Businessman critiques S.C. anti-business policies, proposed baseball stadium

jmonk@thestate.comMarch 10, 2014 

Prominent Columbia businessman and national shopping center developer Terry Brown told Rotarians Monday that clownish acts by top politicians and strange legislative policies tarnish South Carolina’s reputation and may repel businesses from locating here.

“It’s just not helpful for business to have a Confederate flag sitting on the front lawn of the Capitol,” said Brown, 52, an Army veteran who was brought up in Georgia and who is chairman and CEO of Edens, the nation’s largest privately owned shopping center developer. It is headquartered in Columbia.

“It’s just not the flag for the social and economic progress we’ve made in the state, and we end up trying to explain it, but it’s a difficult thing to explain,” said Brown, whose office is in Main Street’s newest high-rise, directly across from the State House – and the flag.

The 48-year-old Edens owns some $4 billion worth of real estate in 100-plus shopping centers in high-income markets from Boston to South Florida. Two of its centers are Columbia’s Trenholm Plaza and the Whole Foods-anchored Cross Hill Market. Edens has 300 employees, with about 140 based in Columbia.

After his speech to the Columbia Rotary Club, Brown in an interview said he also has serious concerns about a proposal to spend millions of city taxpayer dollars to build a baseball stadium and parking garage on the historic city-owned Bull Street tract, which also is slated for a massive retail and housing project.

That is an expensive and inconvenient place for the city of Columbia to spend public money on a minor league baseball stadium, Brown said.

“You want to locate a baseball stadium where people can walk to it,” he told a reporter. “The 800 students that are going to be living in the new Main Street dorm (Hub at Columbia), they won’t walk to the Bull Street stadium.”

A far better place to locate the stadium – where there are already shops, hotels and housing – would be on the vacant and expansive Kline steel mill property across from Columbia’s Vista, Brown said.

The old Kline property is located across Assembly Street from the bustling downtown Vista business section and would be a natural location for a ballpark and convenient for pedestrians, Brown said.

Brown said he had emailed Mayor Steve Benjamin – the lead backer of the project – about his concerns and got back a long email from Benjamin “with about 10 attachments.” Brown said he has been thinking about writing an op-ed piece for The State about his reservations concerning the Bull Street project but has not yet done so.

Brown also said, in remarks he prepared but didn’t say to Rotarians, that city officials pushing a stadium for the Bull Street tract are not acting as businesspeople would.

“A businessperson would say that it should be built in an area that already has infrastructure like roads, utilities and hotels, somewhere walkable. … A place that amplifies and cements the long-term success of the city’s and university’s investments into Main Street, the Vista and Innovista,” Brown’s prepared remarks said.

Brown also said, without mentioning them by name, that former Gov. Mark Sanford’s 2004 stunt of carrying two baby pigs to the Legislature to indicate his displeasure, or the angry outburst of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who shouted “You lie!” to President Obama while the president addressed a joint session of Congress in 2009, were not constructive actions.

“Regardless of the passions or convictions we have, there’s just a better way to deal with those things,” Brown said.

Other things that cause people to question whether South Carolina is a good place to locate, Brown said, include:

•  The state having a sales tax that exempts more items than it covers when there are pressing road and public education needs.

•  The state having the lowest cigarette tax in the country “when our emergency rooms are filled with uninsured people.”

•  The state having a low gas tax at a time when “we barely can make a dent in the infrastructure needs in our state.”

•  Lawmakers debating issues like whether people should be allowed to tote guns in bars.

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