A pivotal vote Thursday could determine whether Richland County goes into debt for decades to build $49 million in new attractions in suburban settings.
Led by Councilman Kelvin Washington, a so-called “gang of six” – a slim majority of the 11-member County Council – seems prepared to move ahead with facilities that include a $20 million waterpark on county-owned land in Northeast Richland and a $16 million multi-purpose sports arena along Bluff Road.
But Councilman Jim Manning and others said they have fundamental questions about the cost of the five proposals, who would run the new facilities, the annual cost of operating them, and whether some projects would compete against each other for visitors.
“What I’m for is having enough information to make a solid decision,” Manning said Wednesday.
Council members are so divided on the issue, they even have different views on the meaning of votes cast last week on the issue, which is included in the 2014-15 budget.
The projects would be built by borrowing money against roughly $5 million a year the county receives in taxes on restaurant meals.
But the finance staff has been asked to provide a range of funding options, Washington said, that could include tapping general property tax revenues that pay for basic county services, such as the Sheriff’s Department, planning and public works.
“We can’t expect these things to be self-sustaining, especially starting out,” Washington said.
He has called a hospitality tax committee meeting ahead of Thursday’s 6 p.m. budget session to answer questions raised by colleagues, among them Manning and Councilmen Paul Livingston and Greg Pearce. But Washington said he wouldn’t expect new data – including the economic impact of attracting more tourists – to change anyone’s mind.
The remaining projects include a $9 million swim facility on Garners Ferry Road and two amphitheaters, one in St. Andrews and the other off Kelly Mill Road in Northeast Richland. Each would cost $2 million.
The projects were determined by and have been supported by council members in six districts: Washington, Joyce Dickerson, Julie-Ann Dixon, Norman Jackson, Bill Malinowski and Torrey Rush.
Malinowski rejected a baseball park for his district after a feasibility study said it would be a money loser. Now, the county is negotiating for land for an undisclosed project it refers to as “Project LM.” Council members declined to provide details, and it’s unclear how that project fits into the package.
Actually, the projects are not a package, Washington said Wednesday; each will be voted up or down on its own merits.
More than one person compared the county’s debate with city of Columbia plans to spend restaurant-tax proceeds on a minor-league baseball arena.
Washington said both are examples of how “the model has changed” for attracting new visitors and residents.
Pearce said the two situations are similar in that costs are hard to pin down.
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.