June 13, 2014

Richland votes to pursue water park, indoor sports arena

Richland County Council has signaled an interest in exploring two major tourist-based projects — a water park in Richland Northeast and an indoor sports arena south of Columbia.

Richland County Council has signaled an interest in exploring two major tourist-based projects — a water park in Richland Northeast and an indoor sports arena south of Columbia.

But on 6-5 votes Thursday, the council killed three other proposals included in a multimillion-dollar package of suburban attractions to be built with proceeds from the meals tax.

Councilman Bill Malinowski proved to be the swing vote. After supporting all five projects last week, Malinowski ultimately sided with those who said they were not convinced two amphitheaters for outdoor performances and an aquatic center for swim teams would be successful.

“There were too many unanswered questions,” Malinowski said after the vote.

Decisions to pursue funding for the water park and an arena for basketball, volleyball, cheerleading and taekwondo tournaments were made on 10-1 votes, with Councilman Seth Rose against. He characterized the projects as financially reckless.

But they are far from a sure thing: The council supported both “in concept” and asked budget staff to come back with a funding strategy. Even Councilman Kelvin Washington, who developed the political tactic of the suburban destinations, said the vote fell short of a financial commitment.

Still, he said, he was encouraged by the vote on the arena, which he says would bring in families traveling with student-athletes to stay the night and eat in restaurants. “I feel good,” Washington said. “From the conversations I’ve had with council ... and in the sports community, they’ve said it’s a needed facility.”

Support began to gel earlier in the day for the water park on county-owned land at Hard Scrabble and Farrow roads and the multi-sport arena on Bluff Road, near Bible Way Church.

At a committee meeting on the issue, Councilman Jim Manning suggested focusing on the two projects because county-funded feasibility studies on the other three didn’t provide basic financial information.

Most of the meeting was spent on a video conference call with two executives from a Texas-based company that operates water parks. That company, Hawaiian Falls Waterparks and Adventure Parks, in Irving, Texas, is willing to design, build and operate a $20 million water park if the county pays for construction.

Councilman Torrey Rush, who arranged the company’s presentation, said the project would be open to bidders if it moves forward. The water park would be in his district, on 200 acres the county bought years ago for a baseball tournament park that never got off the ground.

Company executive Dave Busch told the committee that it would be typical for hotels, restaurants and retail opportunities to follow construction of a water/adventure park.

Rush said having a company design, build and operate a water park would be ideal. And the location is a good one, he said, just off I-77.

The committee – Rush along with Washington and Manning – also voted to continue gathering financial information on an arena after Manning expressed concern that the proposal had no operating budget.

Washington responded: “We’re not to that point yet, Mr. Manning. That’s why we need to move forward so we can get hard figures everybody will be satisfied with.”

The committee reviewed a letter from Richland County Recreation Commission director James Brown suggesting the commission could run the arena if the county provided the money.

At Manning’s suggestion, the committee did not discuss the three projects the council later rejected: amphitheaters in St. Andrews and in Northeast Richland and an aquatics center on Garners Ferry Road, not far from Lower Richland High School.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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