Columbia City Council on Tuesday took its first public steps toward the possibility of a consolidated city high-rise office complex across from City Hall that would be built and occupied with private partners, Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
Council voted 4-1 to buy one acre and the headquarters building of the United Way of the Midlands at Main and Laurel streets for $2.2 million. Repairs to the building will add another $800,000 to the price tag for a total cost of $3 million.
Some $700,000 of the $2.2 million would come from the city’s General Fund surplus and the rest would be taken from a capital projects account, city officials said. The source of money for the repairs is unclear.
A second and final vote is required before the city manager can proceed with a contract.
Councilman Cameron Runyan was the only “no,” vote. He said the purchase is a “sweetheart deal” for the United Way, including allowing the organization to use the building for up to 18 months for free. Council members Leona Plaugh and Brian DeQuincey Newman did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Council members said little during the meeting about the reason for the purchase. But afterward, Benjamin told reporters the purchase is part of a plan that he characterized as conceptual at this point. There is no active negotiation on a public/private partnership for a centralized city office building, the mayor said.
But the city is about to seek consultants to evaluate office space use and future needs. City Hall spends about $1 million yearly on rent for offices spread across the city center, said Benjamin and Jeff Palen, Columbia’s chief financial officer.
“This is a strategic move as we look to bring new life to the northern end of Main Street,” the mayor said.
City Hall already owns land and a building adjacent to the United Way’s office. The purchase would allow the city to own half of the block of Laurel between Main and Sumter streets, Assistant City Manager Missy Gentry said.
A centralized office building would allow the city to sell the Washington Street building where most city offices are located, Benjamin said. That would enrich city coffers, because the new owners would pay property taxes on that office building.