict a state law, Gaines has advised council.

Council also cannot limit a mayor’s income from investments or from money received for being on corporate or other boards, Gaines said.

Council adopted the salary schedule and the questioned provision on a 5-0 vote. Mayor Steve Benjamin and Councilman Moe Baddourah, a mayoral candidate in the Nov. 5 election, did not participate in council’s debate or its vote during a meeting in an EdVenture Children’s Museum conference room. Council holds once-per-quarter meetings outside of City Hall.

The vote for the once-controversial deal to buy the former cotton warehouse was unanimous with all seven members voting to authorize the city manager to sign a contract with Palmetto Compress Preservation Developers LLC, led by Vista businesswoman Rosie Craig.

If the developers’ plan is realized, the worn-down warehouse along Blossom Street could have an economic impact of between $40 million and $50 million, according to Fred Delk, director of the Columbia Development Corp., which is an arm of the city’s business recruitment efforts.

“So many people said this couldn’t be done,” said Benjamin, who pushed through the controversial plan to use city employee healthcare reserves to create a $7 million line of credit to save the building from demolition and landmark it as a historic site.

Councilwoman Leona Plaugh, initially a critic of the funding plan, said the deal is “an excellent proposal” for the city. But she cautioned council to against using public money again for a private project.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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