‘Remember AirSouth’

Posted by Warren Bolton on February 26, 2014 

That’s been the rallying cry of so many over the years who have objected to city of Columbia officials’ attempts — good or bad — to take on large, costly projects, particularly those better suited for the private sector.

When Columbia City Council unwisely wanted to build a publicly financed convention center hotel, critics said, “Remember AirSouth.”

When the city — again, unwisely — wanted to redevelop the old CCI property (CanalSide) on its own, people said, “Remember AirSouth.”

When the council decided it would purchase the Palmetto Compress Warehouse site and sell it to a private developer for adaptive reuse (not as bad an idea in my book), critics again said, “Remember AirSouth.”

And, yes, with Columbia committing tens of millions toward the proposed mega-development at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street, critics indeed are saying, “Remember AirSouth.”

It’s legitimate to raise concerns about some of the city’s forays into areas that should be left to private interests. But there are times when it is appropriate for the city to provide limited, reasonable local incentives to help a private investor develop a blighted area or redevelop key property that would otherwise sit dormant, yielding little or no property taxes. The problem with Bull Street is that the city might be going too far.

But back to AirSouth, the low-cost airline that got millions in public dollars only to go bust in three years. For the record, the airline did bring in low-cost fares (for a time), added jobs and provided a little economic boost locally. But it obviously didn’t come anywhere close to what many had hoped it would.

Ever since, people have used AirSouth’s demise as a club against Columbia any time it’s attempted to take on a challenging project or a project that critics simply didn’t like.

I always chuckle when people do that because they almost always pin the entire AirSouth debacle on Columbia and former Mayor Bob Coble. For sure, Columbia officials pushed AirSouth hard. But, lest we forget, Columbia wasn’t the only government to pour public money into AirSouth.

For the record, the airline received upwards of $17 million in public funding from a number of sources, not just Columbia. Lexington and Richland counties and the state pitched in; the state applied for a $12 million federal loan for the venture. In truth, I’m still not clear how much each government actually forked over to AirSouth.

So, should we remember AirSouth? Absolutely. We all should.

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