April 13, 2014

Bolton: Columbia City Council majority must find way to build broader support for Bull Street project

NO MATTER how delighted supporters are that Columbia will back the Bull Street development as well as a minor-league baseball stadium, the slim 4-3 City Council vote that produced the deals should be of great concern.

NO MATTER how delighted supporters are that Columbia will back the Bull Street development as well as a minor-league baseball stadium, the slim 4-3 City Council vote that produced the deals should be of great concern.

If the large mixed-use development planned for the 180-acre tract once home to the old State Hospital is to really have a shot at being as successful as advertised, it will need broader support on the council. And there’s no reason council members shouldn’t be able to build a stronger consensus: If this project succeeds, it will have a tremendous impact on not only Columbia, but the entire Midlands.

Of course, the more immediate reason for the majority on the council to work to get more support from the three members who have opposed the Bull Street development agreement and the baseball contract, is that — like it or not — Columbia is committed to investing in the neighborhood of $100 million in this venture; it’s critical that as many council members be on board as possible and working to ensure that the project develops responsibly and as planned.

This project will be unfolding in phases for years; along the way, it will need a multiplicity of votes and other support from City Council and staff. In just the coming weeks and months, the council must approve a hospitality bond ordinance so it will actually have $29 million to construct a stadium, and sign off on the procurement process for the design and construction. In addition, the council will be considering a venue development agreement with Hughes Development and Hardball Capital, which will bring a baseball team to Columbia and operate the ballpark.

The votes that already have been taken didn’t mark the end of anything; this project is just getting started. It’s dangerous for every detail to depend on such a thin majority — one uncivil conversation or bruised ego away from dissolution.

This is too important to this community and involves far too much public financial risk for the council to move forward so divided. While the mayor supports the matter, only one of two at-large council members is on board, and only two of the four district representatives back it.

It could be argued that, next to the need to spend a billion dollars or so getting the dilapidated water and sewer system into shape, Bull Street is the single most important issue before City Council — now and for years to come. Yet council support is razor thin.

That ought not to be.

Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan refused to flinch in pushing through deals for the mixed-use project and then the baseball park. They were willing to take the heat that came from fellow council members and across the city.

While many citizens supported both agreements, you’d think a project said to have the potential to bring millions of dollars in new property taxes, thousands of new jobs and other positive impact would be embraced far more than it has been. In part, that’s because the council is so divided, and that division has translated among the citizenry.

For sure, there are times when it’s critical to move forward, even if it means a 4-3 margin. There are some things that are just so important that you can’t allow the minority to block progress. But there are also some issues that are so important that they cry out for broad support: Bull Street is that kind of project.

It’s critical that the mayor and those who make up the majority that has driven the Bull Street project broaden support for this project.

I’m not naive; unanimity isn’t possible. Realistically, the best Mr. Benjamin and the others can expect to achieve is a 5-2 majority. Council members Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah are dialed in to opposing anything the mayor is for; efforts should be made to earn their support, but don’t count on either of them. To get to 5-2, the majority must convince Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, a reasonable, thoughtful vote on the council, to join this effort. Ms. Devine has indicated she recognizes the promise of Bull Street and that she wants it to succeed.

So what’s it going to take to get Ms. Devine on board? It must not be horse trading with other projects that she supports. Instead, the majority must operate in the real spirit of compromise and plan well enough to allow the kinds of discussions and fact-finding that Ms. Devine has requested. For example, there’s no reason a cost-benefit analysis that has yet to be authorized couldn’t have been done by now if the council had demanded one.

She — along with council members Plaugh and Baddourah — has been concerned about moving too fast without proper information and without giving the community time to get up to speed. “We’ve done some due diligence, but I don’t think we completed it,” she said Tuesday, explaining her “no” vote on the baseball pact.

Messrs. Benjamin, Davis, Newman and Runyan should do some due diligence and find a way to address Ms. Devine’s concerns. Bull Street and this city would be better off because of it.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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