April 2, 2013

Editorial: Richland County should nix sports complex

RICHLAND COUNTY Council should follow a committee’s recommendation and abandon efforts to build a superfluous $21 million sports complex in Northeast Richland.

RICHLAND COUNTY Council should follow a committee’s recommendation and abandon efforts to build a superfluous $21 million sports complex in Northeast Richland.

The fact that this project has dragged on for seven years with little progress is the least of the reasons it should be abandoned. This facility is wasteful and unnecessary in a county whose Recreation Commission is in the midst of a $50 million construction campaign funded via a council-approved property tax increase. It is unacceptable to now spend millions more in hospitality tax revenue on two council pet projects — the sports complex and an equally wasteful 44-acre park proposed in Lower Richland.

Besides, state law requires the 2 percent tax on prepared food to be used on projects that lure tourists, not on parks and other projects typically paid for using general tax dollars.

These two parks represent a disturbing effort by County Council, which has no experience in operating parks, to establish what would be its own separate recreation department. While we have serious concerns about how the county Recreation Commission is configured — it’s appointed by local legislators but funded by the council — it makes no sense for the county to duplicate the efforts of the body whose sole mission is to manage parks and recreation.

Up until now, the council seemed bent on developing the Northeast sports complex, which would cater to soccer. But the November elections helped turn the tide. Most significantly, Torrey Rush defeated Gwendolyn Davis Kennedy, a chief backer of the complex.

Mr. Rush and others have rightly raised questions about the viability of this project. This speculative effort to lure soccer tournaments to the area in hopes of spurring the local economy is too risky; if it fails, taxpayers are on the hook. The council already has spent more than $7 million on the land and pre-construction planning. It should pull out completely and sell the land.

The council likewise should nix the 44-acre park in Lower Richland, which has little chance of being a serious tourist draw.

Once it jettisons these wasteful endeavors, the council should escrow the millions amassed to pay for the soccer complex along with proceeds from land sales until it can embark on an open, thoughtful process to determine how these public dollars should be spent. This money must not be squandered but should be put to its highest and best use, aimed at genuinely bolstering tourism.

Some council members seem to believe there still is a need for a mega-sports complex, just not at the proposed site and not limited to soccer. That should be a non-starter. This is no time for more pie-in-the-sky ideas. Our biggest complaint about the hospitality tax is that its restricted use forces local governments to dream up ways to use it. Which they do.

What the council needs to do is urge state legislators to allow local governments to use hospitality taxes for general purposes so that real needs can be met. And the county does have real needs to fund. For example, even as it has contemplated these two unneeded recreation facilities, the Recreation Commission has been scrambling to find funds to hire staff and equip the improved parks the council signed off on. That makes no sense to us, and it shouldn’t make sense to Richland County Council.

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