Vista Guild drops Viva la Vista to fund ‘yellow shirts’ as district grows

cleblanc@thestate.comJune 8, 2014 

— The Vista wants to bring “yellow shirt” security and beautification workers to the entertainment district and has eliminated the expensive Viva La Vista food festival to help with the cost.

Public funding – through meal taxes – for eight more of the recognizable yellow shirts in the Vista and around Main Street in downtown Columbia has run into a speed bump.

So business and political leaders are studying how to pay for the yellow shirts, even as some argue that what the area needs instead is more police officers.

Expansion of the yellow shirt program comes as hundreds of students are expected to arrive in the city center with the opening of new housing in the coming months. Main Street alone will have 850 new residents in The Hub high-rise student complex for the fall semester.

“The residential population will go from 300 to almost 1,200, and that’s just The Hub,” said Matt Kennell, director of City Center Partnership, which promotes development in and around Main Street. “That’s about four times the number of residents.”

More residents along Main means more visitors to the Vista, the nearby district of restaurants, bars and shops separated from the city’s office and banking center by Assembly Street.

The Vista itself is attracting new hotels and other businesses. It also abuts student housing complexes proposed along Assembly Street and in the adjoining Innovista that stretches to Blossom Street.

“Knowing that pedestrian and vehicular traffic will increase immensely, we find it important to be proactive and prepared for changes,” said Sarah Lewis, director of the Vista Guild.

A City Council-appointed group that doles out about one-quarter of Columbia’s $10 million in meal taxes has recommended cutting the money the Vista and City Center Partnership requested for promoting their parts of town.

It’s common that organizations do not get all they request from what’s called the hospitality tax advisory committee, which awards the money after reviewing dozens of requests for meal-tax revenue.

But at least two council members – Cameron Runyan and Brian DeQuincey Newman – have said they will try to restore some or all of the money the organizations said they need.

The Vista Guild, which represents many businesses in the district that reaches to the Congaree River, asked for $425,000 for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The cost of six yellow-shirt workers would amount to $250,000 of that total, the group said.

The total request was a $150,000 increase from the meal tax money the guild received this year from the city. But the Vista generates more than $1 million annually from the 2 percent sales tax that patrons of restaurants and bars pay to Columbia’s treasury.

Partly to soften the impact of its request, Vista Guild leaders decided to drop Viva La Vista, the popular, six-year-old street fair with food provided by area restaurants. The event last September, which for the first time charged an entry fee, cost $130,000 and provided insufficient revenue to cover that cost, according to records filed with council’s committee and the committee’s chairman.

“The guild has chosen to focus on its annual events Vista Lights and Artista Vista as well as the year-round, once-monthly Vista Nights,” the guild’s Lewis said Friday.

One of the Vista’s veteran restaurateurs, Bill Dukes, the owner of the Blue Marlin and former owner of Longhorn’s, said it’s time for the event to be replaced with something new.

But Dukes is among the detractors when it comes to bringing in yellow shirts.

“The yellow shirts aren’t going to make the place safer,” Dukes said. “They go around cleaning up and watering plants. I don't want to pay somebody out of my tax dollars to keep their property clean.”

During the past six months, the Vista has been shaken by two shootings. On Christmas Eve, a man was shot in the chest after a couple was approach in their parked car on Lincoln Street. On June 1,a man fired into a crowd near the intersection of Lincoln and Lady streets. Saturday, Columbia police released the identity of the man they say fired the shots.

Duke prefers a larger police presence to yellow shirts, as long as the officers are crossed-trained to serve as city ambassadors with sensitivity toward visitors to the Capital City. Dukes liked the presence of horse-mounted officers, which the Columbia Police Department once had.

Runyan counters that yellow shirts, who work for a private company, are much cheaper than police officers. Using foot patrols as well as three-wheeled, motorized vehicles, the yellow shirts serve as lookouts for problems and, when necessary, can call police, firefighters or paramedics. Yellow shirts are unarmed and have no police powers.

Runyan supports expanding their services into the Vista because that would allow the company hired to work in the blocks around Main Street to share its vehicle fleet, pressurized washers, leaf blowers and other equipment with the Vista.

Kennell’s Main Street group uses $250,000 in meal tax money to hire 11 yellow-shirt workers through the private company, Block by Block. The Nashville-based company would provide the workers for the Vista under an expanded contract, he said.

Kennell said he's worried that cutting his group's meal tax revenue funding to $225,000, as the committee suggested, might result in losing one yellow shirt rather than gaining two as requested for the Main Street area.

The Vista Guild’s plan calls for using two of six yellow shirts to patrol the Vista from mid-afternoon to 3 a.m.

Yellow shirts are used mostly for public safety, though they also install and maintain flower baskets and other plants as well as pick up trash and direct visitors to their destinations, Kennell said.

The City Center Partnership and the Vista Guild rely heavily on meal tax revenue, which, by state law, must be spent to attract visitors. Unlike the City Center Partnership, the Vista does not have a dedicated tax it charges property owners. The tax on Main Street-area businesses is expected to generate about $795,000 next fiscal year, Kennell said.

Main Street and Vista businesses say the expected growth in their districts is a good problem to have.

But determining the best way to deal with the economic boon and choosing who’s going to pay from improvement is presenting challenges to business leaders and to City Hall.

“It’s all everybody’s talking about,” Fred Delk, director of Columbia Development Corp. and a member of the Vista Guild board, said of the anticipated growth. “How are we going to do this?”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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