Richland officials say ‘Renaissance’ will transform county, but stay mum on details

A transit facility that would double as a tourist center and a business incubator would be built on Broad River Road near St. Andrews Road.
A transit facility that would double as a tourist center and a business incubator would be built on Broad River Road near St. Andrews Road. PROVIDED IMAGE

Richland County would become the envy of any county once the Richland Renaissance plan is complete, Richland officials said Tuesday in laying out a “dream big” revitalization program.

“I believe in the vision that we’re looking at in Richland Renaissance,” County Council chairwoman Joyce Dickerson told a supportive audience in council chambers. “We ought to have something to offer to people who come here. (The improvements) will touch every corner of Richland County.”

But during an hourlong presentation peppered by remarks from a council majority, county administrators and a video overview of Richland Renaissance, the public received no clearer explanation of its cost, any more specificity about how the county will pay for the ambitious makeover or when work will begin.

The unveiling ended without offering members of the audience an opportunity to ask questions.

Almost three hours after the event ended, the county issued a news release in which it said the Renaissance program will cost $144.2 million including the purchase of properties, construction and retrofitting of buildings. Centralized administrative offices at Columbia Place mall will be retrofitted largely by county workers and is to be completed in 2019, according to the statement.

But Councilman Seth Rose, who opposes the project, said Monday that staff members estimated the project would cost $250 million, a number Rose said he believes will be doubled, if not more.

Broadly, the Renaissance plan calls for the county to demolish the administration building and replace it with a courthouse, buy the mall for offices and establish satellite offices in needy parts of the county. The county also would sell the current county courthouse, located on fast-growing Main Street in Columbia. Last week, council voted 6-5 to move ahead with the project.

Residents were promised input into the final plan. But no details on when or where that would happen were announced during the rollout. The news release said community meetings are being planned.

Several of the seven council members who attended the rollout news conference told the audience that “Richland Renaissance will not bankrupt the county.” It also can be accomplished without a tax increase, they said.

While the county is projecting the total cost will be $144.2 million, Councilman Chip Jackson said it’s unclear how much the county will make from the sale of the downtown Columbia courthouse or what it will cost to raze and renovate the administration building on Harden Street into a new “judicial campus” of at least 232,000 square feet. But Jackson said buying just the mal and the anchor stores likely would cost about $20 million.

Demolition of the administration building, which Jackson guesses is a half-dozen years away or more, would include wiping out the $1.2 million makeover of council chambers that was completed this summer, Jackson said.

“I think that what Richland Renaissance is all about is building a better future,” Jackson said. “The concept is the easy part. It is important for us to get it right.”

If bids are too high, “council will pull the plug,” said Jackson, one of council’s newest members, who was elected last year.

Of the five members who last week voted against proceeding with land and building purchases, only Councilman Paul Livingston attended Tuesday’s event.

“I support the concept of the Renaissance plan,” said Livingston, who again held back a total endorsement until the public’s reaction can be gauged on financing and other key details.

“If this plan is done correctly, it could reap significant benefits for this county,” said Livingston, whose district includes much of the city.

Councilwoman Gwen Kennedy, whose district extends nearly to Blythewood, said the program would bring improvements to parts of the county that have great needs.

But, she confessed, “I’ve had some concerns about some parts of it myself. But I’m going to give it a chance.” She did not elaborate.

County administrator Gerald Seals, who was asked by council to devise a plan for the future, told the crowd the county needs to clean up blight, extend services to all and make parts of the county that he called “dark corners” safer.

“Richland County is livable,” Seals said, “but it is challenged.”

Councilwoman Dalhi Myers said county leaders hope for public-private partnerships to help realize the program.

“When this is done,” the Lower Richland representative said, “everyone in this room will be proud to live anywhere in Richland County.”

Richland Renaissance overview

The biggest components of the ambitious plan include a new courthouse away from Main Street and consolidating county administrative offices in a struggling Two Notch Road mall.

Other aspects include:

▪  A multipurpose center in Lower Richland that would include an aquatics center

▪  A transit, tourism and business center in the northwest part of the county along Broad River Road

▪  A trail that connects city and county historic sites