Columbia, SC — In coming weeks, Columbia City Council will vote on whether to spend even more millions on Bull Street. Before it votes, we need to look at the track record for tax-dollar-driven projects already underway.
We need to look beyond a snapshot of one project to see the big picture. For starters, we need to look at the total debt our city is incurring. Then, most importantly, we need to ask if we are getting the jobs and economic impact our city leaders have promised us in exchange for the tax increases, higher utility rates and new bond debts.
We need a full accounting, a scorecard. Only then can we judge whether the huge debt we are buying into will result in boondoggle spending or the promised economic prosperity.
The first project on the scorecard is Innovista. When the city and county were rushed by developers to build two parking garages, the promise was 6,500 new jobs and a $250 million economic impact in nine years. Ten years later, with $135 million spent, we have zero private-sector research buildings and two garages filled with student parking. I find it staggering that city leaders want to discuss adding another $70 million in TIF funds for Innovista when we have gotten no return on our investment so far.
Remember the $50 million for the Williams Street extension, funded by a higher sales tax? Less than 18 months ago, penny-sales-tax supporters used economic forecasts they had generated, endorsed by the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, to promise 1,400 new jobs and more than $117 million in capital investment in the next nine years, just on one street.
Next, we have Shop Road improvements, funded by $71.8 million from the higher sales tax. Studies our politicians generated promise that this thriving hotbed of economic activity will bring in 4,000 new jobs and $1 billion worth of new investment in the next nine years.
Let’s just stop right there and total up. Our politicians have promised 11,900 new jobs on these city-driven development projects, and we haven’t even gotten to Bull Street yet. Columbia’s city leaders are promising us an economy that’s growing faster than any country in Asia. Are we really supposed to believe that hype?
Now let’s talk about Bull Street. If City Council approves more funding for a publicly owned baseball stadium, we’ll spend close to $100 million for the stadium, infrastructure and parking garages at the 181-acre site. Once again, our city leaders have promised that this project will generate huge numbers of jobs — 11,000 to be exact — and create $1.2 billion in economic activity. They say building a baseball stadium will add another 1,600 jobs.
If we let our politicians raise taxes, double our water rates and max out the city’s credit cards for the next 30 years, they promise us 24,900 new jobs and nearly $3 billion in economic activity in the next nine years. Seriously? In a city the size of Columbia?
If all of that isn’t enough, when the EPA told the city it had to spend $750 million to fix its neglected sewer system, those same politicians promised us that this huge expense somehow would result in even more new jobs and economic prosperity.
That promise, along with all of the others, makes me wonder which is more full of it: our sanitation system or our politicians.
Before the city spends millions of dollars more based on the promises of huge job numbers, we need to stop and consider the city’s track record and current commitments. We need to wait to see real results on Bull Street and other city-driven projects before we take on even more debt.
Mr. Rickenmann served on Columbia City Council from 2004 until 2012; contact him at email@example.com.