RICHLAND COUNTY taxpayers would be right to worry about the success of an unnecessary and speculative $22 million soccer complex County Council members recently agreed to build.
If this wasteful project indeed becomes a reality and proves not to be self-sustaining as advertised, officials likely will raid county coffers to bail it out. You don’t sink tens of millions of dollars into a project and then let it go under.
The council should have ditched this project long ago, but it has lingered on the drawing board for years. The county purchased the 206-acre site at Hard Scrabble and Farrow roads in Northeast Richland in 2006, but has not proceeded in large part due to the lack of money to pay for the original grandiose plan that some speculated would top $50 million.
Initially, the plan was to build a mega-sports complex that included a competitive swimming pool and gym. After determining that was too costly, officials considered focusing only on soccer, baseball and softball. In January, the council scaled back even more after receiving a $33.6 million price tag. M.B. Kahn Construction will now design an 18-field soccer complex expected to cost $22 million.
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Officials hope it will attract large tournaments, yielding taxes and patrons for the county and local businesses.
While that is a noble goal, it’s hard to imagine that this project will succeed when the council’s focus has been more on hording millions in hospitality-tax dollars for the project than on how it will be operated or who will operate it.
The county does not have the expertise and shouldn’t develop it. This would naturally be handed over to the Recreation Commission, which does have the expertise, wherewithal and obligation to operate parks. But the unaccountable commission is appointed by legislators and doesn’t answer to the council.
Council members Damon Jeter and Bill Malinowski wisely questioned the lack of a plan for operating and maintaining the park. Mr. Jeter even questioned the consultant’s assertion that the park could be self-sustaining within five years. Despite having insufficient answers, the council unanimously agreed to move forward.
The council’s irresponsible handling of this project illustrates a big reason we opposed the 2 percent restaurant tax: It is viewed as extra money and enables officials to undertake such dubious quests as this. Frankly, Richland is becoming proficient at throwing hospitality dollars at pie-in-the-sky projects. Earlier this year, it paid $1 million for 44 acres along Garners Ferry Road, supposedly to create a fancy park that will draw tourists. But the future is just as murky for that park as for the soccer complex; there is no plan for its development, no money identified to make improvements and no plan for managing it.
County Council should be embarrassed enough by its poor stewardship to nix both the projects and sell the land.