BullStreet developers and supporters got an earful at the Columbia Community Relations Council meeting on Friday.
Several of the speakers in the crowd of about 40 roundtable participants questioned the debt incurred to build the $37 million mostly-taxpayer-funded Spirit Communications Park. Others complained about a lack of progress at the 181-acre campus, particularly a 400,000-square-foot retail complex that has yet to materialize.
Bill Leidinger, a former Richmond, Va., city manager and Fairfax County, Va., administrator who retired here a decade ago, even called for the ouster of master developer Hughes Development Corp. for not moving fast enough.
“The city ought to seriously consider firing the developer for lack of results,” he said, “and become the master developers themselves.”
BullStreet, the redevelopment project at the former S.C. State Hospital campus, is considered the largest land deal in modern Columbia history. It is in the early stages of a planned 20-year build-out that envisions about 3 million square feet of commercial development and more than 3,500 residential units.
The Community Relations Council was formed five decades ago to address race relations in the city and advise City Council. In recent times it has broadened its scope, holding periodic discussions on more diverse issues.
Most of the critics at Friday’s forum have been opposed to the development deal with Hughes from the start, mostly because of the plan to use $100 million in taxpayer money to build the ballpark, parking garages and infrastructure.
Elizabeth Marks, president of the Robert Mills Historic Neighborhood, said the city entered into a weak contract with Hughes that she claims allows the company to do pretty much whatever it chooses, or walk away at any time.
“I’m not blaming (Hughes),” she said. “That makes them smart and us stupid.”
Another critic dissed a restaurant, Bone-In Artisan Barbeque, that is going to locate in the hospital’s gutted former research lab.
“I’m not looking forward to dining in the morgue,” said retired journalist, gubernatorial spokesman and state agency chief Bob Liming.
Throughout the session, Hughes, flanked by two high profile tenants of the 100,000-square-foot First Base Building the company built adjacent to the ballpark, kept his responses positive.
Referring to the delayed retail district, he said, “The retail environment has changed. Amazon is killing bricks and mortar. So we needed to slow down and do the right thing.”
The project was praised by TCube Solutions chief executive Sam McGuckin, whose company and its 150 employees are to occupy the second floor of the First Base Building this summer.
“We should stop talking about firing our partner and get behind the project,” he said.
Kathy Dudley Helms, managing shareholder of the Ogletree Deakins law firm’s Columbia office, which occupies the fourth floor of the First Base Building, also endorsed the project.
“Thank God for visionaries and dreamers,” she said. “We love our new office at BullStreet. Come visit us and see the beauty.”
At-large Columbia City Council member Howard Duvall — who ran for office two years ago doubting the project, but now is one of its most ardent supporters — said the public needs to be patient as the sprawling campus develops.
“This will be an iconic development,” he said. “This will be as big as the Vista, as big as the city center, as big as Five Points, and they didn’t happen overnight.”