ALTHOUGH IT lacks the expertise to build, own and operate a soccer complex of any size, Richland County Council is barreling full speed ahead to pour millions in tax dollars into a speculative mega-tournament park.
The renegade facility would exist outside of the purview of the system run by the Richland County Recreation Commission, which is charged with overseeing parks and recreation in unincorporated Richland. We can understand if some council members had some trepidation about placing a new complex in the hands of the Recreation Commission, which does have the expertise, wherewithal and obligation to operate parks, but is run by an unelected, unaccountable board that doesn’t report to the council.
But that’s not even an option. The Recreation Commission declined an opportunity to bid for the job because, according to assistant director Kenya Bryant, the organization is spread too thin. That’s interesting; you would think that whomever gets the job would also get funding to hire the necessary staff to run the operation — and some. Does the Recreation Commission know something the rest of us don’t?
Of course, it is true that the commission is spread thin. It’s in the midst of a $50 million parks renovation and construction campaign. And it’s unclear what the future of some of the improved parks might be because the commission doesn’t have the money to equip and staff them, which might be part of the reason it’s not champing at the bit to run a new soccer complex that wasn’t designed as part of its overall recreation plan.
Last week, County Council authorized staff to negotiate a contract with a local soccer organization named Columbia United to operate, promote and maintain its $22 million, 18-field soccer complex planned for a 206-acre site at Hard Scrabble and Farrow roads in Northeast Richland.
Frankly, it’s troubling that County Council seems comfortable developing its own separate park system even as it scrambles to find funds to operate parks it gave the Recreation Commission the money to build. County Council and the Recreation Commission knew from the start that they needed a plan to pay to operate the new and expanded parks but didn’t devise one.
The commission had asked the council to borrow money for that purpose, but it is unacceptable to borrow money to pay ongoing expenses. The county is now considering alternatives.
How about this for an alternative: Acknowledge that it makes no sense to build a new park when you can’t find money to staff the parks you have. Nix the unnecessary, wasteful soccer complex, and find a way to use the money set aside for it to fund the parks system.
We know, the soccer complex would be built using hospitality tax dollars, which are restricted to tourism-related projects. But if a case can be made for using those funds to build the Northeast complex and purchase land for an even more speculative park in Lower Richland, then there must be a way to steer some of that money to the Recreation Commission. The ideal thing would be to convince legislators to change state law to allow hospitality taxes to be used to meet real needs rather than just tourism projects.
Even if it refuses to find a way to use hospitality-tax dollars to aid the Recreation Commission, County Council shouldn’t gamble on an unneeded soccer complex that, if it fails to be self-sustaining, would need a taxpayer bail out of its own. With the Recreation Commission already in need, that line is full.