As City Hall’s champion of the controversial BullStreet development, Steve Benjamin’s re-election could hinge on whether the heavy public investment in the project starts showing greater returns.
“We’ve been dealing with Bull Street for 15 years,” neighborhood leader and longtime political activist Tige Watts said. “The back and forth about the development is sending a bad signal to the electorate ... especially considering the lack of progress.”
Benjamin, 47, on Thursday announced he’s running for a third, four-year term.
BullStreet, the largest single land deal in modern Columbia history, got started through a contract that commits the city to more than $70 million in water, sewer, street and other public services for the 181-acre site. In addition, public money paid for nearly 90 percent of the construction cost of the $37 million Spirit Communications Park.
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No one has said publicly they will challenge Benjamin; opponents have until noon on Sept. 8 to file for the seat. A few people have weighed jumping into the race, but none has committed.
Wannabes will face a steep climb. Benjamin already has raised almost $213,000 – much of it from out-of-state donors, according to his most recent campaign disclosure form.
“Steve may be in a stronger position than he was four years ago,” said Watts, who is the current president of the Columbia Council of Neighborhoods, which represents 119 of the city’s neighborhoods. “I think there still are some pitfalls out there and Bull Street is one of them.”
Benjamin cashed in a lot of political capital in 2013 when he pushed through votes on City Council to approve a deal with BullStreet developer Bob Hughes of Greenville, and to build the baseball stadium. Both passed by slim margins even after city attorneys advised against accepting the development contract without modifications that would reduce Columbia’s financial and legal exposure.
The city’s commitment to BullStreet – the commercial name of the project – as well as to some $750 million to rebuild crumbling sewer lines across the city, $100 million in repairs to the Columbia Canal and other expensive upgrades to infrastructure will weigh heavily on taxpayers, said Watts and Elizabeth Marks, president of the Robert Mills Historic District that abuts BullStreet.
He and Marks agree the city center certainly is more vibrant than years ago. That area attracts not only more residents and businesses, but property taxes, too.
“As good as it looks, how are we going to pay the current debt and finance our future?” Marks asked. “Do we have sufficient money?
“The underlying fear that I hear from everybody is that in order to pay these debts (the cost is) going to land on water rates and property taxes.”
Yet she said that costs associated with BullStreet alone are unlikely to become a big issue in the fall campaign. “It’s not far along enough for people to decide if it’s successful or not.”