Why one of the biggest projects in Richland history has been kept quiet until now

The Richland County Judicial Center on Main Street in Columbia. The county is exploring the possibility of building a new courthouse complex as part of a massive development plan dubbed “Richland Renaissance.”
The Richland County Judicial Center on Main Street in Columbia. The county is exploring the possibility of building a new courthouse complex as part of a massive development plan dubbed “Richland Renaissance.” tdominick@thestate.com

One of the most expensive development plans in Richland County history is underway, with county leaders so far sharing little information with the public about projects that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

A new courthouse and judicial campus, new county administrative offices, a business incubator and a Lower Richland hub that could include an aquatics center, library, magistrate court, medical facility and sheriff’s station all are lumped into a massive project that has been code-named “Richland Renaissance.”

On Tuesday night, Richland County Council members went behind closed doors for more than an hour to discuss purchasing an undisclosed number of properties in undisclosed locations for undisclosed amounts of money related to the Renaissance project.

By a narrow 6-5 vote, council members decided to finalize the purchase of those properties and move forward with the Renaissance plan.

Council members Joyce Dickerson, Norman Jackson, Chip Jackson, Dalhi Myers, Gwen Kennedy and Yvonne McBride voted in favor of the Renaissance plan.

Members Paul Livingston, Greg Pearce, Bill Malinowski, Jim Manning and Seth Rose voted against the purchases and pushing forward with the plan.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Pearce said. “I felt like we need to not rush into this thing.”

What’s more, Rose said, “There really has been no input from the public on these projects, and we’re talking about items that affect citizens daily.”

“I think we would be wise to not rush into taking on these expenses and instead develop a plan of action with the community’s input that provides the very best in service back to our taxpayers,” he said.

Sweeping, ‘transformative’ plan

Some aspects of the plan were openly discussed recently among the council’s committee exploring courthouse options.

Official, public minutes recorded from that October meeting revealed the county’s plans to:

▪ Purchase property at Columbia Place Mall on Two Notch Road and relocate county administrative offices there from 2020 Hampton St.

▪ Raze the 2020 Hampton building and build a new judicial center, plus a related office complex across the street on property not owned by the county.

▪ Sell the current courthouse property at 1717 Main St.

▪ Build a business incubator, called the Start Center, “in the Dutch Square area,” county administrator Gerald Seals said in the meeting.

▪ Build a Lower Richland Center, to include a competitive aquatics center, a magistrate court, a library, a “critical care” medical facility and a sheriff’s station.

What started as a need for a new county judicial center – the current courthouse on Main Street is outdated and undersized, officials say – morphed into the much broader, more expensive Renaissance plan, council members say.

It could be most “transformative” project in the county’s history, Myers said Wednesday.

“We’re looking out for the county’s best interest for the next 30 years,” she said. “Our goal is to have something better than the county’s ever had.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars

Renaissance also could be one of the county’s most expensive ventures ever, Rose said.

The cost to build a new judicial campus alone is estimated as high as $144 million.

Rose said he believes the entire Renaissance plan could tally up to half a billion or a billion dollars.

“These are the type of figures that can bankrupt a county if we go at this haphazardly,” Rose said.

Financing the Renaissance plan will not require a tax increase, Richland County spokeswoman Beverly Harris said Wednesday. The county was not ready to share more detailed information about Renaissance and its funding plan at this time, she said. Officials plan to reveal more details next week.

No money has been spent yet on the Renaissance projects, Myers said. And it wasn’t until Tuesday night that council officially gave the county administrator permission to move forward, including purchasing properties, she said.

Quiet until now

The reason why none of these details – including locations, costs and financing options – have been publicly discussed is to protect taxpayers’ financial interests, Myers said.

When it comes to buying property, the county is more likely to get a better deal if property sellers do not know the county is the buyer, Myers said.

“The reason we’re hopeful about keeping some of this quiet is not because we don’t want people to know,” she said. “Naming projects without disclosing all the information about them is the only method we have to protect the taxpayers’ rights to get the best deal.”

There’s a long way to go to see the Renaissance projects take shape, though.

Pearce estimates it could be 2019 at the earliest before construction on the new county administrative offices might start. And courthouse construction could not begin until after the county offices have moved from 2020 Hampton.

“We’re at stage one,” Myers said. “We’ve got to get to about stage 300.”

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.